Federal and state governments launch investigations into power grid failures from extreme cold

by · Washington Examiner

Federal regulators and state officials announced new investigations on Tuesday as a power outage crisis from frigid temperatures gripped the central and southern parts of the United States.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation announced a joint investigation into the failures of the nation’s bulk power system's handling of the extreme winter weather.

In Texas, where most of the outages have been, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an emergency reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, saying the operator of the state’s power grid “has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.”

FERC, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, opened a docket in 2018, when it was controlled by Republicans, to examine the state of the nation’s grid resilience, or the ability of the U.S. power system as it transitions to cleaner energy sources to bounce back from a major disruption. The docket has been dormant since then.

FERC’s Democratic chairman, Richard Glick, recently chosen by President Biden, was expected to dismiss the issue this week.

Critics saw the launch of the docket as a mechanism to boost fossil fuels, a priority of the Trump administration, and scrutinize the challenges of the electricity system relying more on wind and solar, which do not operate 24/7.

But now, the resiliency issue is back in the foreground, even though the problems plaguing Texas are affecting all fuel sources, especially natural gas.

Many of the state’s gas plants were knocked out from icy conditions, and some plants shut down from being unable to access the fuel they need because producing wells froze.

Wind turbines froze, too, but to a lesser extent.

Abbott, a Republican, cast blame on the grid operator instead of pointing the finger at specific fuel sources.

Texas has a unique system in that it is the only state in the continental U.S. with its own power grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas without federal oversight. That has enabled Texas, the top U.S. producer of oil and gas, to become one of the top hubs for renewable energy, particularly wind power, without relying on mandates or other incentives.

“Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions,” Abbott said after ordering the Texas Legislature to take up the issue.

Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas, credited Abbott for taking action, but he said there was little the grid operator could do to prepare for such an extreme event. The high level of demand surpassed its projections for a worst-case scenario.

“The governor needs to show he is taking action, but he is focusing on the wrong entity,” Webber told the Washington Examiner. “I have sympathy for ERCOT. They aren’t the guys who pull gas out of ground whose parts failed."

Webber said the state should better plan for extreme weather and strengthen infrastructure investments as climate change makes these events more likely.

"We are suffering consequences today of the infrastructure of yesterday not being built for the weather of tomorrow," he said.