A U.S. House subcommittee is investigating the operator of Texas’ power grid for its role in leaving millions without electricity during the destructive winter storm that hammered the state two weeks ago.
The storm, which killed dozens around the state, is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Texas' history, even costlier than Hurricane Harvey, which inflicted $125 billion in damage. It is still too early to tally the total cost of the destruction.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, chair of the environment subcommittee for the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform wrote in a scathing letter addressed to Bill Magness, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ chief executive, that the grid’s failures were “costly” and disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color.
Khanna is requesting from ERCOT all documents related to preparations, a description of every power generator that experienced failures and old documents that address the outages the state experienced in 1989 and 2011. The subcommittee asked ERCOT to hand over documents by March 17.
In 1989, Texas experienced a winter freeze that caused widespread power outages. The Public Utility Commission of Texas released an analysis of what went wrong the following year and the findings eerily echo the same failures of 2011 and a few weeks ago.
“At the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line. As a result, the state suffered widespread rolling blackouts and near loss of the entire ERCOT electric grid,” the decades-old report detailed. That analysis is one of the several documents the subcommittee is demanding.
Even after the disruptions during the 1989 storm, Texas saw statewide storm-related power outages again in 2011. Officials and lawmakers were warned back then that “winterizing” the state’s power infrastructure was necessary to avoid the same mistakes from happening again, but they didn’t heed those warnings.
Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, told The Texas Tribune a few weeks ago that winterizing the grid is “not mandatory” and is instead part of “a voluntary guideline.”
“There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point,” he said.
In his letter, Khanna also highlighted the known risk that climate change poses to the United States based on scientific evidence.
“The risk of increased extreme winter weather events in the United States underscores the need for adequate preparation. ERCOT and the state of Texas are well-aware of the weather predictions, yet you failed to prepare adequately for them,” Khanna said. “It is the hope of the subcommittee that greater public attention and accountability will cause this cycle to change.”
A spokesperson for ERCOT told The Texas Tribune that the grid operator “will be providing responses” to the subcommittee. The spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry on whether or not an ERCOT official would testify at a Congressional hearing if asked.
The following Texans sit on the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform: U.S. Reps. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria; Pete Sessions, R-Waco; and Pat Fallon, R-Sherman.
The oversight committee is “the main investigative committee in the U.S. House of Representatives” and can investigate within its legislative jurisdiction as well as “any matter” within the jurisdiction of other standing committees, according to the committee’s website.
The state’s leaders have promised their own investigations into ERCOT and they haven’t been shy about criticizing the grid’s operator either. Gov. Greg Abbott declared ERCOT reform an emergency item and a top legislative priority for the 2021 legislative session.
“This was a total failure by ERCOT,” Abbott told KTRK Houston in an interview amid widespread outages. “ERCOT stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and they showed that they were not reliable.”
Under mounting public pressure, several ERCOT board members resigned last week including Sally Talberg, the former board chair. There have also been calls for other resignations. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for Magness and PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker, appointed by Abbott, to resign. Walker did on Monday. Magness remains CEO of ERCOT.