Our rinky-dink critical infrastructure

Good Lord.

On Valentine’s Day, the major utility that supplies electricity to West Texas readied for a severe winter storm. Hired contractors prepared to fix power lines, managers started up the storm emergency center, and operators reviewed the list of facilities that should — no matter what — keep power during an emergency: 35 of them on Oncor’s list were natural gas facilities that deliver fuel to power plants.

As Sunday turned to Monday, Allen Nye, the CEO of Oncor, one of the state’s largest transmission and delivery utilities, thought his team was ready.

But the situation rapidly deteriorated as the storm bore down on Texas. At 1:20 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, ordered the first cut of power to bring demand down to match an extremely low power supply as the frigid temperatures caused power plants to rapidly trip offline.

Oncor’s team, along with other utilities, began a plan to roll outages at 15- and 30-minute intervals. But just before 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered them to take even more power offline — then kept ordering more reductions. By late Monday morning, ERCOT had ordered 20,000 megawatts of power offline; Oncor’s share was 8,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.6 million homes.

Rolling the outages “quickly became impossible,” Nye said. “We sat there praying that electrons showed up.”

With millions of Texans without power, Nye got an urgent request from DeAnn Walker, then chair of the Public Utility Commission: She needed Oncor to flip the switch back on to certain natural gas facilities that couldn’t deliver fuel to power plants without electricity. A PUC spokesperson said Walker was “ceaselessly” on the phone, calling Nye about dozens of natural gas facilities that weren’t on Oncor’s “critical” list.

That meant that Oncor, which delivers power to the Permian Basin — the state’s most productive oil and natural gas basin — had unwittingly shut off some of the state’s power supply when it followed orders to begin the outages.

The desperate scramble to power up natural gas facilities again exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Oncor and other utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed, company executives, regulators and experts said.


“In my opinion, if we had kept the supply [of natural gas] on, we would’ve had minor disruptions,” James Cisarik, chairman of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, told legislators. “[Texas] has all the assets, we just have to make sure we evaluate every link in that chain to keep it going.”

The failures were years in the making: There is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.” And a trend toward electrifying key components of the state’s natural gas infrastructure in recent decades, plus the lack of a single agency to oversee all parts of the electric delivery system, created what Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at the Rice University’s Baker Institute, called a “single point of failure” — one that state regulators were blind to.

“That’s a failure of regulation,” said Medlock, who is also the senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice. “That’s all it is. It’s relatively simple.”

That’s one way to put it. “Infuriating” and “inexcusable” also come to mind, along with a bunch of swear words. As someone once said, there’s a lot more to gain by avoiding stupid mistakes than there is by coming up with genius solutions. This is the sort of thing that the Legislature should be focused on. If this kind of simple, no cost fix is not implemented, you know who to blame. The Chron has more.

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7 Responses to Our rinky-dink critical infrastructure

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    This story is actually good news, going forward. We seem to all agree that natural gas production facilities and natural gas pipeline compressor stations need to be on lists of “do not cut power” critical infrastructure, just like hospitals and police stations. That seems like a fairly simple fix to accomplish. We’re all wondering who is going to pay for the expensive winterization of power plants, but it seems merely keeping the power on to natural gas producers and pipelines is a big bang for little bucks solution.

    We didn’t know before. Now we know. This is one problem that should already be solved by Texas’ utilities, at little cost to ratepayers going forward.

  2. Manny says:

    If it is coming out, it is probably bs. From the Houston Chronicle;

    “As for getting to the bottom of how the grid collapsed, we will probably never know. Dozens of journalists, including myself, have asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to turn over documents that could reveal what happened. But the electric companies have asked Paxton to declare all of the materials confidential, citing an exemption from disclosing proprietary information.”


    One thing is certain is that people like Bill and me will pay for all those billions of dollars that flowed to the Jerry Jones of the world. Can’t forget what his company spokesperson said about the calamity that befell most of us.

    The billionaire owns Comstock Resources Inc., which has sold gas from its Haynesville Shale wells in East Texas and northern Louisiana at premium prices the past week. Demand has led to gas prices at some regional hubs to soar past $1,000 per million British thermal units, according to Bloomberg.

    “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” Chief Financial Officer Roland Burns said on an earnings call Wednesday, via Bloomberg. “Frankly, we were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.”

    “That seems good news for Jones, who, two years ago, had a total investment of $1.1 billion in Comstock. His oil and gas company has become the leading producer in one of the nation’s largest natural gas basins.”

    The only difference fascists like Bill will continue to support fascists while they are getting screwed by the people they adore.

  3. Lobo says:

    Manny: If I recall correctly, they are claiming that the Public Information Act (PIA) does not apply to them because they are under complete control of the PUC, which has its own (non)disclosure rules. But get this: The PUC is itself subject to the PIA.

    And get this: ERCOT claims it has sovereign immunity because the PUC has delegated public authority to it (even though it is a private “nonprofit” industry-controlled entity). So why shouldn’t they then not also be subject to PIA as a deemed public/governmental entity? Governmental status of immunity and impunity purposes, but not for open-records purposes. – What’s not to like when your are power producer/crony capitalist.

    ERCOT hired a former SCOTX Chief to push that we-are-immune argument in the Texas Supreme Court, which at 9AM this morning handed down a badly fractured decision in the long-pending Panda v. ERCOT dispute that does *not* resolve the sovereign immunity issue because it hinges on the legal/procedural doctrine of mootness.

    Needless to point out the obvious: Everyone wants to know whether ERCOT is suable these days, and whether ERCOT can be held accountable for plunging millions of Texans into the freezing dark.

    See here:

    It’s too soon to offer a probing analysis. Suffice it to point out that the winter-freeze debacle raised the stakes tremendously — they were already high (in dollar terms) for the power-plant investors that sued ERCOT — but now everyone needs to know whether ERCOT can be sued. Several counties filed an amicus brief following the winter storm to weigh in, including Harris County.

    My point here: They will and are engaging in any and all legal maneuvering to try to avoid public and media scrutiny and transparency.

    Also note that the supposedly “Independent” Market Monitor (who is paid by ERCOT) wouldn’t disclose who made off with the billions of dollars in loot thanks to the $9,000 p/MWh price fixing (the “net gainers” in industry lingo). — That’s confidential too, or so the story goes.

    What’s not confidential is that surviving Texans have been shafted. We all are supposed to pay for the ERCOT-PUC HEIST in one way or another.

  4. Lobo says:

    Re: Determination of Applicability of Texas Public Information Act (PIA) to ERCOT

    Here is ERCOT’s March 1, 2021 Letter seeking to thwart transparency:


    Lingo note: PIA was previously known as Open Records Act.

  5. Jason Hochman says:

    This is evident everywhere. Houston is unprofessional. The streets are riddled with chuck holes. The traffic lights aren’t timed. When cars smash up, the debris of the downed cars is left on the side of the road. The city says that the owner of the adjacent property is responsible to clean it up. The property owner says that it’s on the public street. The tow truckers simply sweep it to the edge of the road with the blessing of the police and fire trucks.

    Construction sites are allowed to close sidewalks. In professional cities, the construction sites are required to put a cover over the sidewalk, allowing it to remain in use. Of course, there aren’t many sidewalks in town. the ones that do exist are treacherous with mud slicks or lifted up to trip hazards by tree roots.

    I’ve never lived in a place where power goes out and traffic signals are flashing after a typical rain storm. Water lines frequently break. It’s entirely an unprofessional city. And Mayor Turner never gets ideas to improve things, even though he’s always going on fact finding missions to other cities. If I am elected mayor, I will make some changes. I won’t sit around like the current mayor, saying “it is what it is,” and telling you what someone else didn’t do. I will tell you what I will do, and then I will do it. It will be a professional city. The police will be deployed to fight crime, and not kill people in their homes, or get involved in people who don’t want to wear a useless mask. We will have a real detective bureau, of professional detectives who wear suits every day on the job. We will have nice, traditional uniforms for the officers on the beat, except bicycle officers will have cycling clothes. There are many other changes that will come if I am elected.

  6. C.L. says:

    Ain’t nothing worse than driving into a chuck hole smack dab in an unprofessional city while not wearing a mask…but wearing a suit.


  7. Jen says:

    However, you can be reassured that there will be strict attention to the purity of your precious bodily fluids.

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