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FERC, NERC to Open Joint Inquiry into 2021 Cold Weather Grid Operations

Feb. 17, 2021
An arctic air mass swept over the Central United States, bringing snow, ice, and extreme cold temperatures from the Canadian border as far south as Texas.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) announced yesterday that they will open a joint inquiry into the operations of the bulk-power system during the extreme winter weather conditions currently being experienced by the Midwest and South central states.

An arctic air mass swept over the Central United States, bringing snow, ice, and extreme cold temperatures from the Canadian border as far south as Texas, causing record winter power demand and impacting power generation, including natural gas and wind facilities. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) implemented controlled power outages across portions of their systems to manage load. The arctic air mass was expected to continue impacting the region through the remainder of the week and additional winter weather was forecast in Texas on Wednesday.

In Texas, most electric companies are transmission and distribution companies and do not generate power, so the shortage of power generation capacity is not something companies can directly address, according to Edison Electric Institute. They must follow directives from ERCOT and other grid operators. Emergency outages like these are a last resort to prevent more extensive system outages, EEI said..

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on Monday that almost 10,000 MW of generation had been lost due to sub-freezing conditions. Increased demand from the extreme cold weather, limited gas supplies and frozen equipment at thermal plants were the primary causes of rolling blackouts triggered across the ERCOT region.

In FERC's statement, it said that for now, the emphasis must remain on restoring power to customers and securing the reliability of the bulk-power system. In the days ahead, FERC and NERC will formally begin the inquiry, which will work with other federal agencies, states, regional entities and utilities to identify problems with the performance of the bulk-power system and, where appropriate, solutions for addressing those issues.

FERC Chairman Rich Glick released a statement on Monday stating that FERC was closely closely monitoring the extreme weather conditions occurring in much of the country and the impact they are having on electric reliability.  "The Commission is in contact with ERCOT, SPP and MISO – as the regions served by these grid operators have been particularly hard hit by record cold and wintry precipitation.  Safeguarding the reliability of the bulk power system is paramount and I have directed FERC staff to coordinate closely with the RTOs/ISOs, utilities, NERC, and regional reliability entities to do what we can to help."

Texas Governor Greg Abbott also declared the reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) an emergency item this legislative session. In declaring this item an emergency, the governor  called on the legislature to investigate ERCOT and ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen over the past several days.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” said Governor Abbott. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable. Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions. I thank my partners in the House and Senate for acting quickly on this challenge, and I will work with them to enhance Texas’ electric grid and ensure that our state never experiences power outages like this again.”

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT's senior director of system operations, told reporters that a majority of the generators that went offline during the night before the controlled outages or Monday morning were "thermal" units that were fueled by gas, coal or nuclear. Of the 34,000 megawatts of generation forced off during the winter event, the grid operator said about 20,000 MW was thermal, with about 14,500 MW of wind.

Power cuts seen by customers didn't necessarily rotate as planned because of the quantity of outages needed, according to Woodfin. He said electricity companies prioritized service to hospitals and emergency responders. That meant some customers in the ERCOT region lacked power for much of Monday.

The investigators will have a lot to untangle, with the weather affecting several grid operators with differing generation mixes and procedures. This really has been the "perfect storm."

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