Federal regulators have opened an inquiry into what caused the massive power outages across Texas. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) confirms it will investigate along with the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. FERC is the same agency that examined the last major winter power outage in Texas in 2011, and then offered recommendations aimed at preventing a repeat in the future.
On Wednesday, a group of North Texas congressmen sent a letter demanding answers from ERCOT, the agency that manages the state’s power grid. The letter asks what ERCOT did to prepare ahead of this major storm?
Meanwhile, NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered new information showing, less than a week before the storm, ERCOT officials gave assurances that the state’s power plants were ready to weather the elements, raising more questions about how such a massive failure of the state’s power system could happen.
During the storm ERCOT said, 40% of the state's generators - four out of every 10 - were knocked offline. Those generators account for 46,000 megawatts of power, enough electricity to power roughly 9.2 million homes.
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“I think it's safe to say that the weatherization efforts have failed, they've not been able to keep capacity online during this extreme weather”, said Jesse Jenkins an energy expert at Princeton University’s Center for Energy and the Environment.
Jenkins said key questions for investigators will include what power plant operators did to protect equipment from the cold, and what ERCOT did to make sure those plants were ready.
“And after the last close calls and rolling blackouts in 2011, efforts were supposed to have been made to weatherize the system against cold. And it's clear that those efforts were not up to the task,” Jenkins said.
NBC 5 Investigates found ERCOT meeting records on ERCOT’s website showing, just five days before the storm hit, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness assured the group’s board of directors in a meeting, "We're ready for the frigid temps to come our way".
He said the agency had issued a notice to power plants to ensure they were winterized properly.
On Thursday, Magness responded in a news conference to questions from NBC5 about his comments in that February 9th meeting. He said he did not intend to sound unconcerned about the situation when he spoke to the board. He said his team did issue additional notifications to power plant operators in the following days as the weather forecasts suggested the storm would be intense,
In September ERCOT’s annual winter assessment designed to ensure the state is prepared, assured the public there would be enough power to meet peak demand this winter.
But then when the bitter cold arrived, dozens of power plants were knocked off-line, putting millions of Texans in danger.
At a news conference Wednesday, NBC 5 Investigates asked ERCOT CEO Bill Magness how he and his agency can be trusted after assuring the public the state was prepared.
Magness responded saying, “The people who folks in Texas really need to trust to lead us out of this crisis are those operators who are working on 24/7 shifts to make decisions that will keep the system safe.”
"The blame can be assessed very soon," Magness said, "Blame will surely be assessed."
In Thursday's news conference Magness said that planning assumptions for this winter were based on the 2011 winter storm that caused rolling outages. But he said the 2021 storm, "changes the game" in terms of the assumptions that will be used going forward.
NBC5 Investigates also tried to reach Sally Talberg, the chair of ERCOT’s board of directors, which oversees the organization. Talberg did not return the call. An ERCOT spokesperson also said that no board members will be available for interviews because their priority is restoring power right now.
ERCOT confirmed Wednesday that it has no mandatory rules to require power plants to prepare for the winter, only voluntary guidelines.
ERCOT says power generating companies have incentive to be ready, because they can't make money if they aren't able to make electricity.
A group that represents power generators, Texas Competitive Power Advocates, issued a statement saying power plants were in fact winterized and ready for the storm -- but that the weather the state has seen has been unprecedented.