Brad Jones, the interim chief executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, has been a busy man since taking over the troubled agency last May.
Better known as ERCOT, the nonprofit organization is responsible for managing the state’s electricity grid under the supervision of the Public Utility Commission, whose commissioners are appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
In an effort to rebuild trust following the near-collapse of Texas’ power grid during last February’s winter storm, Jones has traveled across the state to hold listening sessions everywhere from Odessa to Frisco.
On Tuesday night, Jones tuned in virtually for a town hall with voters and Republican officials based in Tarrant County. State Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione also answered questions read by County Commissioner Gary Fickes.
From the impact of the growing electric vehicle market on the grid to the legislative actions taken after Winter Storm Uri, Jones said, ERCOT is preparing generators to provide enough power for a booming population amid weather challenges. During a cold spell earlier this month, natural gas production in Texas dropped significantly, but ERCOT did not report any significant power outages.
“Businesses are coming here, more people are moving to Texas, so we have to continue to grow,” Jones said. “We have to make sure we go about it the right way so that we’re attracting the right types of (power) generation to meet the needs of our customers every day.”
Were Texas leaders, companies ‘held accountable’ for outages?
Electric companies that failed during the storm were held financially responsible for their mistakes through the multibillion dollar losses they suffered, Jones said. Other companies went bankrupt and continue to struggle because their power plants shut down because of the low temperatures, he added.
“They didn’t meet the needs of either their customers or the state of Texas, and they faced penalties associated with that, financial penalties,” Jones said.
ERCOT’s previous chief executive was fired following the storm, and every commissioner serving on the Public Utility Commission resigned as well, Jones said.
Some Texans want ERCOT to be held legally liable for the outages and the resulting billions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses.
More than 400 Texans have filed 170 lawsuits against utility companies and ERCOT over the blackouts that killed hundreds of people over the course of a week. Dozens of insurance companies have also filed suit. Jones did not address the litigation during the town hall.
During the committee hearings held by state legislators last spring, Hancock said he was disturbed by the clear “conflicts of interest” on the Public Utility Commission, which regulates telecommunications, water and electric utilities across Texas. The commission is in the process of establishing new bylaws that could alleviate those issues, he added.
“They were basically from the industry and had to determine at certain points: ‘Do I do what’s best for ERCOT or, you know, where I’m getting a paycheck?’” Hancock, who represents portions of Tarrant and Dallas counties, said. “They resigned because legislatively, we said, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have all new board members, they’re going to meet a certain criteria, they’re going to be able to make tough decisions on the spur of the moment.”
Did having a separate power grid cause Texas blackouts?
Jones defended the design of Texas’ electricity market and power grid. Unlike other states, which are connected to power grids on either the western or eastern side of the country, electricity in Texas is generated and used only within state lines.
That means Texas had no way of bringing in more electricity when the state’s power generators couldn’t produce enough power to meet demand last February. The effect of being connected to another power grid would have been negligible during the storm, Jones said, because power supplies from the far east would have been consumed by states around Texas also experiencing electricity issues before it reached Texans.
Because Texas is independent, state leaders can also move with more speed to craft reforms and implement them without waiting for recommendations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Jones said.
“They took until November to send us a list of recommendations for how to deal with the cold weather from Uri,” Jones said. “We had a list from our Legislature within months … We had most of the issues that the (federal commission) identified already resolved by the time they identified them.”
Other, larger grids are not necessarily immune to issues, Capriglione added, pointing to California’s Pacific Gas & Electric, which has been blamed for more than 30 wildfires and faced a number of criminal charges.
“I’m not sure being connected to a bigger grid would actually have less chance of causing a problem,” Capriglione said. “If we were part of a federally regulated system, we’d probably still be asking for permission to do some of the things we’ve already implemented in place for this winter.”
Is Texas ready for a rough winter?
Last summer, ERCOT released a 60-item list of reforms the agency was undertaking to improve its broken trust with Texans. That included more inspections and assurances from power companies that they were adequately preparing their facilities for winter weather.
Earlier this month, ERCOT reported more than 300 inspections of power generating facilities, which take natural gas supply and other power sources and turn it into electricity for the grid. Their inspectors found 10 potential deficiencies at power plants and six at electric transmission facilities, most of which were resolved.
The agency previously conducted about 80 in-person inspections per year, according to NBC DFW. Only three facilities this year failed to meet ERCOT’s expectations for winter preparations, Jones told the town hall audience. Those preparations can mean installing more insulation, building structures around facilities to protect equipment and using thermal blankets to keep equipment from freezing, he said.
“The generators did a fantastic job of getting ready for this, and we’re seeing that today,” Jones said.
Electricity transmission and distribution providers also need to have plans in place for turning off power intermittently during emergencies so customers can be safer and are not without power for many hours, Jones said. The agency is also focusing on improving its communications so that customers “get a single message and not four or five messages that are conflicting” from their energy provider and the state, he said.
The state’s utilities can’t expect a once-in-100-year storm every year, but ERCOT must ensure it’s ready for the next one, Jones said. Texans can be confident that the grid is more prepared than ever before, he added.
“We’re bringing on more reserves in various situations where we see cold fronts come through, bringing on board reserves, and keeping those reserves on to make sure that if something unexpected happens, that we have those reserves available,” Jones said. “It should give you great confidence that we’re managing this grid in a much more reliable way.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.