ERCOT: Texas was 'minutes away' from catastrophic collapse of electric grid as storm hit

The state's grid operator says significant progress is being made to bring the lights back on but "rotating outages" are expected to continue.

AUSTIN — Texas might have been "seconds or minutes" away from a catastrophic failure of its electric grid as the record-breaking winter storm barreled from the Panhandle to the urban centers had operators not started the forced outages, the top manager of the grid said Thursday.

Major generation units began failing in rapid succession as Sunday night rolled into Monday morning while demand skyrocketed, Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council, said in a news briefing.

Power lines are shown Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Houston. Millions of Texans had no power after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge of demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state's power grid and causing widespread blackouts.

"One of the reasons operators have to (shut down parts of the grid) is if they say, 'You know, let's wait another minute to see what happens.' What happens the next minute might be three big units come off, and then you're sunk.

"If we hadn't taken action, it wouldn't have been we would have waited a few days and see what happens. It was seconds and minutes, given the amount of generation that was coming off the system at the same time demand was still going up."

The shutdown left as many as 4 million Texans suffering without electricity for 48 hours or more in some cases, even as temperatures all across the state dipped into single digits and heavy snow and ice shut down highways, forcing the extended closure of grocery stores and other essential businesses.

More:Another winter storm slams Northeast, Mid-Atlantic; 1.1M without power, including over 400,000 in Texas

Magness' comments came as ERCOT announced it began allowing power companies to re-energize grids that have been without electricity during this week's statewide deep freeze, but no timetable was provided for full restoration of service.

“We’re to the point in the load restoration where we are allowing transmission owners to bring back any load they can related to this load shed event,” said Dan Woodfin, the senior director of system operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

“We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on.”

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Since the unprecedented Texas outages, which dominated national headlines and network newscasts, ERCOT has been the brunt of criticism from consumers, energy analysts and political leaders from both parties.

Among the questions fired at Magness and his staff: Why weren't the generating plants – coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables – winterized like they are in other states? Why was more warning not given to Texans that extreme outages were on the way so they might make last-ditch efforts to prepare themselves and their homes? And why does Texas insist on being the only state with a self-contained grid that cannot be helped by other generation sources in extreme emergencies?

Magness and Woodfin, who took reporters' questions for an hour Thursday morning, did their best to steer the conversation toward efforts underway and already completed to restore service to increasingly impatient Texans who have been unable to cook meals and warm their families as many of them were forced to deal with water pipes that burst from the freeze and damaged their homes

Asked to grade its response to the crisis, Magness responded: "It's a little early."

"Let us get through the event, get customers' (power) back on, and then we can take a look at the details of our performance," he said.

All of the questions surrounding ERCOT's actions, and those of power companies and fuel suppliers, will likely be addressed in detail Feb. 25 when the committees from the state House and Senate conduct hearings on the outages.

“We need answers, we need solutions, and we need accountability,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi said.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden announced Thursday federal help was on the way to Texas and other states battered by the winter storm.

"Jill and I are keeping Texas, Oklahoma, and other impacted states in our prayers," the president said in a tweet. "I’ve declared states of emergency, authorized FEMA to provide generators and supplies, and am ready to fulfill additional requests. Please heed the instructions of local officials and stay safe."

The number of Texans still without power fell to about 500,000, still a staggering number but well below the reported 4 million left without access to electricity in the days immediately after the storm struck.

Another challenge facing the state is compromised drinking water systems, a casualty of the harsh weather and the extended outages. An estimated 7 million of Texas' nearly 30 million people were instructed to boil tap water before drinking it.

ERCOT said in a news release that customers that remain without power likely fall into one of these three categories:

  • Areas out due to ice storm damage on the distribution system
  • Areas that were taken out of service due to the energy emergency load shed that need to be restored manually (i.e., sending a crew to the location to reenergize the line)
  • Industrial facilities that voluntarily went offline to help during this energy emergency

Power companies are assessing how many customers remain without electricity Thursday morning, ERCOT said.

More:Icicles hanging from a ceiling fan, a frosted cactus: Texas is frozen in surreal photos

"It is possible that some level of rotating outages may be needed over the next couple of days to keep the grid stable," the news release said.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.