ERCOT: It Was Never About ‘Reliability’ (or Wind Turbines)

Attempts at blaming these outages on emerging “green technologies” like wind turbines are crass and transparent efforts at deflection.

By Anatole d’Ecotopia

In the perfect storm of the first ‘Winter Storm Warning’ issued in the history of the state of Texas, few things are as damning as the flaccid incompetence of the state agency bearing the misleading name “Electrical Reliability Council of Texas”, AKA ERCOT. But few things as well were any less predictable — which is rather sad, given that predicting and managing the needs of the Texas electrical utility market is the entire ostensible rationale for ERCOT’s existence.

It is also the one thing the agency is fundamentally incapable of doing.

ERCOT was formed in 1970 to supersede an earlier utility consortium (the Texas Interconnected System, formed in the early years of WWII) and better comply with the National Electrical Reliability Council. The purpose of these councils was to ensure and improve upon the reliability of electrical utilities in the aftermath of the great Northeastern Blackout of 1965, which left over 30 million people across parts of Canada and the United States without power for up to thirteen hours. Numerous such “reliability councils” were created across North America.

Unfortunately, for both ERCOT and other such councils, “reliability” soon became merely one among many concerns. In 1999, the Texas Legislature re-structured ERCOT and defined its responsibilities as follow:

  • System reliability
  • Open access to transmission
  • Retail processes to ensure customer choice
  • Wholesale market settlement for electrical production and delivery

Texas being what it is, it should come as no surprise that “system reliability” rapidly de-escalated in priority and that market settlements between providers rapidly became the organization’s primary focus.

This “market first” approach was a prime driver in deregulation of the Texas electricity market and the oversight disconnect from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It is an approach that has well-served the operators and investors of Texas public utility companies, not so much the customers of those companies — as amply illustrated in the current widespread service outages affecting over a million consumers in the Greater Houston area alone

Attempts at blaming these outages on emerging “green technologies” like wind turbines are crass and transparent efforts at deflection. The percent of power production derived from such sources is far outweighed by fossil fuel-based sources (most significantly, natural gas) and would, in fact, be both more productive and reliable if the “market first” approach favored in Texas did not result in such facilities (as well as others) being inadequately winterized in order to enhance corporate profits.

The tragedy currently unfolding in Texas is merely part of a larger issue affecting all of North America, as a winter storm of previously unheard-of intensity wreaks havoc across the continent — but how often, in the last ten years, have we heard the refrain of “previously unheard-of” weather events causing wide-spread damage and loss of life? It is past time to admit that we now live in a “new normal” defined by such events.

It is also past time to admit the deficiencies and short-sightedness of deregulation of public utilities crucial to our common welfare. Not only should ERCOT be brought back under U..S. Federal oversight, that oversight over all public utilities in the United States should be made even greater. The greater public good far outweighs the financial benefit of a narrow elite of energy traders and investors. The ERCOT model is fundamentally flawed, dangerous, and endangering lives. It needs to end.

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  • Mithril Dragon

    ERCOT has reliably supplied electricity for the state of Texas for many years. If it really was so bad, I think there would have been problems before now. We have been though an event that could be compared to a statewide hurricane. Things were bound to fail. When a hurricane or tropical storm hits the Texas coast (where I live) we expect the power to fail. It’s almost part of the hurricane checklist.

    I am sure ERCOT has problems. No one and no organization is perfect. But these kind of comments are premature. How many times have we watched the press sensationalize an incident only to learn a few weeks later, after the facts actually come out, they were totally wrong. I will withhold judgement on this until the facts have a chance to come out.

    I am sure there are things that can be done better, and I hope ERCOT will learn from this and make appropriate changes. But to expect high reliability across all conditions is a fantasy.

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