ERCOT Messages Reveal Actions Prior to Massive Power Outage

NBC 5 News

NBC 5 Investigates is learning much more about what the state's electric grid operator, ERCOT, did in the days and hours before the massive outages that put millions of people in danger.

ERCOT is at the center of a political firestorm now, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) blames the organization for failing to recognize that the impending storm could knock out so many power plants.

At a news conference Friday morning, ERCOT pushed back, saying it saved Texas from a much more catastrophic collapse – one that was perhaps only seconds away.

ERCOT operations messages detail what was happening inside ERCOT’s control room in the chaotic minutes before much of the state plummeted into darkness.

At 1:12 am Monday, controllers issued an alert that said "there may be a need to implement rotating outages."

In just 13 minutes that alert jumped to a level 3-- the highest level -- as ERCOT ordered utilities to shut off power to millions of homes.

“We don't act, we do nothing, we could have a much worse event. And I know it's hard to imagine a much worse event right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said.

Magness described how his team swiftly implemented controlled outages coming within minutes or seconds of an uncontrolled cascading power outage which could have paralyzed Texas much longer.

“We'd be talking about when we might estimate, weeks or months from now, that we would see the power system repaired and we would still see people suffering from outages,” Magness said.

But as Magness talked of heroics to prevent a wider catastrophe, Abbott said again Friday that ERCOT was to blame for the disaster that occurred.

“They said five days before the winter storm hit - ERCOT - assured us that, quote, we are ready for the cold temperatures coming our way,” Abbott said.

Records of ERCOT’s operations message show it first alerted power plants to the impending storm on Feb. 8, issuing a warning of an "extreme cold weather system approaching" and telling plants to "review and implement winterization procedures."

ERCOT then sent three more short weather notices to plants in the next four days before the storm hit. 

But then ice and cold knocked out more than a third of the power generating equipment in the state.

“I mean, this was a massive scale. This was a 40% miss and that's unbelievable…that's probably well over 10 million people who were without power at some point,” Rice University energy expert Daniel Cohan said.

Cohan said the scope of the failure showed Texas power plants need stronger winter protection.

“Natural gas systems function just fine in Alberta and wind turbines function just fine in Antarctica, in Denmark. and so anything's possible for a price,” Cohan said.

The governor is calling for new laws requiring plants to do more to protect against the cold, and next week the legislature will question ERCOT officials and power executives at hearings in Austin.

“If there's things we could do differently or better, we want to hear about it because we don't want an event to occur like this either,” Magness said.

Ironically, new federal rules that would require power plants to take specific steps to protect against cold weather are under consideration right now. Currently, plants are required to have an emergency operation plan but there are no enforceable rules requiring specific winter weather protection.

Federal authorities with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) have also said they will investigate. 

NBC 5 Investigates spoke with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the group that FERC has tasked with enforcing the federal rules.

The organization said one thing it would look at is what has been done to protect power plants in Texas since the 2011 winter storm that caused rolling outages.

After that storm, recommendations were made for improvements. But the question is how well those recommendations have actually been implemented in the last 10 years.

On Friday morning, ERCOT returned to normal operations which means there is now enough electricity to meet the demand.

Any outages that remain are likely due to equipment problems in local areas.

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