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Texas energy board members resign over state’s bungled snowstorm response

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT, has been under intense criticism in part because several of the members lived out of state

Texas energy leadership resigned on Feb. 23, one week after Texas's grid system failed and left millions of Texans without power during a deadly cold snap. (Video: Reuters)

Five members of the organization that directs and manages the distribution of electricity in Texas have resigned in the wake of persistent blackouts caused by storms that blanketed the state with snow and ice last week.

The resignations from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) include Chairwoman Sally Talberg, Vice Chair Peter Cramton and board members Terry Bulger and Raymond Hepper, according to a legal filing published Tuesday afternoon.

The 16-member board has been under criticism for days in part because several of the members live out of state and therefore aren’t personally affected by the power outages.

“We have noted recent concerns about out-of-state board leadership at ERCOT,” wrote Talberg, Cramton, Bulger and Hepper in a resignation letter released by the Public Utility Commission of Texas. The resignations of the four “unaffiliated” board members were accompanied by the withdrawal of an application by Craig Ivey to fill a vacancy for another unaffiliated director’s position.

The board members said their resignations will take effect after a Wednesday board teleconference meeting in order to “allow state leaders a free hand with future direction and to eliminate distractions.”

Texas, the go-it-alone state, is rattled by the failure to keep the lights on

However, others familiar with the practice of appointing some out-of-state board members said it helps ensure a diversity of opinion on the board.

“Any good chairman of a corporate board will find outsiders, will seek outsiders to join their boards that don’t see things in quite the same way as people within the company. There’s been a conscious effort over the decades to bring outsiders onto the board,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a former director of the nonprofit group Public Citizen Texas.

The electrical grid in Texas is unique in that it is almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the country. Texas politicians have long taken pride in the state’s cheap, sparsely regulated power grid. Former governor Rick Perry, who later became U.S. energy secretary, was quoted in the wake of the storm remarking, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”

In place of federal oversight, Texas’s energy grid is governed by ERCOT.

But as the grid went black at the height of the snowstorm last week, a maximum-demand mark set by ERCOT was quickly surpassed as residents started using more power. Gas pipelines and pumps froze, knocking power plants offline.

The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather

Investigations of the specific causes of the power failures are ongoing and have not yet produced a conclusion. But many, including Gov. Greg Abbott (R), have said ERCOT failed to prepare.

Abbott said the council members failed to prepare for a winter storm that shouldn’t have spiraled into an energy emergency. In a statement, he called the lack of preparedness “unacceptable” and promised to get to the bottom of it.

“When Texans were in desperate need of electricity, ERCOT failed to do its job and Texans were left shivering in their homes without power,” Abbott said. “ERCOT leadership made assurances that Texas’ power infrastructure was prepared for the winter storm, but those assurances proved to be devastatingly false.”

Still others said Abbott, too, bears some responsibility for the power outages. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) criticized Abbott and Perry, saying they ignored warnings that the state’s electrical infrastructure required certain upgrades to cope with harsh weather.

“ ‘Be prepared’ is definitely not their motto,” Doggett said of the state’s Republican leadership.

ERCOT had previously been chided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to hold enough energy in reserve leading up to a similar storm in 2011. Texas’s isolation from the federal grid meant it couldn’t borrow from other states to compensate for the shortfall. And there is also the question of whether more resources should have been invested in winterizing the state’s physical power infrastructure.

In the board’s defense, ERCOT President Bill Magness said the council did act quickly to avert a larger catastrophe that would have resulted in months-long power outages.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” Magness told the Texas Tribune. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

With investigations ongoing, it’s unclear at this point whether the outages were caused specifically by some decision on the part of the board. The board does not engage in the day-to-day operations of ERCOT but has tremendous responsibility over its broader administration. The board selects the organization’s president, oversees its operations and holds approval power over its budget.

In their resignation letter, the board members said it’s not too late for Texas to “lead the nation” in infrastructure investment and emergency preparedness.

“With the right follow through, Texas can lead the nation in investing in infrastructure and emergency preparedness to withstand the effects of severe weather events — whether in the form of flooding, drought, extreme temperatures, or hurricanes. We want what is best for ERCOT and Texas,” the four board members wrote.