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'We have seen nothing like this': ERCOT CEO says agency still can't predict when Texas power outages will end during Q&A

As temperatures climb later in the week, demands on the state's power grid will lessen and help recovery efforts, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness told WFAA.

DALLAS — WFAA conducted a 20-minute interview with Bill Magness on Tuesday morning to discuss the electric crisis Texas is facing as temperatures plunged statewide. Magness is the CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the agency that manages the state's power flow.

He spoke with Jason Whitely from inside the control room in northeast Austin that oversees the Texas electric grid.

Among the highlights of the conversation: the number of megawatts offline on Tuesday has increased substantially since Monday, presenting more potential power problems for the state.

Magness said about 45,000 megawatts of electricity was offline Tuesday morning. ERCOT said that figure was 34,000 megawatts Monday. 

For context, one megawatt of electricity can power about 200 homes a year. ERCOT said the outages are from 70 to 80 power plants in Texas are currently offline. Statewide, there are about 680 power plants in the state.

ERCOT cannot get power from the country’s eastern power grid on Tuesday, Magness said, because it is in the middle of its own storm outages. Mexico can only provide 450 megawatts of electricity and ERCOT is not connected to the country’s western power grid.

Magness said he understands the frustration, confusion and anger from Texans in the dark. He said his wife and eighth grader are at home without electricity themselves.

The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity.

When will the Texas power outages be over?

MAGNESS: The number one job of everybody here at ERCOT is to get people's lights back on. We're seeing demand in the winter nearly like we see at the top of the summer, when we're all using our air conditioners.

We have seen nothing like this honestly in Texas, that has covered the state like the storm has. It increased demand to an extreme, extraordinary height, and then the storm also made it difficult for the supply to be provided. 

The supply side of the equation has been challenged to, whether wind turbines froze or natural gas supplies that got tight or solar farms that really couldn't produce because of the heavy cloud cover and snow.

WHITELY: Thursday it looks like at least the temperature will get above freezing, at least for parts of north Texas. Is there a chance this could be over with Thursday or Friday or are we looking at these outages extending through the weekend?

MAGNESS: We're trying to restore service to folks. We've had some restorations yesterday. Now the challenge has been, we get service restored and then, if the grid gets unstable again because of the issues with the weather and keeping the supply and demand imbalance, we've had to pull those back unfortunately. 

But we're committed to moving through to customer restoration and getting people's lights back on as fast as we can do it securely and making sure that we keep the grid secure and safe, so we don't have a worse problem. 

I know this has been a terrible problem, but we don't want a blackout that could last for a very, very long time where the system has to be rebuilt.

I think we can see those customers getting more and more service during the course of this week, but it just depends on, you know, how the weather turns and how much of the power supply we can make sure is secure.

For more of the conversation with Magness, subscribe and download Y'all-itics wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Google Play | Spotify | Stitcher.

(Story continues below.)

How many generating units are not currently producing electricity in Texas?

MAGNESS: I think in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 are not working out of about 680 statewide. That’s about 45,000 megawatts of generation. 

That is a high number, and it does, as you said, include just about every type of resource from coal and gas to solar and wind. A lot of those have been affected by the storm and are trying to get them restored.

WHITELY: To compare numbers here, we heard from ERCOT on Monday that outage number was 34,000 megawatts. Now, it's at 45,000. Looking at the numbers, the situation looks like it's getting worse.

MAGNESS: Well, that is a number we've got today. I guess I'd have to say I don't think it's getting – we've had some that have come on and have tripped off, some have returned. So, I don't think we're seeing it as a continuation downward. 

But you know, as a snapshot in time, we have had some units that were on that have come off. Some of those may be coming on very soon. Some of those may be wind that got frozen. I don't think it's a situation where we're seeing it continuing to just decline. 

But we certainly do have a lot that are still being dealt with today.

Are the Texas power outages at a stable point yet?

WHITELY: Can you kind of characterize where we are in this? You said you don't think it's declining or getting worse. Are we at a stable point yet in this?

MAGNESS: Well, there's two keys. 

One is we're hopeful that we're going to see at least a little bit of moderation in the weather. While it will still be cold later in the week, we're not going to see these single digits that we've seen this week. So, the moderation in the weather, if that comes through, certainly will lower the demand side, which will help us serve everybody's electricity. 

The second piece to the weather is just getting the [power plant] generators back up. We're working with them literally 24 hours a day. As we're getting those units back on, and as we increase those, we can restore service. 

Yesterday we were able to restore service for probably hundreds of thousands of customers. Some of those we had to bring back into outage when the conditions worsened in the evening. But our goal is to maintain the safety of the grid, to add to the number of customers who are getting their power back on, and we hope we can continue to do that. 

We hope to see some of that today, increasing amounts of that and then, of course, into the week.

Why are some people in Texas without power while their neighbors have it?

WHITELY: Can you offer some context for people why they are without power when their neighbors three doors down do have electricity? 

MAGNESS: Yes, and my wife and my eighth grader are two of those people. Our power has been out at my home in Austin since it started Sunday night, and so that frustration of having to live without power when you're in the coldest time of the year, we absolutely understand the difficulty of that. 

As far as the distribution of the outages, ERCOT tells the transmission providers like Oncor– in order to keep the system in balance and avoid that catastrophic blackout– 'we need you to reduce demand by, say, 100 megawatts.' All of those transmission providers sort of divvy that up, based on how big they are. 

They divvy that up and they decide how they're going to manage the shedding of that load. So they have developed plans. They try to avoid certain critical care customers, critical needs customers that they don't want to put into a rotating outage, but that's their plan and their knowledge of their local areas that dictates how those plans work. 

ERCOT doesn’t really have any authority or anything to say about exactly how those work.

Could Texas experience uncontrolled power outages?

WHITELY: How close were we– or are we– to uncontrolled outages?

MAGNESS: Well, right now, because we're really using the tool that we have of these [controlled] outages, we've been able to maintain a margin that’s safe. 

Sunday evening, when we started to see the weather pushing really hard and we started to see some of our generation difficulties, we got into that zone. 

We don't ask people to have their power turned off unless we're concerned that we're getting into that zone where it would be dangerous. That's the only time that we ask people to make that sacrifice.

Why weren't Texas power plants winterized and physically ready for this storm? How can this be prevented in the future?

WHITELY: Winterization of power plants is the one thing that energy experts and elected officials say did not happen correctly. These power plants just physically were not ready. They thought they were ready for the severe winter storm. What in the world should be done to prevent this from ever happening again? Is this something that legislature needs to step in on?

MAGNESS: Well, we saw real improvements in the winterization of Texas power plants in the last several years. The last time we had rotating outages was back in 2011. We've seen a lot of progress.

RELATED: Texas power outages: How the largest energy-producing state in the US failed in freezing temperatures

In 2018 we had some very cold winter times, but we saw the generation fleets performed very well through that. I think we really made some progress getting ready for these winter times. And this storm has been extraordinary. 

We are seeing a whole lot of units coming off for reasons that have to do with the weather, so certainly winterization is something that constantly needs to be looked at. It's something we talked to the generators, and the other participants in our market, about every year to make sure best practices are getting out there. 

But you know, after an event like this certainly that's one of those things that people are going to want to have conversations about to ensure that we don't see this sort of problem if we have another historic storm like this one.

WHITELY: We covered what happened in 2011. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report after that said winterization really was the key there. It was the same the same situation with the 1989 outages. But it looks like that that is likely another major factor here in 2021. 

It seems like now we've got to do something at some point, whether that's mandated by the legislature or these companies, because having them do it on their own is not cutting it.

MAGNESS: Anything that provides the right incentives and gets those [best winterization] practices out there that ensures power can flow safely and reliably all the time is something we encourage.

We work with our marketing teams all the time to look at that, whether it's preparing for summer, preparing for winter, preparing for extreme conditions. So absolutely, this is what we're in the business of doing, and when we are unable to get power to people in a situation like this, we want to find ways to get back in a situation where people are at full power in Texas.

Who's to blame for the Texas power outages?

WHITELY: I know you're in the middle of this, but who's at fault here? Who do you blame?

MAGNESS: You want people to be prepared for contingencies, but this storm system and the extent of the low temperatures, snow, and freezing rain combination has been historic. 

The amount of demand that it's put on the electric system far exceeds any extreme forecast we've had in the past. We need to recalibrate based on what we've seen with the storm system.

WHITELY: But if we are sitting here with 45,000 megawatts out right now during our conversation, it would seem to me from the outside that the power generators, these power plants, are to blame for this. For as hard as they worked and for as many preparations as they made, it appears they did not do enough.

MAGNESS: Well, all of these power plants have every single incentive in our market to get ready, to manage. We see them undertaking those practices. 

For example, in the summer of 2019, we had very hot weather, very tight conditions. That generation fleet came through and has come through. I think there are people out there working and trying to fix the problems that we have. But they were facing a lot of catastrophic conditions during this time, like a lot of other people in Texas have.

Can Texas get any electricity from other power grids?

WHITELY: How much electricity are we getting from Mexico? And are we able to get any electricity from the east and west power grids in the country?

MAGNESS: On a good day, a total of about 450 megawatts is available possibly from Mexico. 

During the storm system we have received imports from Mexico, but then it has been pulled because the weather system, you know, went down past Brownsville into Mexico. 

Currently, for the eastern U.S. power grid, we’re not able to use it because they are in rotating outages this morning. They're affected by the same dynamics.

Should Texas expand to join a regional power grid organization?

WHITELY: Much has been made over the past two or three days about Texas’ independence with its own electric grid. 

After what happened in 2011 and what’s currently going on, is it time for Texas, to look at joining a regional transmission organization to hook up with the East or West interconnect, the power grids on either side of the country?

MAGNESS: Well, I think there are significant advantages to what Texas has. 

One of those is that we have never had an [uncontrolled] blackout. The [uncontrolled] northeast blackout in 2003 took out power for people, millions of people from Canada to Ohio to New York. Some of the largest cities in the U.S. were out of power for a significant amount of time because it was one of those more catastrophic events. 

So, those connections to other areas, you know, can have a downside in that you can help each other, or you can cause each other problems. I think there have been a lot of benefits to Texans of having our own power grid and being able to manage our energy system… [and] a whole lot of benefits in the cost of power day-to-day.

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