How Texas’ drive for energy independence prepared it for disaster

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But the two agencies are almost inexplicable and harmless compared to regulators in other regions, where many utilities have better consumer protection and submit an annual planning report to ensure adequate electricity supply. Texas energy companies have great latitude in planning for catastrophic events.

An example of how Texas has gone it alone is its refusal to impose a “reserve margin” of additional available power above expected demand, unlike all other power systems in North America. Without a warrant, there is little incentive to invest in precautions for events, like a snowstorm in the south, which are rare. Any company that took such precautions would put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

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An excess supply of natural gas, the main electric fuel in Texas, near power plants could have helped avoid the cascade of blackouts in which electricity went out, forcing the production and transmission of natural gas offline, which resulted in further electricity shortages.

Following the multi-day blackouts, ERCOT has come under fire from Democratic and Republican residents, lawmakers and business leaders, a rare manifestation of unity in a fiercely partisan, Republican-dominated state. Governor Greg Abbott has said he supports calls for the agency’s leadership to resign and has made reform of the ERCOT a priority for the legislature. The math was quick – this week, lawmakers will hold hearings in Austin to investigate the agency’s handling of the storm and power outages.

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For ERCOT operators, the onset of the storm was swift and fierce, but they anticipated it and knew it would strain their system. They asked electricity customers across the state to save money, warning that blackouts were likely.

But late on Sunday February 14, it quickly became clear that the storm was much worse than they expected: sleet and snow fell and temperatures plunged. In the council’s command center outside of Austin, a room dominated by flashing screens with maps, graphs and data to track the flow of electricity to 26 million people in Texas, workers stand are quickly found to avoid a crisis. As the weather deteriorated until Monday morning, residents turned up their heaters and demand increased.

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Power plants began to fall offline in rapid succession as they were engulfed in freezing weather or ran out of fuel to burn. Within hours, 40% of the power supply had been lost.

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