April 28, 2021

We Need an Independent Investigation of the Electricity Grid Collapse

We Need an Independent Investigation of the Electricity Grid Collapse

It has been over two months after the collapse of the Texas electric grid, which left millions freezing in the dark and may have killed over 100 Texans, yet we have very few answers about what happened or how to keep it from happening again.  Also, something like $50 billion changed hands because of ERCOT’s actions with almost no transparency about who got what.  To put that in some perspective, that is about five times the amount in the state’s rainy-day fund.

An “after-action” or “post-mortem” analysis is a basic management tool to make sure that we learn from our experiences.  I was involved in such an inquiry after the disastrous Hurricane Rita evacuation.  Then, Governor Rick Perry appointed a commission to study what went wrong in evacuation.  Later, the regional county judges, led by then-Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, appointed a regional task force to recommend changes to the evacuation plan.  I had the privilege to serve on the former and chair the later.

For over a year, the commission and the task force heard from those affected by the Rita evacuation.  Almost every preconceived notion I had about what had happened during the evacuation and how to fix it turned out to be wrong.  Eventually, the work done in those meetings led to a greatly improved evacuation plan, including the now familiar evacuation zones.  (See Texas A&M Transportation Institute, December 2008.)  When Hurricane Ike showed up a few years later, the evacuation went off with minimal problems.   That work also provided the information that ensured an evacuation was not called in Hurricane Harvey, which would have been an utter disaster.

The power grid failure deserves no less scrutiny.  In fact, it deserves a great deal more (i) because of the multiple warnings to the state that such a collapse was likely and (ii) because Texans, who will ultimately pay for most of the $50 billion that changed hands in less than a week, are entitled to know what happened to the money.

We need an exhaustive investigation to determine exactly what happened, what needs to be done to make sure it does not happen again, and who profited by how much from ERCOT’s actions.  Unfortunately, there appears to be little appetite in Austin for getting to the bottom of this.  I suspect such an investigation would lead to some uncomfortable intersection of campaign contributors and those who profited from the disaster and those quick to offer up unproven remedies.  It also makes you wonder if the state’s desire to avoid federal regulation may have a more sinister aspect and whether some federal agency, perhaps even the FBI, might look into this.

Hundreds of lawsuits have already been filed over the debacle.  Eventually much of the story will be told through this litigation.  But we cannot wait for that.  Texans are being asked to pick up at least some of the tab right now, either as taxpayers or rate payers.  And, of course, everyone wants assurances that there will not be another collapse.  The only way to get those answers in a timely way is an investigation by an independent commission.

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