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Joecyah Heath, left, Morning Day, center, and Jenesis Heath rest in recliners at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Houston. (AP) Joecyah Heath, left, Morning Day, center, and Jenesis Heath rest in recliners at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Houston. (AP)

Joecyah Heath, left, Morning Day, center, and Jenesis Heath rest in recliners at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Houston. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 19, 2021

Beto O’Rourke said Texas was warned for years about power grid

If Your Time is short

  • A federal report following a massive power outage in Texas in February 2011 stated that recommendations to winterize the system following a 1989 cold weather event were not mandatory, and implementation lapsed.
  • Sylvester Turner, a Texas state representative at the time, introduced a bill in 2011 which called for the Public Utility Commission to ensure the Electric Reliability Council of Texas had adequate reserve power to prevent blackout conditions. The bill failed to move forward.

The massive power outage in Texas that left millions with no heat amid frigid temperatures should have come as no surprise, according to former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke.

"Texans are suffering without power because those in power have failed us," said O’Rourke in a Twitter thread, calling out Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

"State leaders don’t get to say that they didn’t see this coming. Energy experts and State House Dems, among others, were warning of this for years. Abbott chose to ignore the facts, the science and the tough decisions and now Texans will once again pay the price," tweeted O’Rourke, a 2019 Democratic presidential candidate.

We found that O’Rourke spoke accurately — there had been years of warnings by energy experts about the state’s power system following cold weather in February 2011, when around 200 generating units faltered, causing power outages for 3.2 million customers, according to a post-mortem of that crisis

Federal report warned about lack of winterization

In August 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp., wrote a 357-page report about the February 2011 outage. 

The report stated that in 1989, after cold weather caused many generators to fail, the Public Utility Commission of Texas issued a number of recommendations aimed at improving winterization of the generators. However, "these recommendations were not mandatory, and over the course of time implementation lapsed. Many of the generators that experienced outages in 1989 failed again in 2011," the report stated.

The report found that in 2011 "the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds." More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented many of the weather-related outages, the report found.

There are a lot of similarities between the deficiencies in the grid cited in the 2011 report and those now, said Dave Tuttle, an Energy Institute research associate at the University of Texas at Austin, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman.

Some legislators filed bills intended to improve the state’s energy infrastructure

Following the 2011 blackout, state legislators held a hearing where senators expressed surprise that Texas had outages when other areas of the country are able to keep power on during cold weather. 

O’Rourke told us in a text message that one of the people who warned about the problems was Sylvester Turner, who was a state representative in 2011 and is now Houston’s mayor. Turner, a Democrat, authored HB 1986, which called for the Public Utility Commission to ensure the Electric Reliability Council of Texas had adequate reserve power to prevent blackout conditions. ERCOT manages about 90% of the state’s electric load.

"Ironically that bill that I filed was not heard in committee," Turner said this week on CNN.

In 2011, the Legislature did pass a bill to require power companies to submit reports to the Public Utility Commission about weatherization efforts. The author of that bill, Republican Glenn Hegar, who is now the state comptroller, questions whether the bill went far enough, according to a recent report in the Houston Chronicle

"I am extremely frustrated that 10 years later our electric grid remains so ill-equipped for these weather events," Hegar said.

The Texas House Democratic caucus cited some other bills that were intended at least in part to improve the state’s energy infrastructure that failed to pass or remain pending. Some bills pertain directly to the Public Utility Commission, which has oversight of ERCOT. One bill included a proposal to elect a member of the commission while another would have required state agencies to create strategic plans to account for expected changes in weather. A separate bill called for creating an agreement between ERCOT and an adjacent Mexican power grid for cross-border dispatch. This session, a legislator filed a bill to study the impacts of climate change.

One of the key experts who has raised concerns for years about ERCOT is Ed Hirs, a lecturer of energy economics at the University of Houston.

Following the 2011 mass outage, "there were lots of reports and recommendations and lots of people waving their hands," but no substantial changes, Hirs told us. 

Hirs sent us articles in which he raised alarms about Texas’ power setup dating back to 2013,   when he wrote that the state had a Soviet-style model that allowed ERCOT to essentially set prices across the state. 

"ERCOT's problem with the model has been made evident in the rolling blackouts across Texas over the past several years," Hirs wrote in a 2013 Houston Chronicle op-ed with co-author Paul MacAvoy, an energy expert and Yale University professor emeritus.

"A recent letter from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation to ERCOT warns that projected near-future generating capacity is insufficient to meet growth in demand and points to the likelihood of significant shortfalls in electricity generation and delivery," they wrote. (Here is the letter.)

Hirs raised similar alarms about ERCOT and blackouts in 2014 in a Texas Monthly article and in a 2019 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle.

"The Texas electricity market is rife with market manipulation and major disincentives for generators to maintain a reliable supply of power," he wrote in 2019. "The latest examples of this have become public in recent days, a state of affairs that costs Texas consumers real money each year."

We asked spokespersons for Abbott if they had any evidence to refute O’Rourke’s statement about the warnings about the power problems for years. Renae Eze replied that O’Rourke was "choosing to play politics" but did not respond directly to our question. Abbott has declared reforming ERCOT a priority for the current legislative session.

Our ruling 

O’Rourke said regarding the Texas power blackout "energy experts and State House Dems, among others, were warning of this for years."

Experts have been warning about the failures of the state’s power grid for years, particularly after a 2011 cold spell. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. wrote an extensive report showing that recommendations following a 1989 outage weren’t implemented. Other experts have also warned for years about ERCOT and power blackouts, and state legislators tried to propose bills to improve the state’s energy infrastructure.

We rate this claim True.

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RELATED: How Fox News, far-right TV blamed green energy for Texas’ power outages

Our Sources

Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, Twitter thread, Feb. 16, 2021

Morning Joe, O'Rourke: Texas paying for decisions state GOP leadership has made, Feb. 18, 2021

Texas Tribune, Texas leaders failed to heed warnings that left the state's power grid vulnerable to winter extremes, experts say, Feb. 17, 2021

Texas Tribune, Gov. Greg Abbott, other top Texas officials call for resignations and investigations at electrical grid operator, Feb. 16, 2021

Austin American-Statesmen, Did Texas energy regulators fail to mandate winter protections? Feb. 17, 2021

Washington Post, The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather, Feb. 16, 2021

Houston Chronicle editorial, Gov. Abbott’s ‘wind turbine’ excuse is full of hot air, while Texans are dying, Feb. 18, 2021

Houston Chronicle, Texas grid fails to weatherize, repeats mistake feds cited 10 years ago, Feb. 17, 2021

New York Times, ‘Now It’s Coming Back to Bite Them’: Democrats See an Opening in G.O.P. Oversight of Texas Grid, Feb. 17, 2021

CNN, Interview with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Feb. 18, 2021

Austin American-Statesman, Testimony: System unprepared for cold, Feb. 16, 2011

Houston Chronicle Op-Ed by Ed Hirs and Paul MacAvoy, Texas suffers from Soviet-style electricity distribution system, Feb. 12, 2013

Texas Monthly, The Generation Gap, Feb. 11, 2014

Houston Chronicle op-ed by Ed Hirs, How to fix Texas' Soviet-style electricity market, Aug. 20, 2019

StateImpact NPR, System Benefit Fund Nears $1 Billion, Is There Hope for Reform? Nov. 29, 2012

Dallas Morning News, House Republicans scrap climate change preparedness proposal, May 15, 2015

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Commission, Report on Outages and Curtailments During the Southwest Cold Weather Event of February 1-5, 2011, August 2011

Texas Tribune, Senators Express Incredulity at Rolling Blackouts Hearing, Feb. 15, 2011

Environment Texas, Testimony to Senate committee, Feb. 15, 20211

Austin American-Statesman, Electricity reserves in danger of shortage, Feb. 10, 2012

House Committee on State Affairs, Interim report to the Texas Legislature, December 2012

AP, Hot temperatures cause spike in power demand, force blackouts in Texas, April 18, 2006

Texas Legislature, HB 1986, 2011

Texas Legislature, HB 1963, 2013

Texas Legislature, HB 2571, 2015

Texas Legislature, HB 1665, 2017

Texas Legislature, HB 1044, 2021

Text message exchange with Beto O’Rourke, Feb. 18, 2021

Text message exchange with David Wysong, spokesperson for Beto O’Rourke, Feb. 18, 2021

Email interview, Renae Eze, Gov. Greg Abbott spokesperson, Feb. 18, 2021

Telephone interview, Phillip Martin, executive director, Texas House Democratic Caucus, Feb. 18, 2021

Email interview, Bay Scoggin, Texas PIRG state director, Feb. 18, 2021

Email interview, Adrian Shelley, Director, Texas Office Public Citizen, Feb. 18, 2021

Email interview, Bill Kelly, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s director of government relations, Feb. 18, 2021

Telephone interview, Ed Hirs, lecturer of energy economics at the University of Houston, Feb. 18, 2021

 

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