Man Who Oversaw Texas Blackouts Shown the Door

Man Who Oversaw Texas Blackouts Shown the Door
Photo: Eric Gay, Getty Images
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A Texas power grid oversight official who held the spectacularly wishful belief that he could keep his job after the state’s grid sputtered last month, leading to dozens of deaths and utility bills Texans will be paying for decades, has been fired. On Wednesday night, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) CEO Bill Magness finally got the boot in a vote by the board of the nonprofit overseer of Texas’s independent state power grid.

Rather than exit gracefully along with several board members who live outside state lines in recent weeks, Magness had defended grid operators’ decision to selectively cut power for millions of people as a necessary measure to save the entire state from a potentially months-long “catastrophic blackout.” Avoiding that scenario is great, but most people are still wondering how the system got to this scenario, the point of near-full meltdown — kinda his job to know these things! — as the state tallies up tens of billions of dollars in total economic losses. Anyway, screw that guy.

The blackout that left homes and businesses exposed to deadly frigid temperatures also caused grocery stores to close and left people without water in homes and hospitals. Oil refineries released at least tens of thousands of pounds of excess toxic pollutants — a massive uptick — while flaring excess gas in order to protect processing units while power was out. Still more pollution poured into Texas skies from shutting off and restarting plants and refineries.

Even the people who still had power were slapped with insane bills on par with used car prices. One woman who was charged $US9,500 ($12,180) for one week of electricity has filed a $US1 ($1.3) billion-plus class-action lawsuit against the power company Griddy. Estimates of the damage left behind the cold snap and power outage are still being calculated, but could easily total in the tens of billions of dollars when all is said and done.

The U.S. House Oversight Committee has opened an investigation into ERCOT, which underestimated demand. Magness, in a press conference, waved away responsibility by stating “we’re not an enforcement entity” and “we’re not in the retail energy business” and “we don’t have a role in determining where the rotating outages are implemented.” But they had, in warnings to the public, “talked about the need for conservation,” he said. Again, “R” stands for “reliability” in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Texas was hampered by the fact that, unlike any other state in the Lower 48, its power grid is independent, making it harder for other states to send extra power. As ProPublica and the Texas Tribune reported, Texas’s deregulated market lacking federal oversight motivates a few large competing bidders to generate power only when costs are raised by limited supply.

And researchers suspect that the lack of regulation holding utilities companies responsible for the social repercussions of power outages, they’re not incentivised to invest in safeguards like winterizing facilities and infrastructure. Many have pointed out that ERCOT and lawmakers were aware of the power grid’s vulnerability after a 2011 snowstorm and heat waves but didn’t make a decent effort to prepare. NBC-5 Dallas-Fort Worth reported that ERCOT did not even inspect power plants this year to ensure that they were ready for cold weather. Once again, ERCOT’s “R” is for “reliability.”

On Wednesday, referring to Magness and former Public Utility Commission Chair DeAnn Walker, Texas Lt Gov. Dan Patrick made sure to let everyone know who the real culprits are, and GOP lawmakers will take it from here. “Good news – now they are both gone,” he tweeted. “Next — one of my top 31 priorities — reforming ERCOT and fixing what went wrong. #txlege”

What do Patrick and others plan to do? So far, he and other Republican lawmakers have lied about this disaster, laughably blaming the blackouts on the Green New Deal and pushed the discredited idea that frozen wind turbines were the problem. Turbines did freeze, but it’s generally agreed that natural gas plants were the main culprit for the blackouts, though all forms of electricity generation dealt with power.

Of course, Texas Republicans have been captured by the oil and gas industry thanks to millions in donations to keep them in power. Patrick and Republican leaders have also steadfastly refused to even study the impacts of climate change on the state, which would seem to be a prerequisite to “fixing what went wrong” even with Magness out of the way.