Texas’ previous storms highlighted system shortcomings for grid operator, Ro Khanna says

California Representative Ro Khanna, chair of the House’s Environmental Subcommittee, sent a letter to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), concerned that the power grid’s shortcomings will lead to future outages.

“Extreme winter weather events in Texas have occurred repeatedly over decades and ERCOT has been unprepared for them,” Khanna said in the letter sent to ERCOT CEO Bill Magness, adding that ERCOT’s own consultants predicted that more extreme weather events will continue to occur.

“The Subcommittee is concerned that the loss of electric reliability, and the resulting human suffering, deaths, and economic costs, will happen again unless ERCOT and the State of Texas confront the predicted increase in extreme weather events with adequate preparation and appropriate infrastructure,” Khanna continued.

Khanna added ERCOT’s failures “were costly” as over 4.5 million Texans experienced outages and 49 died amid the severe winter weather conditions that hit much of the state in February. The California representative said the total economic losses in Texas could reach $50 billion.

The impact of Texas’s February storm followed that of similar storms in 1989 and 2011, according to Khanna. He noted the lessons learned in 2011 “were not implemented either, leaving Texas vulnerable to extreme winter weather again in 2021.”

Khanna’s letter to the power company came as the House Oversight investigates ERCOT and its lack of preparedness ahead of the severe winter weather that led to widespread power outages across Texas. The environmental subcommittee requested documents regarding the agency’s decisions that led to the outages by March 17.

Power lines are shown above on February 19, 2021 in Texas City, Texas. California Representative Ro Khanna said “the loss of electric reliability, and the resulting human suffering, deaths, and economic costs will happen again,” unless changes are made in a letter to ERCOT.
Photo by THOMAS SHEA/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has blamed the power failures on ERCOT. But a three-member utility commission appointed by Abbott has oversight authority over the grid operator. The utility’s commission chair resigned last week, and at least six ERCOT board members have also resigned in the wake of the power failure, one of the largest in U.S. history.

ERCOT officials have said the entire grid — which is uniquely isolated from the rest of the U.S. — was on the brink of collapse in the early hours of Feb. 15 as power plants froze in the cold and record demand for electricity to heat homes overwhelmed the system.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said last week that it is examining possible market manipulation on wholesale natural gas and electricity markets during the severe winter storms, which knocked out power to millions of people from Texas to North Dakota and resulted in at least 86 deaths nationwide.

The inquiry follows reports of wild price swings in the wholesale natural gas and electricity markets amid the storms. Natural gas spot prices spiked as high as 100 times typical levels, forcing utilities and other natural gas users to incur exorbitant costs, many of which were passed on to customers.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and other lawmakers have said the price increases could threaten the financial stability of some utilities that don’t have sufficient cash reserves to cover short-term costs.

The extreme weather caused residents from Mississippi to Minnesota to crank up electric heaters and pushed demand for electricity beyond the worst-case scenarios planned for by grid operators. At the same time, many gas-fired power plants in Texas and other states were knocked offline because of icy conditions, and some plants appeared to suffer fuel shortages as natural gas demand spiked nationwide.

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