Texas House, Senate hold hearings about last week’s winter storm

The hearings that took place under the Texas Capitol dome Thursday were held in separate locations, but state Senate and House members had similar questions for those who came to testify.

"I'm looking for who is, where does the buck stop," asked state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

House members spent the morning grilled the heads of two of the state’s largest energy providers, Vistra Corp and NRG. "So one lesson we can learn is, care for the human beings but we need to do it before than after," said state Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi).



Committee members were told many things, not one contributed to the power crisis, but one thing stood out. "And we do not have an integrated and seamless gas and power system and if we don’t have a seamless gas and electric system, what happened last week will happen again," said Vistra Corp president Curt Morgan.

Morgan explained that generating and supply lines froze up, in part, because Texas power plants are built to withstand hot summers and tropical storms. That excused did not sit well with state Rep. Hunter. "Don’t talk about the hurricane to me, this was a Snow-cane," he said.

RELATED: Five ERCOT board members who live outside of Texas resign in week after power outage, winter storm

Morgan responded by saying no one is perfect, and he did not want to get into blame but correcting the problem. It was noted that a power generating unit was unable to help support the grid because a local utility put it into a blackout. The power providers in the House hearing did not directly blame ERCOT for the power crisis. But Morgan said the agency did not seem to have a sense of urgency about the impending storm.

In the Senate hearing, ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said alerts and advisories did go out ahead of the storm. But he admitted a communications gap did happen during the crisis. "We weren't talking enough, at that point we were solving problems but I think we should have been talking more," said Magness.

Whitmire pressed Magness about accountability and corrections. "And I haven't heard in your comments, and I would challenge you, one thing you'd done different, or your team would have done different," he said.

RELATED: Energy executive: Texas power plants turned off in crisis

The response from Magness was part admission, part defense of the ERCOT operators. "I feel a great deal of responsibility and remorse of the event but I will continue to investigate and be investigated, but I believe the operators on our team did everything they could have in a dramatic-" he said.

Whitmire broke in by asking, "but you wouldn't change anything in terms of your play calling in those critical hours?" Magness said, "As I sit here now I don’t believe I would."

Magness admitted it was known Friday that the demand for energy would be too great by Monday morning.

Chair of the Public Utility Commission, DeAnn Walker, said that same day she told the governor, lt. governor and speaker of the House that demand on the grid would cause rolling outages within a few days.

Magness told the Senate, looking back, he wishes he communicated that longer outages would be necessary sooner. "Everyone in the industry, I think we need to figure out how to, if we're in a situation this extreme, not get people stuck because that's where the suffering occurred," Magness said. 

Earlier in the hearing, LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose addressed preparedness and was critical of local media. However, a week before the storm, FOX 7 Austin's Zack Shields did sound the alarm.

RELATED: Call center can help Texans fill out iSTAT winter storm damage survey

During the hearings, the CEOs of Vistra Corp and NRG promised not to pass their high fuel costs on to their customers. But concerns about a pending power bill crisis had state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) calling the crisis the "largest trainwreck in deregulation history."

Getting the system back on track, according to Gov. Greg Abbott, is a job the legislature cannot leave undone this session.