As Texas shivers through fourth day of power outage, finger-pointing begins

Residents were fuming over the state's failure to prepare. PHOTO: AFP

HOUSTON, TEXAS (REUTERS) - Widespread power outages and bone chilling cold that left millions of Texans to shiver in the dark sparked a fury this week among residents and politicians eager to uncover what - and who - was to blame for a massive failure of its energy infrastructure.

As temperatures dropped and record snow fell on areas not accustomed to the cold, power generation tumbled with fuel starved plants shutting even as electricity demand surged. A projected call for 75,000 megawatts on Tuesday (Feb 16) was met with up to 55,500 megawatts, leading to widespread outages.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for the top executives of its grid operator to resign, while other officials prepared to haul regulators and others to a hearing next Thursday to explain what went wrong.

Mr Abbott used the outage to slam calls for greater use of renewable energy across the United States.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, though, placed the blame on Mr Abbott, noting that the governor appoints the Public Utility Commission, which in turn appoints the state's grid operator.

"Governor Abbott is responsible. He's the man at the top," Mr Miller said. He added that several of the grid board members live out of state, "One of them lives in Germany. How can you manage the grid in Texas if you're not even here? C'mon," Mr Miller said. "Somebody's head needs to roll."

Residents were fuming over the state's failure to prepare.

"We shouldn't be having this problem for as long as it's gone on," said Mr Larry Rios, a 48-year-old contractor on Wednesday, his voice rising in anger as he spoke. "We've been three days without power. We got pipes breaking."

Mr Rios criticised the state's power providers for failing to prepare for cold weather, and hit state regulators for failing to push companies to prepare for the unusual cold snap that led to 25 deaths.

The extreme cold has left some residents to choose between staying in dark and cold homes, some with frozen or broken water pipes, or face Covid-19 exposure at local relief centers. Many homes are not insulated for the sub-zero temperatures in metro areas where February lows average 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 deg C).

"Someone's not doing their job. They say this has never happened before. Go up north and see how they do it," Mr Rios said, acknowledging the state will have to pay to winterise its power and energy infrastructure.

"You're not going to have solutions unless you come up with x amount of dollars. Fix it! Get to it!"

The planned outages prevented potentially catastrophic damage that "could take months or longer to rebuild" the power network, said Mr Bill Magness chief executive of Ercot, the state's grid operator. He said officials are working to get power restored across the state.

Mr Abbott and other state officials also used the public outrage to deride efforts to expand the use of solar and wind, which together supply 10 per cent of Texas' electric power, and move away from fossil fuels.

"The situation we find ourselves in Texas right now (is) with having to allow renewable energy priority on our grid," oil and gas regulator Jim Wright said in an interview. That priority deters power producers which burn natural gas from building new plants in the state, he said.

Neither Mr Abbott nor other state officials replied to requests for comment. US natural gas production fell 17 per cent since late last week as wells and the gas-processing plants that strip out liquids from new supplies were shut.

Two-thirds of the electric power that was lost during the cold was due to a lack of natural gas supplies, and one-third came from wind turbine shut-downs, said Professor Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, Rice University professor and carbon capture and storage researcher.

Power plant operators could have negotiated gas-supply contracts with extra reserves to maintain operations during extreme weather, he said, but that would have raised their costs.

"We'll have to seriously consider regulating in the public interest to get out of this mess in the long term," Prof Blackburn said. "We have allowed money and greed to dictate our approach to public power in Texas."

The failure of officials to plan for the cold was fresh in the mind of Mr Eric Ridgeway, a 34-year-old Friendswood, Texas, resident who on Wednesday was loading PVC pipe into his car to repair his home's water supply.

"They only prepare to run in 108-degree heat," said Mr Ridgeway, of the state's power providers.

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