At least two lawsuits filed against Texas’ energy committee claim it was aware of shortcomings in the state’s energy supply from previous winter storms

texas storm
Pike Electric service trucks line up after a snow storm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.

At least two lawsuits have been filed alleging that Texas energy committee at the center of its ongoing power crisis knew of the state grid’s shortcomings from past winter outages.

A lawsuit filed in Harris County, which includes Houston, on Thursday is seeking up to $10 million in damages from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for its lack of preparedness leading up to Winter Storm Uri that hit much of the southern US on February 14. 

It was filed by Fort Bend County residents Mauricio and Daysi Marin. Mauricio Marin still relies on oxygen after recovering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and alleges the utility provider did not adequately prepare him for an extended outage, according to a report from Law360.

“ERCOT’s forecast for the maximum electricity that would be consumed far under-estimated the reality,” the lawsuit said. “As a result, millions were plunged into darkness and cold as a result of a loss of electricity.”

Another lawsuit filed in Nueces County on Friday goes a step further, alleging ERCOT was aware of its energy supply’s weaknesses following similar winter outages in 1989 and 2011 and could have done more to winterize its system prior to the February 14 storm that left roughly 4 million Texans without electricity and heat at its peak. Millions of residents are still without water.

“This cold weather event and its effects on the Texas energy grid were neither unprecedented, nor unexpected, nor unforeseen,” the Nueces County suit alleges.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the committee hadn’t yet reviewed the lawsuits, but will respond accordingly once they do.

“Our thoughts are with all Texans who have and are suffering due to this past week,” the spokeswoman told Insider. “However, because approximately 46% of privately-owned generation tripped offline this past Monday morning, we are confident that our grid operators made the right choice to avoid a statewide blackout.”

ERCOT investigated past outages and recommended winterizing at-risk generators and production plants, the Nueces County suit says. In the winter of 2011, however, generators that failed in 1989 failed again, indicating that ERCOT’s previous mitigation efforts “were not adequate, or were not maintained,” according to an investigation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee report in 2011 that is cited in the lawsuit.

“The massive amount of generator failures that were experienced raises the question whether it would have been helpful to increase reserve levels going into the event,” the 2011 FERC report said.

The suit alleges many of the same generators, transmitters, and distributors failed again starting February 14 in what could have been an avoidable catastrophe. The suit does not indicate the amount it is seeking from ERCOT and other energy providers.

Roughly 81,000 customers are still experiencing outages as of Saturday morning, according to a company that tracks outages across the state. Temperatures were forecast to rise on Saturday as well, providing some relief to Texans who had gone days without heat in freezing temperatures. 

When the unusual winter storm struck the state power plants malfunctioned right when demand for electricity shot up as people tried to stay warm. As a result, ERCOT was forced to cut power to millions of households because there wasn’t enough energy to go around.

As of Saturday, at least 37 people had died as a result of the storm and the resulting outages, according to a NBC report Friday. Many died from carbon monoxide poisoning from household generators or in their cars while trying to stay warm, while others died from hypothermia and exposure to brutally cold temperatures. Many areas are still under a boil water notice, meaning drinking water could be contaminated, as much of the state’s grid comes back online.

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Blame the wind? In Texas, fossil fuels have actually played a larger role in leaving millions without power

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Pedestrians walk on along a snow-covered street on February 15, 2021 in Austin, Texas.

  • Freezing cold temperatures have caused severe power outages in Texas.
  • A majority of lost generation has been from fossil fuels, not wind.
  • But the main factor is not the source of electricity, but the extreme weather.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

It’s a popular claim and a powerful image, attracting the attention of conservatives and headline writers of all political persuasions: frozen wind turbines are to blame for Texans losing power and icicles forming their homes during this week’s shocking cold spell.

There are a number of reasons why, as of Tuesday evening, more than 3 million Texas were without power. The simplest explanation is that the extreme cold has spurred an unprecedented demand for heat, outstripping the state’s ability to provide.

According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages 75% of the state’s deregulated electricity market, the previous record for demand, set in 2018, was smashed on Valentine’s Day. And as the weather has gotten worse, the capacity to generate electricity has diminished: By Tuesday, per ERCOT’s CEO, 45,000 megawatts of generating capacity was offline – up from 34,000 megawatts offline the day before, representing more than half of what the state typically uses in a day.

Most of the generation lost has been from coal and gas, according to ERCOT, with only 13% attributable to wind. “By some estimates,” The Texas Tribune reported Tuesday, “nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt.”

“Gathering lines freeze, and the wells get so cold that they can’t produce,” Parker Fawcett, a natural gas analyst at S&P Global Platts, told the Tribune. “And, pumps use electricity, so they’re not even able to lift that gas and liquid, because there’s no power to produce.”

Texas is unique: It does, by far, generate the most electricity from wind of any state – three times as much as liberal California. It is also energy-independent, its electricity grid almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the country, a move that insulates it from federal regulation and has also left it hanging now, in this moment of need, with so much of its own power generation frozen and offline.

Despite its greater than typical reliance on wind, Texas’ chief source of electricity is not renewable. Indeed, a majority, 52%, comes from natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration, while less than a quarter comes from renewables like wind and solar.

And fossil fuels have been affected by the weather too.

As of Tuesday morning, distributor Texas Gas Service warned consumers, “our suppliers of natural gas are experiencing freezing gas wells due to the duration of the extreme cold.”

It is also simply the case that, whatever the fault of regulators and local politicians, Texas is a victim of a cold spell like it hasn’t seen in decades.

A 2016 risk assessment from the US Department of Energy, detailing electricity outages between 1992 and 2009, says 18 were caused by thunderstorms and eight by heatwaves. It doesn’t list freezing temperatures.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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