In early March, The Woodlands Township was still tallying damage from the winter storms that brought more than five days of freezing temperatures in mid-February and extinguished power across the region as providers failed to keep up with high energy demand.
While township officials said damage caused by pipes freezing during the power outages is repairable, lawmakers representing the region began to call for action to prevent future incidents from occurring due to failures on the state’s energy grids.
The Woodlands area sits on the dividing line between two energy providers operating on different grids. Entergy Texas, which serves most of Montgomery County, is operated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator and is part of the multistate Eastern Interconnection grid. Southern portions of The Woodlands area, including about 13,000 residents in Creekside Park, are served by CenterPoint Energy, which is part of an independent Texas grid regulated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT has seen criticism from public officials such as Gov. Greg Abbott, who called for it to be investigated. In early March, hearings were underway in the Texas Legislature. However, both ERCOT and MISO saw their infrastructures overloaded Feb. 15 when temperatures in the region plunged below freezing amid a light coat of snow and freezing rain.
State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, whose district includes 86% of the population of Montgomery County, described the outages as “the largest train wreck in the history of deregulated electricity.”
Allison Payne, senior communication specialist for Entergy, said Entergy’s outages were less disruptive than those on the ERCOT system and that failure occurred despite winterization attempts before the storm.
At the peak of the February storm, 155,238 Entergy customers out of the 473,000 in Texas were affected by outages, the company stated. CenterPoint reported a total of 1.42 million of its 2.4 million Southeast Texas customers lost power Feb. 15.“The real challenge we faced following the snow, ice and extreme cold was the impact on our generation plants,” Payne said. “This, coupled with the high demand on the system due to the cold, prevented us from having adequate supply to meet the high demand in the area.”
Gavin Dillingham, program director for clean-energy policy with The Woodlands-based Houston Advanced Research Center, said he believes the failure signals a need for Texas to increase energy efficiency and build greater resilience, even if it comes at a greater cost.
“I think as far as the winter storm went ... this was kind of the electricity market that Texas voted for and chose for itself,” Dillingham said. “You get what you pay for, and ... when we get these storms, you’re going to get the cost of not putting in the standards and resilience.”
While remarks from public officials such as Abbott have focused on failures in the ERCOT system, providers on the MISO grid also saw sustained outages and damage.
Gordy Bunch, chair of The Woodlands Township board of directors, said locally those outages translated to 60% to 75% of Entergy’s customers in The Woodlands being without power during the peak of the storm, based on its outage maps. He said Entergy outages ranged from a few hours to three or four days with a few isolated five-day outages. CenterPoint’s outage map showed outages over as much as 80%-90% of its service area for three to five days, he said.“There were only a few areas in The Woodlands that experienced no outages,” Bunch said in an email.
Power outages in The Woodlands and Shenandoah have been the subject of multiple public meetings in the past two years, including last August, when a total of 136,552 outages were reported in Montgomery County after Hurricane Laura affected the grid. At that time, Entergy reported it was continuing work to update its infrastructure in the area, which included re-examining poles and utility lines, installing wires and modernizing switch cabinets.
Since then, a new $937 million, 993-megawatt Montgomery County Power Station in Willis began commercial operation Jan. 1. While it did go offline early in the Feb. 15 storm despite steps to winterize it, Payne said it returned to service the same day.Although Abbott called for reforms and an investigation into ERCOT after the storm, as of early March there is no apparent legal action or investigation underway into MISO or Entergy from state or local elected officials.
“There’s no excuses for [the failures],” County Judge Mark Keough said. “[But] they worked as hard as they could in the time that they had.”
However, some action against Entergy is being taken in the private sector: Houston-based attorney Tony Buzbee filed a lawsuit against the company that alleges the outages led to the death of an 11-year-old boy in Conroe from hypothermia. But Entergy may be largely protected from legal repercussions due to tariffs, which are contracts for service, said Tommy Hastings, a medical malpractice lawyer in The Woodlands.
“I think it’s going to be very, very hard to hold Entergy liable for any personal injuries or property damages from the outages,” Hastings said.
Repairs and resolutions
Nancy Becker, president of the Creekside Park Village Association, said she has never seen a deep freeze cause as much damage as February’s storm, when the power outages led to homes being cold enough for pipes to freeze and burst.
“I just don’t see how they were not more prepared,” she said. “Everybody got caught with their pants down.”
Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation in The Woodlands, said in early March the township was still finding and calculating damage from events in February.
“Invoices [and the] cost of the storm cannot be tabulated as invoices are just starting to roll in, and we also are still assessing the landscape damage,” Nunes said in a March 4 email.
Nunes reported at a Feb. 24 board of directors meeting at least 27 tons of debris from homes—largely from buildings damaged by pipes that froze and burst during power outages—were collected in the first few days after the storm.
Conroe ISD officials also did not immediately have a damage estimate available, but Director of Communications Sarah Blakelock said damage included burst pipes and burst fire sprinkler systems.
Nunes said the widespread demand for plumbers means it will take time to get everything functioning both at the township level and for individual residents.
In Oak Ridge North, where residents also have a mix of CenterPoint and Entergy coverage, power loss resulted in hose breaks at a water plant generator as well as a pipe break at its police station. City Manager Heather Neeley said residents north of Robinson Road on the Entergy grid were without power the longest.
Neeley said one outcome of February’s outages could be a new text and calling system to alert residents during events when normal communications may be disrupted.
“We’ll definitely look at ... figuring out more ways we can get the messages out during emergencies,” she said.Legislative review
Elected officials with both the Texas Legislature and Congress said they are working with others on legislation that would improve grid resiliency and are considering other improvements needed.
“I am working now ... on a bill to provide funding that helps states like Texas reinforce our grid and improve our resiliency during these disasters,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, in a March 3 call with members of the media. “We want to make sure our state doesn’t go through a similar situation like that again.”
State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said he believes the issues with ERCOT in particular were partially due to its management and energy sources.“The new power plant that Entergy built ... in Montgomery County, that has natural gas and hydrogen gas,” Toth said. “That’s really the road that we should look at going down.”
However, David Bat, president of The Woodlands-based Kimberlite Oilfield Research, said problems maintaining power could remain in the face of extreme weather.
“This was a very acute problem that cut across all sources of generation. It wasn’t just wind that failed; it was the natural gas transmission lines that failed, coal plants, nuclear plants,” Bat said.
Entergy officials said in a March 3 email the company is conducting a thorough post-event review of the steps it took and what could be done better in the future. The company will also invest in infrastructure and technologies such as backup generators.
“[We will be] investing in improving our system not just for reliability, but [also] further investment in grid resiliency,” Payne said.
Andrew Christman, Ben Thompson and Eva Vigh contributed to this report.