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Green power not what sent Texas into the dark, experts agree

By MATT DEGROOD The Daily News​ ​ ​Updated

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took to Fox News late Tuesday to join the chorus of voices blaming wind turbines, solar power and the Green New Deal — a piece of proposed legislation not yet considered, passed or implemented — for the failure of the state’s power grid in recent days.

But most experts, including the state’s own grid manager, disagree with that assessment.

Instead, poor preparation, a badly designed system and cold temperatures causing many sources of energy to fail caused a chain reaction that might end with county residents waiting at least several more days for consistently working power, they argue.

As power outages for many county residents extended into the third full day Wednesday, University of Houston expert Ed Hirs contends that some generation companies might be hesitant to bring production capacity online while they have an opportunity to make money during the crisis.

“I might be dragging my feet bringing them online if I already had three or four producing already,” Hirs said.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is charged with overseeing the state’s power grid. Texas receives most of its power via the Texas Interconnection, a power grid separate from the rest of the country.

A spokesperson with the council at a news conference Wednesday said more than 46,000 megawatts dropped off the grid via multiple sources, and that led to the power problem.

Almost 60 percent of what failed, or some 28,000 megawatts, was via thermal generators — coal, gas and nuclear. About 18,000 was lost via renewable resources.

Some of that was plants that were off to begin with, the spokesman said. 185 generating units of all types are offline.

ERCOT is a membership-based nonprofit corporation, governed by a board of directors and subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature. Board members are appointed by a nominating committee made up of current members.

ERCOT has no accountability to the voters of Texas, or consumers, Hirs said.

Its board doesn’t have power to force companies to produce energy, Hirs said. Instead, the most it can do is make market conditions more desirable to do so.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas, which governs the state’s utilities, on Tuesday gave ERCOT permission to raise energy prices to reflect “the scarcity of supply” — in effect, permitting price hikes to entice generators to provide more power, Hirs said.

Rebecca Miller, a senior analyst with consulting firm Mackenzie Wood’s power team, this week painted a dire picture of affairs in Texas.

Energy prices have spiked to almost $9,000 per megawatt hour, she said.

The storm has taken out a significant proportion of the Gulf Coast’s refining capacity, with installations at Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont offline, she said. Other facilities on the Gulf Coast also are shut down.

Generator companies spent years making little money selling power, aside from odd spikes in prices, Hirs said. The current crisis is a multi-billion dollar transfer for those companies.

ERCOT officials Wednesday said they had limited information about why generators went offline.

ERCOT cannot demand providers put power into the market and has limited information about why they won’t, officials said.

After a big freeze in 2011 when numerous gas-fired plants failed, there was an investigation and a set of best practices for winterizing plants was drafted, but those are guidelines and no authority exists to force providers to invest in winterization, ERCOT officials said.

Most residents are on contracts with energy providers, so a hike, at least initially, will fall to providers, some of whom may go out of business, Hirs said.

Even though ERCOT officials blamed issues with gas generation for most of the state’s power problems, some politicians, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have blamed frozen wind turbines and solar power for the week’s problems.

Experts, however, have uniformly rejected that.

“The crisis in Texas was not caused by the state’s renewable energy industry,” said Ed Crooks, vice chairman of the Americas for consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. “The largest loss of generation came from gas-fired power plants, with the drop-off from wind farms a long way behind.”

Crooks did grant that resiliency of Texas’ power grid, including the resiliency of renewable resources, needs to be improved to prevent future problems, he said.

Hirs predicted the council wouldn’t be able to return conditions to normal until the weather became warm again and demand declined, at the earliest, he said.

It won’t be fixed until the regular winter fleet alone can meet demand, Hirs said.

Residents can blame a system that, for years, has prioritized cheap markets for the emergency facing them today, Hirs said.

“Voters, the legislature, the governor — they all pursued cheapness at the expense of reliability,” Hirs said.

The issue isn’t dissimilar to one Californians have faced when the state instituted rolling blackouts during fires, Hirs said.

Some areas of Texas, such as the Panhandle, have not faced such severe power outages as of Wednesday.

The region, which isn’t part of ERCOT’s grid, has benefited from having access to power markets in multiple states, said Wes Reeves, a spokesperson for Xcel Energy.

Some residents in cities like Amarillo dealt with one round of controlled outages on Monday and a four-hour outage Wednesday but have had power other than that, Reeves said.

And even those were unusual for the region, which avoided blackouts like some of the rest of the state during a cold snap in 2011.

Texas falls into three power grids — the Texas Interconnection, the eastern and the western grid, Reeves said. Reeves didn’t want to speculate on what was contributing to ERCOT’s specific problems.

But the Panhandle has long benefited from transmission connections in other states, he said. In good times, it helps with pricing.

During bad weather, it helps keep power flowing, he said.

“That’s the reason we wanted to be part of the Southwest Power Pool,” he said. “To help boost supply.”

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