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Texas Lawmakers To Hold 1st Hearing Into Devastating Blackouts

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Texas, the scope of the damage, the number of deaths and injuries caused by widespread blackouts, both are still unclear. Today, Texas lawmakers will hold their first hearings on what exactly went wrong. Here's Governor Greg Abbott giving an address to the state last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: This legislative session will not end until we fix these problems. And we will ensure that the tragic events of the past week are never repeated.

KING: Mose Buchele from member station KUT in Austin is following this one. Good morning, Mose.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: Governor Abbott is saying we will fix it. What do we know about the how?

BUCHELE: So one big thing is winterization, right? The main reason that this happened was that natural gas wells, pipeline components, power plant equipment just froze up in the cold. So one thing almost everybody agrees on is that that can't happen again. Some Democrats here are saying it's a question of climate change resilience - right? - along with the heat, the flooding, the hurricanes we get. And Texas Republican Governor Abbott says that the state needs to winterize these gas wells. Of course, he didn't say the word climate change when he talked about that. I recently spoke to Donna Howard. She's a member of a newly created Democratic Climate Caucus here at the state leg (ph). And she says that that's just fine with her.

DONNA HOWARD: Call it whatever you want to call it. Let's just deal with what's really happening. There's got to be a recognition that there are climate events happening on a regular basis here in Texas that are costing Texas taxpayers and are costing Texas lives.

BUCHELE: I mean, this is not the first time this has happened. In 2011, after our last blackouts in Texas, federal agencies warned us about the winter storm risks. But industry didn't really want to pay for upgrades. And regulators and lawmakers didn't create any strict rules to make them. So something else that we're watching for in these hearings is who might foot the bill for these upgrades in the wake of the blackout.

KING: The energy market in Texas is unique and genuinely fascinating. It's deregulated, and it's disconnected from the rest of the country. The state was proud of that for many years. Are people now rethinking whether this was a good idea?

BUCHELE: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have here what's called an energy-only market. Now, in other parts of the country, electric generators get paid to just kind of be there when they're needed. In Texas, they're only paid for the power that they sell. So that means that there is a lot less reserve electricity here than in most other places. So last week, when demand for heat spiked and power plants started just failing in the cold, there really wasn't much room for error.

Now some lawmakers want to switch to what they call a capacity market to have extra generators for backup. Again, last night, Governor Abbott said he's working with lawmakers to add more power to the grid. But the thing is there that not everyone is convinced that that would have helped. Here's Joshua Rhodes. He's a research associate at UT Austin.

JOSHUA RHODES: That would have really only helped if they would have been able to plan better. But I'm not convinced that a different market system would have planned better for such an event that was so far beyond the historical demands and loads in the winter that we have.

BUCHELE: You know, basically having more power plants wouldn't have mattered if their fuel source and their components had also frozen up in the cold.

KING: And he's making the point that this was a historic event. It was not something that anyone really predicted. So who is likely to be held accountable for something like this?

BUCHELE: So far, we have heard a lot about the grid operator. That's ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The governor blamed them, and we just saw a bunch of resignations on their board. But ERCOT says that it was just following the rules that state lawmakers and state regulators laid out for them. ERCOT is overseen by the State Public Utility Commission. We also have state oil and gas regulators who are responsible for keeping wells and pipelines working. So you could say that the responsibility for this is widespread. It's just not clear yet who might be held accountable for it.

KING: Mose Buchele at KUT in Austin. Thanks, Mose.

BUCHELE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.