With another winter storm on the way Tuesday evening, ERCOT, the company that oversees the state's electric grid, says getting power back on for the millions of Texans who are stuck in the bitter, life-threatening cold is their number one priority, but that they can't say specifically when that will happen.
Bill Magness, president and CEO of ERCOT, spoke with NBC 5 Senior Investigative Reporter Scott Friedman Tuesday morning and said if the weather cooperates and if they get more power generation online, they hope to tell electric providers they can restore service to many customers later this week.
"The honest answer is we are constantly bringing on new supply, new generation, that is fixing problems that are caused by the storm, or otherwise, and as we manage that we are able to serve more demand," Magness said. "Now, that doesn't give me the ability to tell you honestly that it's going to be 'X' number of people on a certain date. We think that if the trends we're seeing today continue we should be able to restore, or ask Oncor and the other utilities to restore, most customers, hopefully in larger numbers."
ERCOT said the demand for power began to exceed the available supply early Monday morning and they were forced to order rotating, controlled power outages to keep the grid intact and to help even more people not experience longer uncontrolled blackouts that could last for weeks or even months.
"A blackout is not under control. A blackout means rebuilding large parts of an electric system. A blackout means your power is out for an indefinite, undetermined period of time," Magness said. "As catastrophic as this feels, these are controlled outages and we can turn things back on. What we've done by implementing these outages is to avoid that catastrophic risk."
Magness said if ERCOT didn't ask for the reductions in demand and a blackout occurred that there's no telling when they would be able to resume regular service to all Texans and that it would take a lot of time to rebuild their extraordinarily complex system.
ERCOT allowed providers to bring about 500,000 customers back online Monday night and hoped to be bringing more online Tuesday, but they know they won't be able to bring everyone back on for several days.
"If we bring people on too fast and there's not enough generation to support them we put ourselves right back in that risky situation that we were in Sunday night as the storm blew in," Magness said. "Unfortunately, the way we've had to manage that given the conditions on the electric system right now is to continue to have a lot of customers without power. As soon as we can do that without that risk of catastrophe, without the risk of a blackout, that's exactly what we're going to be doing as fast as we can."
Magness said when the extremely frigid temperatures leave an area the demand for electricity goes down because the heating needs are reduced, giving them more flexibility to manage the supply and demand more effectively. That's when it's likely most customers would have their power restored.
"I think as we see the worst part of this system move out and we see that the generation problems that were caused by it get fixed, which everybody is working on right now, I think later this week certainly," Magness said. "The outages, enduring those, unfortunately, are what allows us to be confident we can restore it to the way it was last week as soon as we get through this weather system."
Texas' power grid is a network of nearly 47,000 miles of transmission lines and substations that carry electricity to utility companies for distribution. Under optimum conditions, the grid has 82,000 megawatts of generation capacity and delivers 90% of the electricity used in the state by more than 26 million consumers. As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the total system capacity was only 46,000 megawatts. The missing 36,000 megawatts would be enough to power roughly 7.2 million homes.
Winter Weather Recovery
After several days of sub-freezing temperatures, some melting is expected Friday and Saturday.
The drop in available resources led some to question if Texas' grid should bring in power from other states. Though Texas runs its own grid, it does share connections to other grids and ERCOT was bringing in roughly 600 megawatts of power from the Midwest on Tuesday until a power emergency there cut off that supply.
Magness said there are advantages and disadvantages to working with other grids but that, "Working with other grids doesn't necessarily guarantee you don't have big problems. We haven't had a blackout at ERCOT. In 2003, there was one that went from Canada, New York and Ohio, covering a large part of the Eastern Seaboard and up into Canada and that facilitated, in part, by those interconnections."
"The way Texas has been able to develop our electric infrastructure, while they may not be feeling it today, there has been a tremendous investment and tremendous commitment to getting the power that's needed to serve a state that's growing extremely fast," Magness said.
On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) added ERCOT reform as an emergency item to the current Texas legislative session. The governor is calling on the legislature to investigate ERCOT and ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen over the past several days.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” said Abbott in a statement on Tuesday. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”
Abbott said he'll direct legislators to review the preparations and decisions by ERCOT to get a full picture of what caused the problem and find long-term solutions.
ERCOT, which is subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature, was founded in 1970 as an independent, nonprofit responsible for overseeing Texas' power grid.