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Thousands In Texas Still Don't Have Power As Lawmakers Investigate ERCOT


In Texas, the recovery from last week's mass power failure continues and so does the political fallout. There have been resignations from the body that oversees the grid, and lawmakers open their investigations tomorrow. Joining us now is Dominic Anthony Walsh of Texas Public Radio.

Hi there.


SHAPIRO: First, how's the recovery going? How are people doing?

WALSH: So the majority of the state does have power and water back, but there are still thousands of residents - especially in the Texas Hill Country, for example - who don't have power. And their electric provider isn't sure when the power will be back. So for thousands of people, this crisis has stretched on for more than a week.

And, you know, bodies are still being found. Local officials are saying it will be weeks till we know the full number of people who died in this disaster. But it's already in the dozens and is expected to climb to well over 100. And these are people who couldn't power medical equipment, people who froze to death in their homes or in their cars, as well as people without housing who froze to death outdoors, experiencing the worst of the conditions.

SHAPIRO: Wow. So in the face of that staggering death toll, the hearings begin tomorrow. And the actions of ERCOT, the body that manages the Texas grid, are likely to be front and center. What do you expect to come up?

WALSH: There's going to be a lot, but one key question - why wasn't the power grid ready? But ERCOT, which, again, is at the center of all this, doesn't actually own the physical infrastructure that provides power. Rather, ERCOT just oversees the flow of electricity. Here's Peter Cramton, a now former member of ERCOT's board. He spoke at his final board meeting earlier today.


PETER CRAMTON: ERCOT was flying a 747. It had not one, but two engines experience catastrophic failure, then flew the damaged plane for 103 hours before safely landing in the Hudson. In my mind, the men and women in the ERCOT control room are heroes.

WALSH: So in this analogy, those engines that blew up could be power-generating units owned by public and private power companies, not ERCOT. Again, ERCOT's role was to do an emergency landing and to order a so-called series of controlled blackouts so that an even worse crash when it happened, like the entire grid going offline, which, according to ERCOT, could take weeks or months to repair.

SHAPIRO: So if ERCOT is likely to argue that they were just doing the best they could with a bad situation, are there other places lawmakers might look to hold people accountable?

WALSH: Absolutely. First, there is the Public Utility Commission Of Texas. It oversees ERCOT and has a three-member board appointed by Governor Greg Abbott. Second, there is the Railroad Commission, which actually oversees the natural gas sector, not railroads. And the natural gas sector failed to provide enough power during this crisis.

Those two agencies, the Public Utility Commission and the Railroad Commission, have regulatory power. ERCOT does not. And of course, there is the state legislature itself, which actually makes the laws that these agencies are supposed to enforce. One proposal - mandate that all plants weatherize against cold weather. And there's a debate around that - who pays for the weatherization, taxpayers or the companies?

SHAPIRO: And finally, people are already resigning. Tell us about why.

WALSH: So Peter Cramton, who we heard earlier, along with a few other board members, resigned after taking heat that - because they didn't live in the state. Now, did them living out of the state caused these blackouts? No, but Governor Greg Abbott was quick to welcome the news.

In the short term, ERCOT officials will face hearings from the state legislature tomorrow and there will be tough questions for them. But again, ultimately, there are other bodies that hold most of the power to actually mandate changes after all of this.

SHAPIRO: That is Dominic Anthony Walsh of Texas Public Radio.

Thanks a lot.

WALSH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dominic Anthony Walsh covers energy, the environment and public health for Texas Public Radio. He focuses on stories that reveal how major changes in climate systems, energy markets and public health policies affect communities in his hometown, San Antonio, and across the state.