Nearly two months after the biting cold statewide that resulted in electrical blackouts, power delivery companies continue to study what went wrong.
An arctic blast during the week of Feb. 14 plunged temperatures throughout the state to well below freezing. Snow fell in many areas, and ice was reported as far south as Corpus Christi.
“The week prior, Thursday or Friday, ERCOT (Electrical Reliability Council of Texas) sent out a press release, letting us know they were expecting grave conditions to take place. So we shared it on our Facebook,” said Brittany Williams of San Patricio Electrical Cooperative. “No one knew truly how bad it was going to be.”
Larry Jones of AEP Texas said that by Feb. 10, they had informed their customers via news releases, Facebook and Twitter to prepare for the winter storm.
“We emphasized the need for people on life sustaining equipment to make backup plans,” he said.
Three days later, Jones said AEP Texas voluntarily issued calls to conserve electricity, even before ERCOT made the recommendation.
But as the mercury plummeted, those who cranked up the heat in an attempt to stay warm caused a surge in electricity demand. ERCOT – which oversees about 90 percent of the state’s electrical grid – directed utilities to shed some of their load. Then in the early morning hours of Feb. 15, rolling blackouts began when those charged with generating electricity began switching off circuits.
Jones said ERCOT directs utilities to shed load to prevent catastrophic damage to the grid.
“When the amount of demand could potentially outpace the amount of electricity being generated, keeping those circuits energized could amount to major damage that could take weeks to repair,” he said.
But because neither AEP Texas nor SPEC have generating capacity, they were not in control of the rolling blackouts experienced by their customers.
At the peak of the outages Feb. 16, Jones said AEP Texas – which has customers spread across 97,000 square miles – recorded 468,000 meters were without power. Williams said 7,500 of SPEC’s 11,600 customers spread over nine counties were without electricity.
ERCOT spokesman Leslie Sopko said it was not ERCOT who was flipping the switches.
“ERCOT does not manage rotating and/or extended, controlled outages such as the ones experienced during the extreme cold weather event,” she said. “We instruct the local utilities on how much needs to be turned off, and then they implement their own plans. Unfortunately, due to the very large amount of power that needed to be shed to preserve the electric system, the utilities were not able to rotate the outages. This is something that will be discussed moving forward, especially because of the devastating impact it had on Texans.”
ERCOT has come under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the winter storm, particularly because of the many deaths attributed to the event. Many of those who died froze to death in their homes according to media reports. The Texas Tribune reported March 25 that the number of deaths statewide that were blamed on the storm is 111.
By Feb. 18, most customers of both AEP Texas and SPEC had their power. Williams said that in total, the ERCOT mandated outages lasted 70 1/2 hours, compared to just seven hours during the winter storm event in 2011. Looking back, she said SPEC would have liked for there to have been better communication from ERCOT, which would have helped SPEC better convey the seriousness of the situation with its customers.
“In all fairness, they didn’t expect it to be this bad either,” she said.
Jones said electrical utilities throughout the state are working with the state Legislature to make improvements in the wake of the winter storm, targeting three specific points:
• To be allowed greater use of mobile generation, which would include semi-trailer-sized generators being hauled to hospitals and water plants to help them continuing operating,
• Enhance customer communication by allowing transmission utilities to have better means of contacting customers,
• Enhanced load management, which would allow transmission utilities to work with customers to better manage the load and to selectively turn off power across the board.