Texas lawmakers look to lay blame for deadly power blackout

By Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams

(Reuters) – Texas state lawmakers on Thursday started digging into the causes of deadly power blackouts that left millions shivering in the dark as frigid temperatures caught its grid operator and utilities ill-prepared for skyrocketing power demand.

Hearings are highlighting shortcomings by grid planners, electric utilities, natural gas suppliers and transmission operators that led to billions of dollars in damages and dozens of deaths. Consumer advocates have called for more stringent regulation of utilities and a review of retail marketing plans.

“Who’s at fault?” State Representative Todd Hunter demanded of utility executives. “I want to hear who’s at fault. I want the public to know who screwed up.”

“The entire energy sector failed Texas,” said NRG Energy Inc Chief Executive Mauricio Gutierrez, who testified at the hearing.

While executives said there were broad failures of leadership and preparation, the biggest was the state’s natural gas system, responsible for the largest share of Texas power generation, said Curtis Morgan, CEO of Vistra Corp. Texas is the country’s biggest producer of natural gas, but without better ties between gas producers, pipelines and power plants, the state will face future cold weather outages.

“We just couldn’t get the gas at the pressures we needed,” said Morgan, who instructed employees to buy gas at any price but could not acquire enough to run plants.

Up to 48% of the state’s power generation was offline at times last week and at least 32 people died, including an 11-year-old boy of hypothermia in an unheated mobile home.

“We owe it to them and every Texan to make sure this never happens again,” said State Representative Ana Hernandez, noting that hospitals still have supply chain problems and burst pipes, and some people cannot access food and water. “The impact of this disaster was not only financial.”

Utilities were ordered to cut power to prevent a larger catastrophe, Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, said on Wednesday.

Six of ERCOT’s 15 directors resigned this week and a nominee withdrew before taking a seat.

ERCOT did not warn residents that the state’s power generation would not keep up with demand, even under perfect conditions, despite warnings the week prior from utilities, Morgan said.

“We did not give people a fighting chance,” Morgan said.

Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday said public anger was justified and pledged proposals to increase power supplies and to protect those residents hit with enormous power bills. He blamed ERCOT, saying it should have acted faster to prevent generators from falling offline.

But Abbott “hand picks” members of the Public Utilities Commission that oversees ERCOT, Representative Rafael Anchia said.


Of the about 100 retail electric providers in Texas, a quarter are at risk of default on multimillion-dollar service charges levied by ERCOT. Some may sell customers to larger firms to cover costs, stifling retail competition, said Mark Foster, an attorney and former special counsel to the state’s Public Utility Commission.

“They call it the blood week,” Foster said. One of his clients, electricity marketer Young Energy LLC, faces a $19 million bill for services that cost $37,000 the prior month, he said. “There will be a significant decrease in competition for the consumer,” he said.

Texas state Senator John Whitmire asked whether ERCOT explored claims that natural gas producers intentionally cut supplies to electric generators to drive up the fuel’s price.

ERCOT CEO Bill Magness replied he had no first-hand knowledge.

The “big missing money” is not sitting with utilities, who paid historically high prices for natural gas, said Morgan.

“The gas business made a lot of money,” he said.

(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)

Texas grid operator defends storm performance as sixth director resigns

By Gary McWilliams

(Reuters) – Officials of Texas’ grid operator on Wednesday defended their handling of the state’s massive power outage, saying managers prevented a catastrophe while acknowledging the personal suffering during the extreme cold.

Directors of grid operator Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) held their first meeting since winter storms that brought subfreezing temperatures for days, cutting power to up to 4.3 million people and causing millions of dollars of damages.

Six ERCOT directors have resigned and a board nominee declined a seat amid sharp criticism of their performance.

Sally Talberg, chairman of the board and one of the six to submit a resignation, said ERCOT “worked tirelessly” to keep the grid from collapse. She led Chief Executive Bill Magness through a sometimes hour-by-hour review of the loss of power available to the grid and communications with consumers and officials.

Texas has no mandatory weatherization standards for the power plants that supply the grid, Magness said, pointing to a likely direction for lawmakers as they begin hearings on the weather disaster on Thursday.

About 48% of the power generation available in the state was forced offline at the peak of the outages due to cold weather, lack of fuel or mechanical failures, Magness said. ERCOT had ample reserves available through Sunday, when generators began to drop off the grid.

Utilities cut power to homes and businesses to prevent serious damage to generators and transmission lines, he said. Plans to rotate outages among consumers could not happen because of the sizeable loss of generation, he said.

Randal Miller, who represented independent retail power providers, resigned late Tuesday, leaving the board with seven vacancies. Tanberg, ERCOT’s vice chairman and three other directors, all of whom live outside of Texas, also submitted resignations. Directors have been widely criticized for their handling of the outage and for not living in the state.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott earlier called for resignations. The state’s investigation will “uncover the full picture of what went wrong” and ensure it is not repeated, he said in a statement on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Power restored to most in Texas after ‘tragic few days’

By Adrees Latif

GALVESTON, Texas (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of homes in Texas are coping without heat for a fourth day on Thursday after utilities made some progress restoring power, as the state’s leaders came under mounting criticism for their response to the winter storm.

The crisis facing the country’s second-largest state looked set to continue, with millions of people still without access to water, many struggling to find food, and freezing temperatures expected to last through Saturday.

Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, said the number of homes without power in her county had fallen to 33,000 from 1.4 million a few nights ago.

“It’s definitely a big positive that the power is back on for most of the residents,” Hidalgo said in an interview. “It’s been a miserable few days, a really tragic few days.”

Hidalgo warned that a “hard freeze” Thursday night could cause setbacks and encouraged donations to food banks with some residents struggling to secure food and water. She noted reports of senior centers and other vulnerable communities lacking basic supplies.

At present some 447,000 Texas households were without power, down from around 2.7 million on Wednesday, according to poweroutage.com, a website that tracks outages.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a cooperative responsible for 90% of the state’s electricity, said on Thursday it made “significant progress” in restoring power. It did not provide detailed figures.

Angry residents have trained much of their ire on ERCOT, which critics say did not heed warnings after a cold-weather meltdown in 2011 to ensure that Texas’ energy infrastructure, which relies primarily on natural gas, was winterized.

Critics have also raised questions about the leadership of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who has called for an investigation of ERCOT. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz too came under fire for flying to the Mexican resort city of Cancun with his family, despite the storm’s fallout. The Republican lawmaker cut his trip short after his travels were reported, saying he would return to Texas and “get to the bottom of what happened” in his state.

Gary Southern, a 68-year-old real estate broker from Mineral Wells, Texas, said his power was restored on Wednesday afternoon, enabling him to have his first solid night of sleep since he lost electricity in the early hours of Monday.

“It was one of the worst things we’ve ever had to go through,” the lifelong Texan said, adding that he was frustrated at being told there would be rolling blackouts, only to go days without power at all. “I know a lot of people in our community still don’t have it (power) and are frustrated.”

The lack of power has cut off water supplies for millions, further strained hospitals’ ability to treat patients amid a pandemic, and isolated vulnerable communities with frozen roads still impassable in parts of the state.

As of Thursday morning, 154 of the 254 counties in Texas have reported disruptions in water service, affecting 13.2 million people, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Many of those affected have been told they need to boil their water.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said historically low temperatures were hindering efforts to inoculate people against COVID-19, with more than 2,000 vaccine sites in areas with power outages. In addition to aiding Texas, FEMA said on Thursday it would provide assistance to the neighboring state of Oklahoma due to the weather’s impact on its power grid.

Nearly two dozen deaths have been attributed to the cold snap. Officials say they suspect many more people have died – but their bodies have not been discovered yet.

In Galveston on the Gulf Coast of Texas, a pop-up shelter with heat but no running water had allowed about three dozen people to huddle overnight before they were ushered back out into the cold on Thursday morning to let cleaning crews get it ready to do it all over again on Thursday night.

“When you go to the bathroom, grab a bucket of water to clear the toilet – we’re going old school!” Cesar Garcia, director of Galveston’s Parks and Recreation Department, called out as he oversaw scrubbing of the shelter set up in the McGuire-Dent Recreation Center.

Garcia said he was bracing for a potentially bigger crowd tonight, perhaps closer to the 100 who sought shelter on Monday night, sleeping on bleachers or a gymnasium floor with blankets and whatever they brought with them from home.

“Tonight being the coldest night, we don’t know what to expect,” Garcia said.

While the icy conditions should gradually improve, record low temperatures will likely persist in the South Central region of the United States through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service said, which said the storm was moving northeastward, dropping snow on a swath of states in its path.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)