‘Texas Power Grid Failure: What Went Wrong,’ a KSAT 12 investigative special

Watch a special collaboration between KSAT Explains and the Defenders

A KSAT 12 investigation looks at what we have learned about the disaster in the past half-year, and lays out how city and state leaders have responded.

SAN ANTONIO‘Power Grid Failure: What Went Wrong,’ the collaboration between KSAT Explains and the KSAT 12 Defenders, examines the February storm and its aftermath. You can watch the special in the video player above on-demand.

Four minutes and 37 seconds.

That’s how close Texas came to a catastrophic power grid crash during February’s winter storm that would have left more than 25 million people in the state without electricity and wiped out cell service for weeks.

While we narrowly avoided that, the storm was still devastating. Millions of Texans were left without power in frigid temperatures. Hundreds of people died - some from hypothermia, others while trying to keep their families warm. Some died when medical equipment they relied on lost power. Then there’s the financial fallout: Texans hit with shockingly high energy bills and utility companies forced to declare bankruptcy.

Six months have now passed since the storm. ‘Power Grid Failure: What Went Wrong’ provides a look at what we have learned about the disaster in the past half-year, and lays out how city and state leaders have responded.

Watch the full special tonight on KSAT 12, in the video player above or on the free KSAT streaming app that works with Roku and most smart devices.

How many died?

Among the questions still lingering - how many people died as a result of February’s storm? It’s a question that may never be definitively answered.

The latest data from the Department of State Health Services shows that 210 people died between Feb. 11 and March 5. In Bexar County, the state lists 14 deaths.

But Buzzfeed News estimates the death toll is 702 across Texas. The national media outlet analyzed deaths during the storm based on mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — the same data used to estimate the full death toll of COVID-19.

Nieves Barrientos is one of the many who died during the winter storm. Her body was discovered in her South Side San Antonio home. Watch the video below to hear her daughter speak about her tragic death.

This report is part of the KSAT Defenders-Explains primetime investigative special on the Texas power grid collapse.

‘Something’s going to blow’: How the winter storm played out

By early February there were warning signs of what was headed our way.

On Feb. 3, KSAT meteorologists said there was a possibility that Texas could get cold air as a result of a cold front in Canada. On Feb. 9, a frigid weekend was in the forecast. On Feb. 11, the Hill Country received its first batch of freezing rain. And late on the night of Feb. 14, heavy snow fell in San Antonio.

Families across the city stepped outside to watch the rare South Texas snowfall, unaware that this was the start of a catastrophic weather event for the entire state.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Snow begins to accumulate as San Antonio police officers gather near the Alamo, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, in downtown San Antonio. Snow, ice and sub-freezing weather continue to wreak havoc on the state's power grid and utilities. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In the early hours of Feb. 15, the state power grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, announced record-breaking electric demand because of the cold. Here in San Antonio, temperatures dropped to just nine degrees at 6:51 a.m.

The cold weather led to problems with energy generators. The issue impacted all types of energy.

“We had a crisis situation and ERCOT had to make those adjustments once they ran out of generation to bring online,” said Dr. Don Russell, a Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University’s Department of Electrical Engineering. “The only choice they had was to cut off some of the load.”

As most Texans slept, ERCOT instructed energy providers to begin rolling blackouts to protect the state’s power grid. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

As most Texans slept, ERCOT instructed energy providers to begin rolling blackouts to protect the state’s power grid. When Texans woke up the next morning, millions found themselves without power, including hundreds of thousands in San Antonio.

“Just as some generation becomes unavailable, everybody is getting up in their homes and flipping the heat on,” University of Houston Energy Fellow Ed Hirs said. “Just as you would have with adding that extra string of lights to your Christmas tree, something’s going to blow.”

It soon became clear that the blackouts across the state weren’t so much rolling blackouts as they were prolonged outages. Some people didn’t lose power at all, while others would end up losing it for days or longer. The rolling blackouts just weren’t cutting power demand enough, so some utilities had to cut off certain circuits completely.

The City of San Antonio finally opened the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center as a shelter Tuesday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the initial power outages. They offered transportation for those who couldn’t get to the center safely.

With Texans already dealing with a lot, people across the state and the city began to lose water.

Water pump stations are on critical power circuits, but even those circuits were no longer safe from having their power pulled. San Antonio Water System executive Steve Clouse told KSAT that CPS Energy requested the water utility put pump stations on the blackout circuit, compounding the problem.

“When you take a complicated pump station offline, there is no button that turns that back on,” Clouse said. “When we were losing power at our pump stations, we just had no way we could restart them or get pressure back up to people before that power was lost again.”

SAWS issued a precautionary boil water notice on Wednesday due to the dip in water pressure.

After a rough week, warmer temperatures arrive on Friday, February 19, and the city begins to thaw out.

Eventually, boil water notices were lifted, roads reopened and power returned. But questions about what happened are just beginning to circulate.

“This was a total breakdown in Texas infrastructure,” Hirs said. “We lost power. We lost heat. We lost the fabric of society here and everything that runs our infrastructure.”

‘We like to think of ourselves as freewheeling folks’: Texas’ unique power grid, explained

In a few days, millions of Texans became familiar with the previously obscure ERCOT. Before the storm, a lot of people had no idea what ERCOT was. While many are now more familiar with the organization, there’s a lot to explain when it comes to ERCOT and how it operates.

Why is Texas’ power grid on its own?

Power in the United States is essentially divided up in three systems. And Texas stands on its own.

(Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Texas’ power grid system is isolated by design. It was a decision made by state lawmakers in the 1990s to avoid federal regulations, like the Federal Power Act of 1935 that gave the feds regulatory power over interstate electricity transmission. So any power transmission that crossed state lines was put under the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“We don’t sell energy into interstate commerce,” Russell said. “We could remain our own thing and not have a bunch of federal regulation.”

What is ERCOT?

Across the country, there are different organizations that work as nonprofits that are responsible for making sure the power created by generators, and the supply to customers, is reliably maintained. For Texas, that’s ERCOT. It manages the flow of power to the majority of the state -- more than 26 million customers.

ERCOT is in charge of balancing the grid, making sure enough power is being produced to meet demand.

“Generation of electricity must occur at exactly the same time as consumption of electricity,” Russell said. “The total of everybody’s electricity has to always exactly meet the level of generation.”

This is because there is no mass storage for energy. Russell said that technology is under research.

ERCOT gets energy from generators across the state. But they don’t own the generation. The nonprofit just acts as a broker.

ERCOT power sources (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Why is Texas’ power grid deregulated?

In 1999, Texas lawmakers voted to deregulate the state’s energy market. The move broke up most monopoly energy providers and got rid of regulated energy rates.

That put an end to most utility monopolies in Texas. If you live in San Antonio and you’re thinking about the fact that CPS is your only power provider choice, there’s a reason for that. We explain below.

But for much of the state, deregulation meant competition. And those in favor believed it would mean lower energy prices.

But this theory isn’t necessarily true. And the experts we talked to said there are additional downsides to deregulation.

“Once you give up control of all the generation, once you allow a random list of producers to buy into the Texas generation market, you don’t have the ability to plan for and spend for these one-off kinds of events,” Russell said. “Many of those producers of that energy were not mandated to have certain reliability standards. It became more or less a free for all.”

Today, a long list of companies generate power using those various sources, and ERCOT buys the energy. The nonprofit then sells it to local utility companies. ERCOT acts as a marketplace for these transactions.

But who manages ERCOT?

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has oversight of the state grid. It regulates electric, telephone and water utilities, writing and enforcing the rules utilities have to abide by.

(Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

How does CPS fit into the puzzle?

San Antonio was not affected by the deregulation of the 1990s. Because CPS Energy is owned by the city, its part of the small percentage of the Texas energy market that was exempt.

This means that CPS still is a utility monopoly in San Antonio. And it’s a complex organization that wears several hats.

“CPS makes its power available in the statewide grid, they take back what they need and they sell the excess on the wholesale market, which ERCOT regulates,” said Greg Jefferson, business editor at the San Antonio Express-News.

CPS generates power, transmits and provides it to San Antonio customers. A portion of its revenue goes back the the city. And even though there’s only one choice for power in San Antonio, CPS Energy still has some of the lowest rates in the state.

“Part of that has to do with the fact that you don’t have investors who are demanding dividends,” Jefferson said.

CPS also is able to put surplus at the end of the year back into maintenance and operations.

“They basically will reinvest the money,” Jefferson said. “That’s how they keep rates low.”

This flies in the face of the theory that deregulation and competition equal lower prices.

“Basically what it boils down to was that if there’s competition, electricity will be cheaper,” Russell said. “That’s true for a can of beans in the grocery store, not always true with something like a large public infrastructure system.”

ERCOT sets prices for energy available on the grid, and those prices are subject to change during emergencies.

(Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

During the February winter storm, ERCOT charged the maximum amount allowed for wholesale electricity: $9,000/MWh. Before the storm, prices were less than $50/MWh.

ERCOT also has the authority to require utility companies to carry out rolling outages during emergencies.

“CPS Energy and every other utility in the state essentially answers to ERCOT and they coordinate with them to balance demand for electricity across the state with power generation,” Jefferson said. “To make sure when it’s really hot during the summer we have enough power to run our air conditioners. And conversely, during a winter emergency, we have enough power to heat our homes. Which didn’t happen.”

CPS Energy took heat in the winter storm’s aftermath. ERCOT was certainly blamed. And Texans are waiting to see if anyone will be held accountable.

“In Texas we like to think of ourselves as freewheeling folks,” Russell said. “Texas is known as the state with probably less of a kind of regulatory mindset of any state. Frankly, the consequences of that mindset and culture may be the biggest single cause of what happened in the big freeze.”

‘They were flat-footed’: What was going on at CPS behind closed doors?

So what exactly was going on behind closed doors at CPS headquarters in February? An analysis of more than 2,000 pages of emails by the KSAT 12 Defenders reveals a muddled response to the deadly storm.

A few days before the freeze, on Feb. 10, CPS Energy officials informed the public that an arctic air mass headed toward Texas could impact the utility’s infrastructure, as well as the state’s electric grid.

But with the price of natural gas increasing, but not yet spiking, CPS records show that same day its units of gas purchased actually went down. Multiple energy experts who spoke both on and off the record with KSAT said CPS was caught exposed, both in its long-term projections for how much fuel could be needed to heat homes and provide power to its plants, and in its energy preparations days ahead of the storm.

“They were flat-footed,” Hirs said.

After the storm, in March, CPS filed a lawsuit that accused two natural gas providers of price gouging during the freeze. The lawsuit shows the utility was forced to sign contracts for fuel that was marked up more than 192 times what the price had been just a few days earlier.

As recently as April, CPS said their total bills from the storm could top $1.035 billion. That figure includes the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on natural gas as well as energy purchased through ERCOT.

A source with one of the nearly 20 gas suppliers being sued by CPS told the KSAT Defenders the total owed by the utility is actually much higher, since CPS also faces significant interest payments on what they owe due to non-payment.

Two of those suppliers said in court filings that CPS is trying to divert attention from its own poor risk management with their lawsuits. Some legal experts have called the lawsuits a longshot.

In May, CPS Energy CEO and President Paula Gold-Williams defended the lawsuits, saying the goal is to prevent the bill from being passed onto customers.

“We want them to know the fight is for them,” Gold-Williams said. “No San Antonian and no Texan should be required to pay price gouging.”

CPS has now spent over $2.5 million in outside fees for storm-related attorney and consultant fees. It’s a cost Gold-Wiliams has defended.

“The cost of lawyers and consultants to help us work our way through this is very much a minimal part of a billion dollar bill,” Gold-Williams said.

Watch the video below to learn more about how CPS responded to the winter storm.

This report is part of the KSAT Defenders-Explains primetime investigative special.

Internal complaints

CPS Energy not only had criticism from customers, but also from employees. Internal records obtained by the KSAT Defenders show CPS Energy’s legal team lodged internal complaints against Gold-Williams in the weeks before the attorneys resigned from the utility.

Earlier this summer, chief legal officer Carolyn Shellman and her deputy general counsels, Zandra Pulis and Abigail Ottmers, all resigned.

In all, a combined 88 years of legal experience walked out the door after a reported dispute over CPS’s legal strategy following the storm. When asked about the complaints filed against her, Gold-Williams declined to comment, saying she did not want to discuss a personnel matter.

Shellman, Pulis and Ottmers have each not responded to requests for comment about their reasons for leaving CPS Energy.

Watch the video below to learn more about the controversy over CPS’s approach to forecasting.

A KSAT Defenders investigation found that CPS Energy's approach to forecasting is simply not on the same level as other major utilities.

‘We can expect these events to happen occasionally’: Weather disasters & the climate change question

We know this winter storm had disastrous consequences that few of us have seen before. It felt unprecedented -- but was it?

Meteorologically speaking, the event broke, set and challenged several records. From Valentine’s Day though Feb. 18, areas around San Antonio saw six to eight inches of snow. The official 6.4 inches at the San Antonio International Airport made the 2020-2021 winter the third snowiest on record.

Feb. 14 - 18 snowfall in San Antonio. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

As far as temperatures go, it got as cold as nine degrees on Feb. 15. That’s tied for the eighth coldest recorded temperature ever in San Antonio. We also set five new record-low temperatures in one week, including that nine-degree day.

Feb. 14 - 20 San Antonio temperatures. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Another note about February’s winter storm: it could end up being Texas’ costliest weather-related disaster. The final tab for the winter storm could rival that of Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey in 2017 was a nearly $125 billion disaster for the Texas Gulf Coast and parts of southeast Texas. The final cost from the February 2021 winter storm won’t be known for some time.

Even before the storm, some have hypothesized that climate change could be affecting the polar vortex and leading to more cold snaps in Texas. But that’s not a theory that everyone has embraced.

“That’s still an active area of investigation,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate change expert who is a Texas A&M University professor. “They haven’t really convinced the scientific community that these are connected.”

Dessler said he’s hesitant to attribute the February storm to climate change because Texas has dealt with record cold before. And we’ll deal with it again in the future.

“Regardless of whether it’s connected to climate change or not, we can expect these events to happen occasionally,” Dessler said. “And then it just becomes a question of what we do about it.”

The answer, Dessler said, lies with the government.

“Texas is a state where we really believe in doing things ourselves,” Dessler said. “But there are certain things, certain problems, that only the government can solve.”

And if they don’t? Dessler said we’ll be facing another round of blackouts next time we have a really cold winter event.

Watch meteorologist Sarah Spivey explain the polar vortex in the video below:

KSAT Meteorologist Sarah Spivey explains what a polar vortex is and how it affected the winter storm in Texas.

Response from the Texas Legislature

The experts we talked to all agree that a winter storm like February’s will happen again. And preparing will require government intervention. So, have lawmakers done anything? The short answer is yes. But just how effective the recently signed laws will be at preventing another catastrophic power grid failure is still up for debate.

Watch the explainer below on the two new laws that address the power grid failure.

Senate bills 2 and 3 were heralded by Texas Gov. Abbott as the antidote to February’s deadly power outages. Here’s what they do.

Who will be held accountable?

The full scope of the winter storm fallout will take a while to play out. But there have been some consequences since February:

Through all of the chaos, pain and loss, there was good.

Click the video below to see how neighbors stepped up to help neighbors in true San Antonio fashion.

San Antonio and South Texas residents displayed acts of kindness to help others during February's winter storm.

KSAT received the following statement from CPS Energy late Tuesday afternoon:

Winter Storm Uri revealed that essential improvements are needed across the state’s grid. While ERCOT needs to spearhead most of these improvements to ensure Texas has better reliability and resilience during future major events, CPS Energy and other market participants have taken ownership of the areas within their distinct regional areas. Specifically, CPS Energy has been clear that it will continue weatherizing its generation resources; enhancing its communications with customers and partner agencies; and making investments in grid infrastructure to help reduce the number and length of power outages in the future.

However, it is important to understand there were many challenges outside of CPS Energy’s control during Winter Storm Uri. One challenge was ERCOT’s procedural and operational failures that led to millions of customers across Texas to go without power, some for days at a time. Second, ERCOT created $16 billion in pricing errors, which were independently verified. Third, a number of natural gas suppliers price gouged by as much as 16,000 percent during the state-declared natural disaster. Unfortunately, these violations against public policy have resulted in certain natural gas companies boasting about record profits. Unless something is done about these challenges and failures, billions of dollars will be passed through to customers across the state.

This is why CPS Energy is leading the fight to actively protect its customers who suffered during Winter Storm Uri from having to pay for ERCOT’s failures and natural gas price gouging. Most importantly, CPS Energy continues to make progress in this fight, and remains confident it will achieve a better outcome for Greater San Antonio.

CPS Energy’s Role in Load Shedding:

With regards to load shedding, CPS Energy and other market participants are required – by law – to stop power delivery to customers when instructed to do so by ERCOT. During Winter Storm Uri, CPS Energy did not have control over the amount of energy it was required to shed, which was equivalent to the power for 800,000 homes.

About the Authors:

Brina is the Executive Producer of the NightBeat and KSAT Explains. She has been with KSAT since 2015. She is a Houston native and proud to call San Antonio home.

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.