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ERCOT asked feds to pause federal environmental limits during winter storm

As last week’s historic winter storm was rolling across Texas, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, was asking the federal government to temporarily suspend environmental limits for several power producers.

The request, signed by ERCOT CEO Bill Magness, asked for the U.S. Department of Energy to issue an emergency order and declare an “electric reliability emergency exists within the state of Texas that requires intervention by the Secretary.”

The request was sent on Feb. 14 and asks the Acting Secretary of Energy, David Huizenga, to allow certain power plants to operate at maximum levels and be allowed to exceed federal limits on emissions and wastewater release until Feb. 19.

“This duration will ensure additional supply is available during a period in which ERCOT may continue to experience unprecedented cold weather that has forced generation out of service,” the emergency request read. “In ERCOT’s judgment, the loss of power to homes and local businesses in the areas affected by curtailments presents a far greater risk to public health and safety than the temporary exceedances of those permit limits.”

The request to the DOE notes the storm is “expected to result in record winter electricity demand that will exceed even ERCOT’s most extreme seasonal load forecast,” and “this period will go down in Texas weather history as one of the most extreme events to ever impact the state.”

The DOE granted ERCOT’s request at 7:41 p.m. CST on Feb. 14. ERCOT officials could not tell KPRC 2 at what time the request to DOE was made, but did provide us with a notice to “All ERCOT Market Participants,” notifying them of the DOE request at 5:58 p.m. CST.

You can read the full notice here.

The wording of the request strikes a very different tone than public statements ERCOT officials made three days prior.

“At this time, we believe that we have the tools in place to maintain a reliable system,” ERCOT spokesperson Leslie Sopko told KPRC 2 on Feb. 11.

While ERCOT did issue news on Feb. 14 asking the public to conserve energy, several elected officials have criticized the organization for not sounding more of an alarm.

“If someone had told us, ‘we’re in big trouble,’ we would have made completely different decisions,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. “We would have opened up warming centers, we would have given people a place to go.”

Henry said he had no idea ERCOT had this level of concern on Feb. 14. Even after the storm, Magness said he believes ERCOT had an accurate forecast and had accurately predicted customer demand. ERCOT senior director of system operations, Dan Woodfin, said last week what was not expected was the loss of 185 power plants at the height of the storm.

“You knew it was bad, why didn’t you communicate that to us?” Henry asked. “Why did you stick with the rolling blackout narrative?”

Henry said the county did not receive a call from ERCOT officials but did finally receive some information from energy providers, like CenterPoint and Entergy.

“No one ever called us, we had to call them and ask ‘when does the rolling start? We’ve got people that have been in the dark in 16-degree weather for 24 hours now,” Henry said.

Rice University associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Daniel Cohan, Ph.D. understands why ERCOT made the request and why DOE granted the request.

“I’m an environmental engineer, I don’t ever want to see plants emitting more pollution than they should but everyone realized we were heading into a dangerous situation,” Cohan said.

Cohan said he disagrees that ERCOT officials adequately predicted customer demand during this storm.

“They had planned for a storm as strong as the 2011 freeze and we had a stronger one,” Cohan said. “Their initial plan, at least the one they issued in November under predicted demand by 5-10 percent.”

ERCOT officials have said they used the 2011 winter storm as a benchmark for preparation and projections. As KPRC 2 has reported, a more than 300-page report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation noted winterization procedures at power producers were “either inadequate or were not adequately followed.” However, winterization plans submitted by power plants to the Public Utilities Commission are voluntary at this point. ERCOT officials said they spot check 100 out of 600 plants each year to see if winterization plans are being followed, but admit they have no authority to force plant owners to enact any specific type of plan.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, NERC, which has regulatory authority over power plants, is set to adopt mandatory winterization rules in November 2021.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick was blunt in his assessment of ERCOT’s preparedness for this storm.

“I believe that ERCOT was not prepared, they told us they were ready, they obviously were not,” Patrick said.

On Thursday, Texas Senate and House hearings will convene to investigate the cause of these failures and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, launched an inquiry into Texas power grid problems as well.