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Federal Regulators Blame Texas Energy Policies For Severity Of February Blackouts

A pedestrian carries a bucket filled with firewood in South Austin during February's winter storm and blackouts.
A pedestrian carries a bucket filled with firewood in South Austin during February's winter storm and blackouts.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday released the preliminary findings of an investigation into February's deadly winter storm and blackouts. Texas was, by far, the state hit hardest by the crisis, a fact FERC commissioners squarely blamed on the state’s energy policies.

The investigation, a joint inquiry by FERC and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, had two major goals. One, to explain what happened to cause widespread power outages. Two, to recommend policies to stop it from happening again.

Those policy recommendations include proposals to better winterize power plants to withstand cold weather, and improve planning and communication between electric generators and grid operators.

FERC recommended similar reforms after a winter storm caused blackouts 10 years ago. But those proposals weren’t enforced in Texas, where this year’s storm left millions in the dark for days.

“Today’s report again recommends that generation facilities be required to winterize with a number of specific recommendations,” FERC Chairman Richard Glick said during a commission meeting Thursday where the report was released. “I guarantee you that this time FERC will not permit these recommendations to be ignored or watered down.”

Glick also said Texas should link its electric grid up with the other U.S. grids to avoid more blackouts. Historically, Texas has operated its own independent grid to avoid federal regulation.

"From my perspective, that is very shortsighted and amounts to nothing more than cutting off your nose to spite your face," Glick said.

The report also suggests strengthening the reliability of natural gas infrastructure and improving grid forecasting and planning.

While not directly addressed in the report, FERC Commissioner Mark Christie also blamed Texas’ energy-only deregulated electricity market for grid failures.

“The biggest single problem is that in an energy-only market, no one has an obligation to serve [electricity],” he said.

Analysts have said that FERC may be able to require stronger power plant winterization in Texas by ordering those standards to be adopted by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit group that enforces power generation industry standards.

But many of the proposals included in the inquiry may still amount to mere suggestions because of FERC’s limited authority in Texas.

“FERC has no jurisdiction,” University of Houston energy economist Ed Hirs says.

But that could change, Hirs said, if federal lawmakers wanted it to.

“Having our [Texas] grid as fragile as it is is a national security issue for the nation,” Hirs said. “At some point, the federal government would be right to essentially take over the management of the grid.”

Meanwhile, state regulators are in the middle of their own process of overhauling the grid to try to improve reliability.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele

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Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.