Congress questions Texas officials about power grid failure


DALLAS — Congress is looking into last month’s massive and deadly power outages across Texas and questioning officials who oversee the state’s energy industry and electric grid.

A House Energy Committee was scheduled Wednesday to hear from Bill Magness, the outgoing CEO of the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and Christi Craddick, chair of the Texas Railroad Commission.

In written testimony submitted before the hearing, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Texas grid was designed for peak summer heat, and policymakers wrongly believed that a 2011 severe winter storm that caused outages was an anomaly.

Turner said state leaders assumed that a pricing system that rewards power companies for generating when electricity is in high demand would compel those companies to be prepared for the next big winter storm.

“It did not happen,” he said. “The magnitude of the damages was foreseeable and preventable.”

For nearly a week in mid-February, most of the state suffered through subfreezing temperatures. Millions lost power and heat. When pipes burst and water systems shut down, Texans were told to boil water for drinking — if they still had a way to boil water.

An early count by state officials puts the death toll from the week at 57, but that is likely a wide undercount. Some of the largest counties, including Bexar, where San Antonio is located, and Travis, home to Austin, have not reported figures yet.

Power from natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind and solar sources all dropped during the storm. Grid officials said critical gas-fired plants shut down for lack of fuel.

In his written testimony, Magness repeated what he has already told the Texas Legislature: At its peak the storm took out nearly half the grid’s power-generating capacity, and ERCOT had no choice but to order rolling outages to prevent long-lasting damage to electric infrastructure. That kind of blackout might have taken weeks to repair, he said.

Christi Craddick of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s energy industry, defended her agency and the natural gas operators it oversees.

Craddick said gas wells shut down simply because they didn’t have power, and she called gas producers heroes who were critical in restoring power. In her written testimony, Craddick did not mention any need for protecting wells from extreme winter weather.

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