ERCOT: No energy source was safe from this week’s winter storm

ERCOT officials said half of wind energy’s maximum capacity was offline during the storm

SAN ANTONIO – Top officials of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric grid, said Friday that no energy source was safe from the massive winter storm this week.

The comments came as ERCOT moved out of emergency operations for the first time since Sunday, bringing an end to rotating power outages that impacted millions of people across the state.

ERCOT President & CEO Bill Magness took a much more personable stance during a morning media briefing, acknowledging that it was terrible to watch the fallout from widespread outages that took place during below freezing temperatures.

“I really want to acknowledge the immense human suffering we saw throughout this event. When people lose power, there are heartbreaking consequences. The bottom line I guess, we had to watch that and fellow Texans had to experience it. When we had to make tough decisions, when the storm came in, ERCOT didn’t really have a choice,” said Magness, referring to the move by operators early Monday morning to shed load from the state’s power grid.

That choice kept the state’s electric grid from a possible catastrophic blackout, ERCOT officials previously said.

A hearing before the Texas Legislature, scheduled for Thursday, will begin the likely months-long process of examining whether ERCOT was prepared for the storm and took the proper steps once it arrived.

ERCOT board meeting last week included joke about cowboy boots, less than 40 seconds of storm talk

“So much enormously more demand than had been seen before, that certainly sets a new standard and I think we’ll go back and look at these estimation processes in general,” said Magness, when asked about ERCOT winter assessment reports from late last year.

Those reports stated that officials believed they had the generating capacity to serve forecasted peak winter energy demand from December 2020 through February 2021 in Texas.

Wind turbines still only provide a small percentage of the state's energy, especially during winter months. (KSAT)

The deadly storm has reignited arguments about the state’s energy plan, including whether it over invested in renewable energy sources.

“We’ve spent over $7 billion building power lines going to wind and solar, which are undependable, and playing a roulette wheel I think, by allowing many of the backups of reliable energy to go dormant,” said Commissioner Wayne Christian of the Texas Railroad Commission.

Reporting from the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power shows that the estimated cost for the wind energy transmission lines project was first slated to be under $5 billion, only to later have $2 billion added to the original estimates.

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, said Friday that half of the installed capacity of wind energy, the maximum capacity an energy system can run at, was offline during the storm.

Still, wind energy accounts for less than a quarter of the state’s electricity, a figure that is lower in winter months, ERCOT officials said.

Christian, whose agency oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, described ERCOT as unprepared for the storm, claiming the agency failed to maintain a backup supply of electric generation.

Magness and Woodfin pushed back on that assertion Friday, claiming the structure of the energy market prevents them from having a backup supply.

“What we were seeing out on the systems as the storm came in was just about every generating unit that could, was running or attempting to run and that included backup generation from some industrial facilities that put that power that usually is used to run their systems on the grid,” said Magness.

That supply, according to ERCOT officials, would have been just as vulnerable to the elements.

“In this case, because we lost 40 percent of the generating capacity on the system, you would have had to have a back up of 40 percent of your expected peak demand,” said Woodfin.

Christian said Friday having the legislature review ERCOT and its operations was a necessary first step.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.