Members of the U.S. Senate waded into the Texas power crisis Thursday, at a hearing designed to probe what caused the massive outages that left millions without electricity in freezing temperatures.
In Washington, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee zeroed in on the fact that so many power generators that shut down during the storm were fueled by wind and natural gas.
During the storm, natural gas plant failures accounted for the largest loss of power generation, according to records from ERCOT which manages the Texas grid.
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The CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), James Robb, testified that the state’s heavy reliance on natural gas and wind to make electricity has put Texas at higher risk of outages because both resources have been shown to be vulnerable to disruption.
“Our assessment has consistently shown there are three regions of the country particularly vulnerable to these dynamics – California, Texas and New England,” Robb said.
Rob vowed that NERC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would investigate whether natural gas supply problems caused most of the Texas outages or whether many power plants simply failed to adequately protect equipment against the cold.
“We will know the answer to that once we complete our inquiry into this most recent event,” Robb said.
The NERC and FERC investigation to answer that question is not expected to be complete for months.
But in Texas, the legislature is attempting to pass new regulations before the end of the current session in May.
One question for lawmakers in Austin and Washington is whether natural gas power plants should be required to have bigger backup fuel storage systems on-site to get through bad weather, systems that can be expensive.
One agency missing in the U.S. Senate hearing Thursday was ERCOT, which runs the Texas power grid.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., explained to committee members that ERCOT was invited but needed to be in Austin for more hearings in front of state regulators.
The committee heard instead from Texan, Pat Wood, who has served as the head of the Texas Public Utility Commission and as Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. He told senators power plants must rethink their back-up systems after the storm that devastated his home state.
“It tells me the world is changing and the modeling that we have done we can't just look in the rearview mirror and say how are we going to avoid the next pothole that we just ran through, and it has to be much more creative and imaginative,” said Wood.
Meanwhile in Austin, lawmakers dug deeper into who should be left holding the bag for the massive jump in electricity prices that left some Texans with massive bills in the wake of the crisis.
Many argued the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT should re-price those charges to help consumers who ended up with huge bills.
“Now we're going to -- there's no other way to say it -- screw them for a few more billion dollars?” said Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo.
But Public Utility Commission Chairman Arthur D’Andrea said re-pricing could shake confidence in Texas financial markets and bankrupt more power co-ops and small city-owned utilities.
“They are very afraid of this and afraid for the results in Texas if we re-price that,” said D'Andrea.