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DeAnn Walker

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.

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.