Five officials will step down from the board of directors that oversee Texas’s electricity grid after it has been pushed to the brink of collapse by the recent winter storm. Some of the coldest temperatures the state has seen in generations leave millions of people without electricity.
The Texas Electric Reliability Council, which regulates the flow of electricity for more than 26 million people in the state, was blamed for the widespread outages, prompting the governor, lawmakers, and federal officials to investigate system failures in particular in preparation for cold Weather.
The five board members who plan to resign at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning were all from outside Texas, a point of contention for critics who questioned the wisdom of outsiders who play such an influential role in the state’s infrastructure.
In a statement filed Tuesday with the Public Utility Commission, four board members said they would resign “to give leaders a free hand in future directions and to remove distractions.” In a footnote, the filing added that a fifth member also resigned.
The departing are Sally Talberg, the chairperson and former state utility who lives in Michigan. Peter Cramton, vice chairman and professor of economics at the University of Cologne and the University of Maryland; Terry Bulger, a retired bank clerk who lives in Illinois; Raymond Hepper, a former officer with the agency that oversees the New England power grid; and Vanessa Anesetti-Parra, who oversees regulatory affairs for a company headquartered in Canada. Another person who should fill a vacant seat, Craig S. Ivey, has retired from the 16-member board.
The board became a target of blame and control after last week’s winter storm precariously brought the state’s power grid close to a total blackout that could have taken months to recover. To prevent this from happening at the last minute, the council known as ERCOT ordered rolling outages that plunged much of the state into darkness and skyrocketed electricity prices. Some customers had bills well over $ 10,000.
The weather crippled the system when power plants were taken out of service and pumps used to produce the natural gas needed for refueling were frozen over.
State officials said ERCOT had given assurances that the energy infrastructure was prepared for winter conditions.
“But those assurances turned out to be devastatingly false,” said Governor Greg Abbott in a statement, adding, “When the Texans needed power urgently, ERCOT didn’t do its job and the Texans shivered in their homes with no power.”
When the state was struck by the crisis, the realization that some board members lived outside the state became a source of outrage, so ERCOT initially removed information about them from its website. Officials said the members had been harassed and threatened.
A state lawmaker said it is considering proposing laws that would prevent non-Texas residents from serving on the board.
“If you don’t live here, if you don’t see what we are experiencing, and you are still tasked with making decisions on our behalf, it is unacceptable,” said Jeff Leach, a state official whose district includes part of the suburbs from Dallas said in a recent interview.
The resignations come as lawmakers prepare to hold hearings on the blackouts on Thursday. The Harris County attorney, whose jurisdiction includes Houston, said Tuesday that he was opening a civil investigation into decisions made by ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission, among others, and the Travis County district attorney, which also includes Austin said he had opened a criminal investigation.
In a statement, ERCOT said: “We look forward to working with Texan legislation and thank the outgoing board members for their services.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said late Monday that its enforcement department would be reviewing natural gas and electricity wholesale activities in Texas, presumably to determine if there was any illegal anti-competitive or price manipulation.
The grid outages caused wholesale electricity prices to rise from $ 1,200 per megawatt hour to about $ 9,000.
Energy analysts said the outage affected not only oversight from ERCOT, but also power utilities across the state who hadn’t prepared their systems for harsh weather conditions.
“Heads had to roll, but I don’t think that’s going to change,” said Michael E. Webber, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s easy to blame the non-government board members of the network operator, rather than the government gas producers and power plant owners.”
These operators failed to spend the money on weathering their instruments, pipelines and electrical wiring to withstand cold weather because they were not required to do so by government regulations.
Ivan Penn and Clifford Krauss contributed to the coverage.