AUSTIN, Texas – As winter storm blackouts roil Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that operates Texas’ electrical grid, has gained sudden notoriety — as well as the unusual fact that Texas has its own electrical grid.
The U.S. has three power grids: one covers the eastern U.S., another the western states and the Texas grid covers nearly the entire state.
The grid has been thrust into the national spotlight as extreme energy demand and overloaded frozen utility plants contributed to widespread power outages across Texas, experts said.
Nearly 4.5 million customers went without electricity Tuesday, and by Wednesday over 3.1 million Texans still didn’t have the lights turned on, according to poweroutage.us.
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The breakdown sparked growing outrage and demands for answers over how Texas — whose Republican leaders as recently as last year taunted California over the Democratic-led state’s rolling blackouts — failed such a massive test of a major point of state pride: energy independence. And it cut through politics, as fuming Texans took to social media to highlight how while their neighborhoods froze in the dark Monday night, downtown skylines glowed despite desperate calls to conserve energy.
The predecessor for ERCOT was formed in the 1930s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with regulating interstate electricity sales.
“Utilities in Texas were smart and made an agreement that no one was going to extend power outside of Texas,” Donna Nelson, who served as chair of the state Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, from 2008 to 2017, said in an ERCOT promotional video about the history of the grid.
“By eschewing transmission across state lines, the Texas utilities retained freedom,” Richard D. Cudahy wrote in a 1995 article. “This policy of isolation avoided regulation by the newly created Federal Power Commission, whose jurisdiction was limited to utilities operating in interstate commerce.”
The result was “an electrical island in the United States,” Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT, said. “That independence has been jealously guarded, I think both by policy makers and the industry.”
Even today ERCOT, which was formed in 1970, remains beyond the reach of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electric transmission.
ERCOT now manages about 90% of the state’s power for 26 million customers.
Many of those customers are voicing frustrations after they were left in the cold.
“They had a fairly significant lead time to prepare for this,” said Texas resident Tim Taylor. He said it fell to 37 degrees inside his home in Tarrytown on Tuesday — “which is pretty brutal.”
He and his wife looked into getting a hotel room, but every place they called was either booked up or without power, leaving him frustrated about the lingering blackout.
“It’s just an inexplicable failure,” he said.
The grid began preparing for the storm a week ahead of time, but it reached a breaking point early Monday as conditions worsened and knocked power plants offline, ERCOT President Bill Magness said. Some wind turbine generators were iced, but nearly twice as much power was wiped out at natural gas and coal plants. Forcing controlled outages was the only way to avert an even more dire blackout in Texas, Magness said.
“What we’re protecting against is worse,” he said.
But the toll of the outages was causing increasing worry. Harris County emergency officials reported “several carbon monoxide deaths” in or around Houston and reminded people not to operate cars or gasoline-powered generators indoors. Authorities said three young children and their grandmother, who were believed to be trying to keep warm, also died in a suburban Houston house fire early Tuesday. In Galveston, the medical examiner’s office requested a refrigerated truck to expand body storage, although County Judge Mark Henry said he didn’t know how many deaths there had been related to the weather.
Gov. Greg Abbott called the situation “unacceptable” and said he would add an emergency item to the state’s legislative session on reforming ERCOT.
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Contributing: Ryan Miller, USA TODAY; Chuck Lindell, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press
Follow reporter Asher Price on Twitter: @asherprice
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