AUSTIN (KXAN) — Amid ongoing widespread power outages during historic winter weather, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is facing criticism as millions demand answers.
Bill Magness, the president and CEO of ERCOT — which manages the flow of electric power in the state — spoke to KXAN Tuesday morning and answered some of those questions.
As of Tuesday morning, over four million Texans are without power after planned rolling blackouts were never brought back online. Since then, customers have wondered why some areas have maintained power, while others have been in dark and cold for days.
“We are trying to get people’s power back on as quickly as possible,” said Magness. “But in order to do that, we need to be able to safely manage the balance of supply and demand on the grid.”
Magness explained ERCOT’s primary function is to keep that balance, to ensure large collapses don’t happen.
“As hard as these outages are, they avoid a much more catastrophic situation,” he said.
During Tuesday’s interview with KXAN’s Will DuPree, Magness answered a few questions Texans have.
WD: A big question that people have is when will ERCOT allow local utilities to turn the power back on?
BM: Well, we asked the local utilities to reduce the amount of power they use in order to keep the overall system in Texas operating safely, so each utility like Austin Energy has a proportion of the reduction in the use of power we need to do to maintain that safety balance.
So we are telling each of the utilities in Austin and everywhere else that as soon as we can reinstate certain amounts of megawatts, certain amounts of usage then they go out and take care of that within their communities. They have plans for how those outages are managed within their communities. We just tell them the amount we need from an engineering, from a grid perspective, and they manage the local plan and how it’s undertaken.
WD: Can you give people an understanding of why this issue is the way it is at this point? I think there’s been a lot of information shared out there, but it might be best to hear it from you to explain in the simplest terms. Why we are having to have these controlled outages and why there is a shortage on power when this winter storm is hitting?
BM: Supply and demand are the two key elements and with electricity you can’t really store a whole lot of electricity. You’ve got to make it and use it at the same time. And the physics of it dictate that you have the supply and demand at a certain frequency — and if you get too far out of balance you can have the system, you know, wires burn, you have catastrophic failures. And that’s what’s our job to avoid to deliver power safely and reliably without that kind of issue.
WD: A lot of people are upset. I’m sure that’s not news to you. We have had dozens of phone calls pretty much every hour — if not every minute — coming into our newsroom. Would you do anything differently if you had to do it all over again?
BM: We need to keep power flowing safely and effectively and when we saw particularly Sunday night as the storm blew in, the operators at ERCOT are thinking about that safety and that margin for safety all the time. We would not have asked for any customer to have to be without power particularly in this terrible cold situation unless we needed to manage the overall security of the electric grid. So when we first ask for those outages to happen, that was paramount. And remains so.
Update from ERCOT officials Tuesday afternoon
ERCOT officials held another update Tuesday afternoon with the media to answer questions on how restoration efforts for energy generators are going. They said while they’ve been getting some generators in some areas back online to add to the supply, they’re also losing some generators as well.
“If additional generation doesn’t become available as the day goes on, we may actually have to take some of it back offline to maintain that power supply balance come this evening,” they said.
Each type of energy presents its own challenges, ERCOT explained, and it is seeing losses across the different generation types.
About 15,000 megawatts of consumers are out as of Tuesday afternoon, ERCOT said. This equates to about 2 to 3 million people. On the supply side about 45,000 megawatts of generation is offline, and that number hasn’t progressed as much as they would’ve liked. About 4,000 megawatts Tuesday were restored, they said.
ERCOT said usually, there are spot checks to make sure facilities are “winterized” and ready for extremely cold weather. However, they explained this is “beyond normal extreme weather” we are dealing with. They recalled the 2011 winter storm and said this is more severe than that.
Before the wintry weather, on Monday, Feb. 8, ERCOT said its meteorologists saw the extreme weather coming. ERCOT then issued an “operation condition notice” for extreme cold weather to generators to make sure they’re implementing their winterization procedures and that they have enough fuel. As time for the storms drew closer, ERCOT said it increased its alerts and their severity.
“We were preparing for some loss of wind generation, some loss of gas generation due to gas restrictions,” they explained.
The part that was not expected was generators tripping offline when the storm rolled through Sunday night. While winterization processes were in place, the storm was a “more extreme event” than what was previously experienced.
Moving forward, the winterization processes might be revisited and revised based on problems faced this time around, but for now, ERCOT said its main focus has been keeping the system together and balanced.
As more winter weather is expected to hit Tuesday night and into Wednesday, Magness says preparations are being made and outcomes depend on getting generating units fixed, which would allow more power to be available for customers.
Magness explained ERCOT is receiving some assistance from Gov. Greg Abbott, the State of Texas, and the federal government.
On Tuesday, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan requested a hearing to review the factors that led to these power problems, saying Texas “must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders.”