This is a developing story and will be updated.
Texas’ power grid operators can’t predict when outages might be over, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials said in a call with media outlets Tuesday.
More than 4 million Texans, many of them in North Texas, are fighting extended power outages.
The agency that oversees the state’s power grid is trying to avoid a total blackout by instructing utility companies, like Oncor, to cut power to customers.
“We needed to step in and make sure that we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout, which could keep without folks without power — not just some people without power but everyone in our region without power — for much, much longer than we believe this event is going to last, as long and as difficult as this event is right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said.
But when pressed by reporters for a timeline, Magness and Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin could not say how much longer the outages would last. An uncontrolled blackout could leave Texans without power for “an indeterminate amount of time,” maybe a month, Magness said.
They also described the challenge of keeping restored power throughout peak demand hours like morning and nighttime. Throughout the day, ERCOT and Gov. Greg Abbott announced that power was being restored to hundreds of thousands of customers. But it doesn’t always maintain.
“At the same time we’ve been adding supply to the grid from certain generators, we’ve also been losing other generators,” Woodfin said. “So we haven’t been able to add as much back during the course of the day that we would like and what we have added back, we’re hoping to keep online but if additional generation doesn’t become available as the day goes on, we may actually have to take some of it back offline to maintain that power and supply balance.”
Controlled outages should have been rotated throughout areas for 15-45 minutes, but have been drastically extended for thousands of people, while others haven’t experienced any outages.
Oncor officials have not explained how they select which parts of the city they cut power to and which they don’t, despite numerous questions posed by media outlets.
Oncor officials have said they attempted to trade power among neighborhoods, but were unsuccessful because of weakening stability of the grid, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a call Monday with Oncor spokeswoman Kerri Dunn.
“We recognize the hardships and extreme frustration customers without power face during these historical low temperatures and are ready to deliver power as soon as electric generators are able to provide it,” Oncor wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “As soon as enough generation is available, we will return to a regular cadence of rotating outages with the goal of providing any temporary relief that we can for those who have been without power the longest.”
When reached Tuesday, an Oncor communications person would only refer to a press release that did not answer questions about how neighborhoods were targeted.
Gov. Greg Abbott called on legislators, who are currently in session, to investigate ERCOT and its handling of the storm.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said.
“Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions. I thank my partners in the House and Senate for acting quickly on this challenge, and I will work with them to enhance Texas’ electric grid and ensure that our state never experiences power outages like this again,” Abbott added.
ERCOT officials also did not provide a possible end of outages to state legislators during a call earlier Tuesday,
“After being pushed by lawmakers, ERCOT would only say it could be “days” before power is restored for all customers; in an email to members ERCOT said “Even if there is good progress, returning to normal conditions is going to take additional time,” State Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas) posted on Twitter.
State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) wrote on Twitter that ERCOT told lawmakers that it knew last week that controlled outages would be needed. But ERCOT did not communicate that to the public until Sunday.
“They apologize for not letting the public know that this was what was going to happen,” Wu said.
The only regulation on blackouts is about first responders and critical infrastructure.
(Downtown and hospital districts are critical I would guess)
They apologize for not letting the public know that this was what was going to happen. They knew this was coming last week. (?)
— Gene Wu (@GeneforTexas) February 16, 2021
Magness and Woodfin did not say that they knew outages would be needed last week in the call with press, but did say they saw the storm coming and were prepared for a storm the likes of which Texas saw in 2011 and 2018. But this storm has been much larger than those, they realized Sunday.
“What we saw this week is a historic unprecedented weather event,” Magness said.
“There will and there should be a significant review of this event,” he added.
A big winter storm in 2011 also knocked power generators offline and prompted rolling blackouts around the state. State lawmakers held hearings and demanded changes to keep similar problems from happening again.
Glenn Hegar was a Republican state senator at the time. He authored a bill – which became law – that requires the state to track and report how well prepared the state’s electric grid is for extreme weather.
“When I passed this legislation, it was intended to identify the mistakes made in 2011 and ensure that our power grid, including our generation capacity, was prepared for winter weather emergencies,” said Hegar, who is now state comptroller, in a written statement. “While the issues that are plaguing our electric grid system in this disastrous winter storm are complex, I am extremely frustrated that ten years later our electric grid remains so ill-equipped for these weather events.”
He said the first priority is restoring power to all Texans. After that, he said, “we must address why, after ten years have passed, are we in a worse position today than in 2011. Why are certain areas going without power for two days or longer, while other areas have successfully navigated through rolling blackouts, or never experience power outages at all? The most pressing question is what can Texas do in the 21st century to ensure that our grid doesn’t experience these issues again?”
The state is also required to review plans that power generators submit on how they’ll withstand extreme heat or cold. But those plans are voluntary, not required. ERCOT reviews about 100 of those plans each year, Woodfin said Tuesday. Usually the reviews are in person, but they weren’t this past year because of COVID, he said.