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The Texas Power Outage: How ERCOT Let Texans Down

As the nation’s leading energy producer, it’s hard to imagine Texas ever running out of power.

But that’s exactly what happened last week after a massive winter storm forced millions of Texans to crank up the heat, causing demand for energy to surge across the state.

That demand was too much, and before long, large swaths of Texas were left without heat, lights, and in some cases, even water.

So, what exactly went wrong?

Texas Energy Market is Largely Unregulated

Last week’s cold snap was entirely predictable. And so was the Texas blackout.

Its origins go all the way back to 1999 when the state embarked on the country’s most extensive experiment in energy deregulations.  Control of the entire Texas electricity delivery system was handed over to a hodgepodge of private generators, transmission companies, and energy retailers.

The unregulated market was supposed to lower costs and give Texas consumers the ability to choose their energy providers. But the deregulated system came with almost no safeguards, and the few rules that were put in place are rarely enforced.

“Deregulation was something akin to abolishing the speed limit on an interstate highway,” Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, told The New York Times. “That opens up shortcuts that cause disasters.”

ERCOT Refused to Mandate Reserve Margins or Weatherization

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, was formed to manage the state’s wholesale energy market. Largely unaccountable, the non-profit agency gives providers wide latitude when it comes to disaster planning.

For one thing, unlike every other power system in North America, ERCOT has long refused to enforce a “reserve margin” of extra power available above expected demand.  Without such a mandate, Texas companies are reluctant to stockpile power in preparation for rare events, including the winter storm that struck the state last week.

Without adequate reserves, the Texas energy grid could not meet demand when temperatures plummeted last Monday – the coldest day on record in the state’s history.

ERCOT has also refused to mandate that private power companies spend money on weatherization to ensure their equipment can operate in extremely cold weather.  As a result, much of the state’s energy infrastructure, including gas pipelines, wellheads, wind turbines, and even a nuclear power plant, froze in the cold.

So far, it’s not clear how many Texas power plants failed because of weatherization issues and how many actually ran out of fuel. But it is clear that even before the storm’s arrival, ERCOT’s operators knew the weather system would strain the grid and urged customers to conserve power to mitigate blackouts.

It wasn’t enough. Just as Texans were cranking up their heat, power plants began going offline. Within hours last Monday, 40% of the state’s generating capacity had disappeared, and the entire system was on the verge of total collapse.

Had the Texas grid collapsed, energy providers would have lost the ability to manage the crisis with rolling blackouts. In that case, it would have been weeks or months before power could be fully restored to the state.

ERCOT Could See the Texas Disaster Coming

ERCOT was well aware of the potential for disaster.

In fact, 26 power generators that failed during a 2011 winter storm also failed during a similar 1989 storm. A review of the 2011 blackouts conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation faulted ERCOT’s oversight.

“There were prior severe cold weather events in the Southwest in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010,” the report stated. “Extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.”

The report recommended that the agency mandate both margin reserves and weatherization, but such precautions remain voluntary.

Now, it seems history has repeated itself, with nearly four million Texans losing power for days because of last week’s storm. The absence of electricity, frozen and broken water lines, and people dripping faucets to prevent their own pipes from freezing also disrupted water service for more than 11 million.

At least 48 deaths have been linked to the storm. Many of the victims, including an 8-year-old boy, succumbed to hypothermia in their unheated dwellings.

An untold number of homes suffered flooding when frozen water pipes burst, and several structure fires in the state were allowed to burn themselves out due to the lack of water.

“When I read that this was a black-swan event, I just have to wonder whether the folks who are saying that have been in this business long enough that they forgot everything, or just came into it,” Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, told Reuters. “People need to recognize that this sort of weather is pretty common.”

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