AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Electric Reliability Commission of Texas, which controls about 90% of the state’s power flow, said it’s making key operational changes to prevent another mass outage incident. On Tuesday, it shared a list of 60 changes it planned to make.
In a Monday letter to Gov. Greg Abbott, ERCOT Interim President and CEO Brad Jones explained several changes he said ERCOT has made. The statements come one week after Abbott sent a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Texas to take immediate action in changing ERCOT’s operations.
ERCOT has been under statewide and national scrutiny since February’s historic winter storm when mass outages left millions of Texans in the dark and cold for days under single-digit temperatures. This incident resulted in resignations from several board members and the termination of President and CEO Bill Magness.
About 210 people died from storm-related conditions, the Texas Department of State Health Services reports, although it’s important to note auto collisions and other factors also contributed to that number.
Now, ERCOT said it’s made and continuing to make changes ordered by Abbott.
- Taking a more proactive/aggressive approach to ensure adequate generation supply can meet customer demand
- An increase in the amount of generation that’s running at any given time
- A significant purchase of more reserves compared to last year
- Releasing reserves to meet customer demand quicker
- Acquiring more reserves when there’s an uncertain weather forecast
- Launching a resource outage report that meets PUC requirement to post the cause of unplanned generation outages within three working days
- Implementing new protocols to provide price certainty during emergency conditions
- Working closely with PUC to identify opportunities to address needs quickly
- Launching a new ERCOT homepage that shows understandable and clear information for the public
- Planning to completely makeover the ERCOT website by year’s end
The agency said all 60 items are either on track or already complete.
Caitlin Smith, a power and energy advisor with AB Power Advisors, said ERCOT seems to be tackling many challenges that can be done right away, like weatherization spot checks in the summer as well as the winter.
“It tackles some ERCOT staffing and governance issues, so kind of beefing up their staff to be equipped to handle all this,” Smith said.
What’s missing from ERCOT’s roadmap
University of Texas Austin Webber Energy Group research associate Joshua Rhodes said we need to standardize the weatherization approach.
“I do think it would be helpful to either at the lower levels or regulatory levels to have a standard: What type of storm are we willing to insure against? Do we want it to be 10 degrees for five days? Five degrees for three days? What type of event are we willing to build for? So that there’s a little bit more clarity as to what individuals need to do,” Rhodes said.
ERCOT also wants to expand its demand response program — paying facilities to cut back on energy use.
But Rhodes, who was part of a research study detailing what led to Texas’ power grid failure, said they found some of those facilities that were part of the program shouldn’t have been. They were needed to make more electricity in an emergency situation. He said the program should be refined.
“They probably had their power cut off, which hampered our ability to generate more electricity when we needed it the most,” Rhodes explained. “So, taking a stock, taking a harder look at who can participate in these programs I think would also be a good step forward.”
“These strategies, combined with the enhanced enforcement tools provided by the Texas Legislature, will ensure greater stability and reliability of the Texas electric grid,” Abbott said Monday. “I work every week with the PUC and ERCOT to ensure that Texans have the reliable electric power they expect and deserve.”
In June, Abbott signed two bills into law that will change the number of ERCOT board members, give state leaders more say in new appointments and will also require power providers on the ERCOT grid to weatherize equipment and communicate further about outages.
But the governor hasn’t escaped criticism for the February outages either. Despite the newly passed legislation, Abbott’s been accused of not doing enough soon enough.
After saying that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” some said he was downplaying critical problems with ERCOT.
In an eerily reminiscent June announcement, ERCOT released a conservation alert that lasted several days — before summer and peak heat had officially even started.
“To see it happening while temperatures are a little bit lower than they normally are is a bit concerning, but given how many power plants are offline, it makes sense,” Rhodes told KXAN. “But I mean it’s something we’ve got to figure out. If anything we know, the summer’s only going to get hotter.”
Austin Firefighters Association works on its own study
During Winter Storm Uri, Austin Firefighters Association Bob Nicks fielded hundreds of calls for help, either from folks needing services at home or transport to his pop-up shelter.
“I’m a 35-year battalion chief of the Austin Fire Department, it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done,” Nicks said. “I remember one of the first calls I had… it was a husband and wife in their 70s who were in a apartment with no heat or water or food for two days.”
He thinks ERCOT’s new roadmap is a good step to making sure those stories don’t recur but said action has to be taken while the issues are still top of mind. That’s why he said he hopes the AFA’s After Action Report will be ready to share as early as next week.
“It’s very objective and not trying to point fingers… but it doesn’t pull punches, either,” he said.
Nicks said for example, they’ve found many fire stations didn’t have generators or their generators weren’t working properly.