Texas Power Outfit Blasted for Failures

Thom Weidlich 02.18.21

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A historic winter storm has kneecapped Texas’ power grid, causing about 3.5 million outages and leaving people in the dark and freezing cold. The tragic situation has spotlighted the company that manages about 90 percent of the state’s electric flow — and its communications about the crisis.

While politicians, especially Gov. Greg Abbott, are playing the blame game (fingering frozen windmills that provide only 10 percent of the state’s winter capacity), the main culprit seems to be that the state’s electric system isn’t winterized — it isn’t prepared for such a storm. A contributing factor is that the state (mostly) can’t tap the eastern and western electric grids as other states do. (About half of Texas homes are heated via electricity.)

Much of the criticism about the problem has been focused on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the nonprofit corporation that manages most of the state’s electricity. While the company is obviously preoccupied with its operational challenges, the situation shows that in no crisis can communications be ignored.

For one thing, ERCOT had at first announced rolling blackouts to cope with the problem and, when they weren’t enough, had to do longer blackouts. The company is being excoriated for its lack of communication over that and other aspects of the crisis.

“Power companies and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, as every Texan now knows, have compounded the problem with miserably poor communication and broken promises,” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorialized. “The promise of rotating outages flopped, and no one can explain why in plain English.”

Press Releases

ERCOT has tried to communicate, though not well enough. It warned in a Feb. 11 press release of impending record cold weather and electric use. On Feb. 14, it asked customers to conserve energy. By the next day, it was announcing the rolling blackouts.

In addition to the press releases, ERCOT has worked its Twitter account. It tweeted advice on how to conserve energy, announced the number of households to which it had restored energy (1.6 million as of last night), made predictions on when it could restore more and even had to warn about an outage-related scam.

“We know this is hard,” it tweeted yesterday. “We continue to work as quickly and safely as possible to restore power.”

ERCOT CEO Bill Magness’ main message seems to have been that the company avoided a complete blackout of the system. That clearly wasn’t good enough for suffering Texans.

What’s especially disappointing about the operational and communications shortcomings is that the state had plenty of warning. Texas experienced terrible (though lesser) storms in 2011 and 2014. That allowed time to prepare. Naturally, we are now hearing calls for improved response for the next one.

It’s always the next one.

Photo Credit: Ruchithakur16/Shutterstock

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