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Gilbert Garcia: How Texans got left out in the cold by ERCOT and our political leaders

Gilbert Garcia: How Texans got left out in the cold by ERCOT and our political leaders

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APTOPIX Winter Weather Texas (copy)

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon stands on his kitchen counter to warm his feet over his gas stove Tuesday in Austin.

I had been living in Memphis for three months when the big storm hit.

On a Thursday night in February 1994, the mid-South was bombarded with the most severe ice storm it had experienced in a century. Very quickly, the sheer accumulation of ice started toppling trees and downing transmission lines.

Roughly 80 percent of Memphis and North Mississippi residents lost their power for an extended period.

My apartment complex went without electricity for 10 days, while my landlord haggled with the power company over who was responsible for removing a massive tree that had knocked over a power line in the parking lot of the complex.

The ice storm of ’94 was a miserable, maddening ordeal, but it also felt like a true natural disaster: a calamity brought on by a freak weather occurrence, not the negligence of public officials. You were frustrated by the situation, but you weren’t necessarily angry with the actions of politicians.

That’s not the case with the winter storm that has rocked the state of Texas this week.

Undoubtedly, we’ve experienced weather conditions that are way outside the norm for this state. In San Antonio, temperatures have intermittently dipped to single digits, and our neighborhoods were blanketed with 4 to 5 inches of snow.

At the same time, these conditions are not so extreme that they should have been outside the realm of consideration or public planning. But this storm left 4 million Texans without power.

This power outage was not the unforeseen product of downed transmission lines. It was the conscious implementation of a statewide “rolling blackout” directive from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the agency responsible for the electric grid that covers 90 percent of the state’s power usage.

Grid failure, not storm damage, did this to us.

It meant elderly people freezing in the dark while their food supplies spoiled. It meant families waiting for a few minutes of power that would enable them to prepare dinner before being thrown into the darkness again. For at least one San Antonio woman, it meant going without the dialysis treatments that she regularly receives at home.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this debacle.

CPS Energy did a poor job of communicating with the residents of this city, many of whom struggled to find anyone with the utility who could offer them reliable information.

Also, the blackouts in San Antonio did not roll in any coherent fashion or spread out the suffering. They seemed to concentrate on particular pockets of the city, meaning that some of us went through 36 straight hours without electricity, while others never lost power.

Also, at a time when residents were advised to use their electricity sparingly to relieve stress on the grid, city officials allowed the Alamodome, the Convention Center and the Tower of the Americas to be lit up on Monday night, until enough San Antonians made a stink about it.

Ultimately, however, this failure belongs to ERCOT and the short-sighted politicians who deregulated the state’s electric system two decades ago.

ERCOT is an agency with zero accountability, negligible oversight (from the Public Utility Commission) and five board members (including the chair and vice chair) who don’t even live in Texas.

Working on scarcity

ERCOT defenders (if any of them exist outside the agency’s offices) would say that this week’s power outages were simply the result of a weather-induced mix of generation reduction and demand increase.

The reality is that ERCOT’s adherence to an energy-only market, rather than a capacity market, helped put us in this position.

In capacity markets, agencies commit years in advance to pay energy providers for certain levels of power generation. With an energy-only market, you pay as you go, day-by-day, based on what you need at the moment.

In the Texas system, providers have no incentive to commit to enhancing infrastructure or building new power plants, because they have no guaranteed long-term revenue to count on.

This state’s energy-only model works on scarcity, pumping up prices for power generators at moments when more supply is desperately needed. When you incentivize scarcity, you get scarcity.

“I think the Texas model, in the long run, is very vulnerable,” said Gordon van Welie, the CEO of ISO New England, a regional transmission organization, in 2017.

It’s telling that the only other major wholesale electricity entity that uses the energy-only market system is the Southwest Power Pool, which covers 14 states from Oklahoma to North Dakota. The Southwest Power Pool, like ERCOT, instituted rolling blackouts this week.

In a state where our political leaders put a premium on short-term gratification and try to do everything — from public education to public health to transportation — on the cheap, we got left out in the cold.

Gilbert Garcia is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. He can be reached at ggarcia@express-news.net or on Twitter at @gilgamesh470.

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