Abbott promises answers on winter weather disaster

Patrick Svitek
The Texas Tribune
Gov. Greg Abbott's remarks came on the eve of committee meetings in the state House and Senate that will begin to probe the winter weather emergency.

Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking Wednesday evening in a rare statewide televised address, sought to reassure Texans that the state was moving aggressively to get to the bottom of the power grid failure that left millions of them in the cold and dark last week.

"Tragic does not even begin to describe" the suffering Texans endured, Abbott said from the State Emergency Operations Center in Austin. "Many of you are angry — and you have a right to be. I'm angry too. At a time when essential services were needed the most, the system broke. You deserve answers. You will get those answers."

Abbott did not make any new announcements about the state's response to the crisis. He continued to blame the state's electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, for offering false assurances that it was ready for the storm, and he reiterated he has designated ERCOT reform and the "winterization" of the power system as emergency items for the current legislative session.

"I assure you this: This legislative session will not end until we fix these problems," Abbott said.

Earlier Wednesday, ERCOT held its first meeting since the storm and finalized the resignations of six board members. Abbott, who called for ERCOT's leadership to resign last week, said "more must be done" to overhaul the nonprofit organization that manages the state's power grid.

Millions lost electricity last week after nearly half of the power typically available to Texas’ grid went offline. The most significant source of power loss during the crisis came from natural gas power plants that could not generate power — whether from fuel supply shortages or freezing components at the plants.

ERCOT does not control how much power goes into the system, but it must keep the supply balanced with what is being drawn from the grid — otherwise, Texas could have risked uncontrolled blackouts that may have lasted weeks, if not months, officials said.

Because the amount of generation lost was so great, transmission companies — including CenterPoint Energy, which transmits power to much of the Houston region, and Oncor Electric Delivery, which transmits power to much of the Dallas and Austin regions — were unable to effectively rotate the controlled outages from customer to customer while maintaining service to critical infrastructure, such as hospitals. Some people were left without power for days, and the outages disrupted water supply for nearly half the state.

"The fact is, power generation from all sources buckled under the harsh, freezing winter weather. That includes natural gas, coal, nuclear, as well as wind and solar," said Abbott, who came under fire for initial comments on the emergency that more narrowly blamed renewable energy for the blackouts.

Abbott first proposed the winterization of the power grid last week, but he has not clarified how he hopes to do so.

Energy experts said that in some cases, retrofitting plants to withstand cold could be extremely difficult and expensive in Texas. Many of those plants already skimped on such upgrades due to the infrequency of prolonged and widespread subfreezing temperatures in the state, despite a 2011 winter storm that also caused power outages. Abbott said the state should fund the winterization, but it is unclear how much that would cost.

His remarks Wednesday came on the eve of committee meetings in the state House and Senate that will begin to probe the winter weather emergency. And on Friday, President Joe Biden is set to visit Houston to get an update on the state's recovery from the crisis.

Democrats have accused state Republican leaders of neglecting the power grid for years. In a statement after Abbott's speech, the head of the state Democratic Party, Gilberto Hinojosa, said Abbott should follow the lead of the ERCOT board members and resign as well, citing Abbott's "lack of foresight and inability to manage this crisis."