ERCOT unveils plan to improve Texas power grid, regain public trust

The Texas Department of State Health Service says 210 people died as a result of February's winter storm. That is up from a previous estimate of about 160.

Many Texans died from hypothermia, car wrecks and carbon monoxide poisoning.

ERCOT says it has a comprehensive 60-point plan moving forward, but it won’t be a quick fix. Meanwhile, researchers at UT Austin released a report about what led to February’s deadly power failure.

Tuesday morning, ERCOT got direct advice from Texas lawmakers on how to fix weakened trust across the state. 

The State Senate Committee on Business and Commerce had tough questions and direct advice for the Texas power grid operator.

The committee’s session Tuesday morning was just hours after ERCOT penned a lengthy statement to the public on how it will restore trust following widespread power outages during the February winter storm that now cost an estimated 210 lives and billions of dollars in overall damage across the state.

ERCOT Interim President and CEO Brad Jones wrote, "Our promise to you and the people of Texas is to: cooperate and communicate thoughtfully and purposefully, ensure reliability and restore trust and confidence and evaluate technical processes within ERCOT and innovate through dialog."

The dialog throughout the committee’s session echoed that sentiment and focused on how to prevent another colossal breakdown. 

The committee revisited some of the same key points about requiring weatherization and fuel reserves to keep generation plants from going offline.

"Again, these weren’t planned maintenances. These are maintenances where somebody has something break. A large boiler. A boiler tube can blow out," an ERCOT officer said.

"How do we prevent that from happening? How do we incentivize folks to keep their plants more current, their infrastructure in better operational condition?" a senator asked.

"Yes, sir. That’s exactly what we need to do," the ERCOT officer replied. "We need to find better incentives to make sure these generators have the ability to do planned maintenance when they have that opportunity, and we need to make sure they have the revenues that support better maintenance."

Joshua Rhodes is a research associate for Webber Energy Group at UT Austin. It released a report Monday detailing what went wrong in February, comparing the storm to similar disasters in 2011 and 1989.

"We were able to assess that some power plants, it appeared, actually went offline for weather-related reasons above their minimum rated temperature," he explained. "So, say a power plant was maybe rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit, it might have gone offline at 10 degrees Fahrenheit."

The report didn’t find a single cause for the power failure. It said all modes of power generation failed. It said demand forecasts were off, and some weather forecasts mistimed the start of freezing weather.

But the reports also said natural gas played a critical role early on. It found natural gas equipment froze, cutting off production and delivery to other power plants that rely on natural gas.

Much of this happened prior to ERCOT calling for blackouts.

"Meaning that they were turned off at the beginning of that week when we needed electricity the most," Rhodes said.

ERCOT did not make anyone available for on-camera interviews on Tuesday, but FOX 4 caught up with Maguire Energy Institute Director and SMU Professor Bruce Bullock.

"This is the kind of thing that needs to be fixed fairly quickly," he said. "On the other hand, it doesn’t lend itself to that quick of a fix."

The legislature already passed laws in May to overhaul the power grid, but there aren’t deadlines for many of the changes to take place. And there’s a lot of question about how to pay for improvements.

But Bullock says ERCOT’s 60-point plan is the most comprehensive list he’s seen. Legislators just hope it works. 

UT researchers say Texas needs to figure out how big of a storm it wants to prepare for because if you do that, it’ll give clarity to different power plants and fuel supply chains as to what they’ll be able to withstand.