CEO tells Texas lawmakers ERCOT did not respond to warning signs with 'enough urgency'

Legislative hearings into the power failure last week continued late into the night, with plenty of finger pointing to go around.

Committees in the Texas House and Senate held separate hearings on what happened to the state’s power grid.

State lawmakers grilled power companies, regulators, and the grid manager about the failures that led to the deadly outages.

As an anecdote to how quickly things were spiraling out of the control early Monday, one Houston-based power CEO testified the grid was unstable, tripping a couple plants offline.

Another of its plants went down when it lost access to gas because the gas company was out of power.

But this investigation isn't just looking into the storm, but the system the storm exposed.

While ERCOT, which manages the state's electrical grid, has faced a brunt of the criticism and spotlight for last week's winter storm failure, a new person in the hot seat Thursday evening was public utility chair DeAnn Walker, who was an appointee of Governor Greg Abbott.

The Public Utility Commission has an oversight role over ERCOT, though Walker tried to downplay that.

"To say that we have the amount of power that was implied is just wrong," she said.

Multiple Republican lawmakers insisted the commission does have more authority, and Walker admitted she hadn’t asked the legislature for more power.

"You have complete authority over ERCOT. Complete authority, so I’m having trouble with you mentioning several different times that you lack the authority, or this or that has been delegated to ERCOT," said State Senator Brandon Creighton.

Also revealed during the testimony was that top officials and at least one power company reached out to the governor to raise alarms about the storm.

That company is Vistra, an Irving-based company that owns dozens of retailers like TXU and Ambit Energy.

House lawmakers questioned Curt Morgan, the CEO of Vistra Corp.

Morgan told them his company saw warning signs several days before the winter storm arrived. He also said his employees alerted ERCOT, the state’s power grid operator, that Vistra might not have enough power to meet the demand. But he said ERCOT did not respond with enough urgency.

"Just like we do with a hurricane, when we see this type of event we think that we’re not going to have enough power," Morgan said. You’d think that’s something that someone ought to advise you guys, the governor, that we ought to start telling people this is coming, give them a chance to prepare," Morgan said.

RELATED: 5 ERCOT board members resign as leader says Texas was minutes from total blackout

When grilled about why Vistra Corp did not issue its own tweets or press releases with stronger warnings ahead of the storm, Morgan said the company notified its customers but perhaps could have done more.

There was concern about the company being the one to warn the public instead of officials.

"I am a little concurred about us being the bearer of that news because that can create panic and other things so I tried to work through the system. Maybe that’s not the right thing," he said.

Asked how the governor responded to warnings, a spokesperson pointed to a news conference and language used by the governor, that "all of Texas is facing an extremely dangerous winter storm in the coming days."

The spokesperson said those comments were "several days" before the storm.

That’s false.

It was less than a day and a half before the rolling outages started.

Meanwhile, Bill Magness, the CEO of ERCOT, defended his operators saying they increased their forecast for electricity demand ahead of the storm.

Magness said no one could anticipate the sudden failure of nearly half the state’s power generation capacity which led to extended outages.

Morgan contends the system was built to handle the hot Texas summers, not extremely cold winters.

"We build our system around summer. We now have seen what could happen in the winter and we were not prepared," he said.

ERCOT was also featured heavily in Thursday’s hearing. Gov. Abbott has called for an overhaul.

Magness has pointed to the fact ERCOT narrowly avoided a complete blackout.

But some power companies say the grid still got dangerously unstable, tripping some power plants offline, which made problems worse.

"They’re pointing the finger directly at your agency regarding management of the frequency and the change of the frequency being the primary culprit of why so much generation went down," State Senator Charles Schwertner said.

"They haven’t shared that with me. I’ve only heard that from members of the legislature," Magness replied.

The CEO of Oncor, which manages the lines in North Texas, testified Thursday night.

ERCOT directed Oncor and other transmission companies to reduce power and start those rolling outages, that later weren't really rolling.

The CEO said they've got a list of who would be shut down, and said, in the future, they hope to be able to let people know who's on the list.

RELATED: Gov. Abbott promises changes, new legislation to address Texas power grid failure

Power company executives testified that Feb. 15, around 2 a.m., was the moment the power system became a problem

"A stunning 10,000 megawatts of generation came off the grid," said Calpine Corporation CEO Thad Cline. "It happened all at once in dramatic fashion."

Cline is president and CEO of the largest generator of electricity using natural gas in the country. That's when it became clear supply might not meet demand, which meant rolling blackouts.

"What I think the perfect storm was the gas system failed. And by the way, it didn’t just fail in Texas. We were having problems. We were having freeze-ups in Oklahoma which feeds gas into Texas," Morgan said. "We were having problems coming out of New Mexico so there was a whole system that was having issues."

The head of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, telling senators she anticipated rolling blackouts at least three days before the power outages began and notified the state's political leadership.

The hearings were not just about power but people. The state death toll in this winter storm is not yet official, but among the dead is an 11-year-old boy.

"We can’t allow another event like this to happen and the loss of life to be the only reason we come together to figure out what a solution is," said State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Robstown).

Both Morgan and the CEO of NRG Energy told lawmakers residential consumers should not be allowed to be on plans that expose them to wholesale electricity prices, which led to some enormous bills for some Texans during the storm.

"That product puts the risk on customers to manage and you know what. They don't have the tools to do it," he said.

The only thing that was clear is that in places the entire system failed. That ultimately impacted another part of the infrastructure: the water system.

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