Politics & Government

Oncor Apologizes to Dallas City Council for Winter Storm Power Outages

The electricity company promised to improve communications during future weather crises and insists outages did not reflect neighborhood bias.

Representatives from Oncor, which manages electricity distribution for much of North Texas, came before the Dallas City Council today, hat in hand, to apologize for the power outages that left thousands of residents without power for days during one of the coldest freezes in the state’s history.

“Your electrical providers totally failed you,” said Mark Carpenter, the senior vice president of Transmission and Distribution Operations at Oncor. “The situation we found ourselves in was we simply did not have enough electrons to deliver.”

The briefing offered a glimpse into the chaotic unfolding of February’s winter storm event from Oncor’s perspective. It also provided council members an opportunity to air any grievances over the company’s handling of the response. Although the root cause of the outages can be traced to problems with failing power generators and the state government’s inadequate oversight of Texas’ electricity marketplace, council members said communication failures at Oncor exacerbated the situation on the ground.

“The communication was ‘CYA’ at best,” said South Dallas council member Adam Bazaldua, referencing the phrase “cover your ass.” “What I was able to give my constituents, we really told them nothing. It was even disingenuous.”

One key frustration was Oncor’s failure to inform the public that rolling blackouts would be something much longer. The company was not able to cut power in 15 to 45 minute increments a because of the sheer size of the power load it was being asked to shed from the electrical grid. In order to stay operational, the power grid must maintain a balanced wattage load across the system. But as the winter storm knocked out power production plants – right as freezing temperatures drove a surge in consumer demand for electricity — the grid became dangerously unstable.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages Texas’ grid, demanded Oncor shed massive amounts of power in order to avoid a total collapse of the state’s electricity distribution system.

“Had we not taken the drastic action that we took we would have had much, much worse events that would have lasted many, many days,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said Oncor knew the storm was coming and had prepared. It increased staffing at its emergency operations center and deployed crews throughout the city. But it did not anticipate the sheer size of the load ERCOT would require Oncor shed from its grid – about five times more than what was required during the 2011 winter storm, the last major winter outage event in North Texas. Oncor was forced to shut off nearly every neighborhood in the city except for those connected to the system “feeders,” which function like circuit breakers for the entire grid. If those feeders blow, the entire grid goes down with them.

“We were playing that dangerous game for three days,” said Charles Elk, the director of customer operations at Oncor. “It was changing minute-to-minute, and we didn’t do a good enough job keeping our customers informed minute-to-minute.”

Still, council members felt like they were caught in the middle between desperate residents looking for answers and an electricity provider that wasn’t offering straight ones. Oncor’s outage map wasn’t accurate. No one could explain why some neighborhoods were dark while others never lost power. And Oncor insisted that it was attempting to institute rolling outages even after engineers on the frontlines knew that was impossible.

“If we knew that that we were not going to be rolling, we could have [told our constituents] you’re going to have to figure out something,” said Council member David Blewett, who represents downtown, Uptown, and parts of East Dallas. “I think it was dangerous because people sat in their houses for days waiting for the power to come on at any moment.”

Oncor offered little more than apologies and promises that it would work on improving communication in the future. Some concrete ideas presented during the meeting included deploying Oncor teams to affected neighborhoods during power outages to provide accurate, on-the-ground information to residents without power. In this particular event, however, Oncor says they were also in the dark.

“Clearly communications has been an area where we simply did not do what we needed to,” Carpenter said. “Part of that is that we just didn’t know when the generation was going to come back on.”

The council also pressed Oncor on the distribution of blackouts, pointing out that some neighborhoods were disproportionately affected while others never lost power.

“As we saw, West Dallas was hit hard,” said Council member Omar Narvaez, the community’s elected representative. “’Hard’ isn’t the right word. It was hit ugly.”

Oncor officials insisted that the outages were the byproduct of an engineering calculation. They argued that the distribution of outages had more to do with the design of the grid and where system feeder breakers are located and did not privilege any specific neighborhood. Anyone who lived closed to essential infrastructure, like a hospital, or along transmissions lines designated by Oncor to carry the bare minimum load to keep the grid operational, did not lose power.

But Mayor Eric Johnson pushed back, challenging Oncor to review its analysis of the outages to ensure that they did not reflect any form of inequity. Johnson said it was not enough to show that there was no “inequitable intent” with the outages, but to also ensure that the system’s overall design and the processes set up around operations did not produce an “inequitable result.”

“If the net result of scientific decisions was that every time this happens, the east side was not going to have power and the west side was going to have power, that is something you need to look at because that’s just not fair,” Johnson said.

Bazaldua also pressed Oncor officials to consider compensation for residents who may now face high electricity bills because of increased electricity consumption related to the long power outages. Dallas Water Utilities, he said, intends to credit customers to compensate for higher water bills resulting from recommended faucet dripping during the storm.

Elk said the company would contribute to nonprofits supporting Dallas residents who have suffered through the winter storm but added he could not commit to any adjustment of fees or rates.

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