Following the winter storm-induced statewide power outages last week that left thousands of Harris County residents without heat for hours amid freezing temperatures, the Harris County Commissioners Court will begin exploring what it would take for Harris County to leave the state's power grid at its Feb. 26 meeting.
As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Texas power grid is independent of the two larger interconnected systems that serve most of the U.S. and Canada; the state's system is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. This independence, combined with plummeting temperatures throughout the week of Feb. 14-20, left millions of Texans without electric service for days due the failure of portions of the grid and subsequent rolling blackouts that attempted to stabilize the system.
"It is obvious that this is a complete and total failure of the agencies in charge of maintaining our grid and delivering energy to homes—ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission [of Texas]," Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a statement Feb. 16. "These two agencies for which the governor has direct and personal oversight. For that reason, we demand answers from the governor-appointed leaders of these state agencies and Governor Abbott himself."
As investigations of ERCOT called for by Abbott begin this week, Harris County officials are also planning to take matters into their own hands. In a Feb. 22 news release, Garcia announced that he had placed an emergency/supplemental item on the Feb. 26 Commissioners Court agenda to explore "what steps in regard to state statute and electricity infrastructure would need to be taken to remove Harris County from the service area of independent system operators that are primarily governed by the Public Utility Commission of Texas, such as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (or ERCOT)."
The agenda item reads: "Request by the Commissioner of Precinct 2 for discussion and possible action on steps the county may take to protect the health and safety of Harris County residents by decreasing their reliance on infrastructure overseen by failed state leadership for electricity."
Garcia said the discussion was warranted following years of the inability of state leaders to properly respond to disasters, citing a similar hard freeze that occurred in 2011 as well as plant explosions that occurred in 2013 and in 2020.
"I can't speak for other members of court, but I am concerned with the state's leadership inability to keep promises they have made to their constituents during disasters," Garcia said in a statement Feb. 22. "This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can't be trusted to do itself."
According to Garcia's press release, one option that may be a possibility for Harris County is joining the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, or MISO, which is an independent system operator and regional transmission organization that several East Texas counties, including Liberty, are in the service area of. According to the release, MISO's regulation and oversight falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, and is in the Eastern Interconnect grid.
"In our region and across our state, millions of people are without power in the midst of dangerously low temperatures," Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement Feb. 17. "Many of them are elderly, sick and houseless. This is the direct result of relying on a for-profit, deregulated system for an essential utility. Our state leaders have prioritized profit over people, providing very little oversight over our currently failing electrical grid, and on top of that has done very little this week to aid Texans without power, food and water. The immediate focus of our county will be meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and ensuring that they make it through this crisis, but rest assured that we will also be holding state leaders accountable for leaving Texans out in the cold and pushing to create a system that prioritizes serving people in their time of need."
Also on the Feb. 26 agenda is a request by the Harris County attorney for an executive session item "for discussion and authorization to consider and file friend of the court briefs or other appropriate litigation on behalf of Harris County in cases involved the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and other related entities involving the loss of power in and around Winter Storm URI." Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has also placed an item on the Feb. 26 agenda for discussion and possible action regarding the winter storm and Harris County's subsequent response.
While it is unclear what action, if any, may be taken by court Feb. 26, Hidalgo called for more accountability in the state's power grid via Twitter Feb. 19.
This was a man-made disaster that has cut lives short. We are now reporting 10 hypothermia deaths in Harris County, 600+ carbon monoxide cases, and still counting. When the dust settles, people deserve answers and accountability.
— Lina Hidalgo (@LinaHidalgoTX) February 19, 2021
Precincts 3 and 4 Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle had not released statements on the failure of the state's power grid as of press time Feb. 24.
Harris County commissioners will meet virtually Feb. 26 at 10 a.m., and the meeting will be livestreamed online. To sign up to speak virtually at the meeting during public comment, click here.