Roma residents lost access to water Tuesday. La Feria’s mayor was checking on her city departments from a home without power for more than 24 hours. Over in Willacy County, Raymondville’s mayor was keeping an eye on their sewer plant generator fuel supply hoping the city wouldn’t have to stop using their sewage system.
Outages caused by Monday’s winter storm and subsequent controlled rolling outages left many in the Rio Grande Valley feeling the sting of a statewide energy supply and demand balancing act.
“We’re all in it together,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said, referring to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — a network that tethers neighborhoods from north, central, east and west Texas to the Valley, forming a vast interdependent power grid.
On Monday, following a call for energy conservation and advisories, ERCOT leaders decided to begin controlled outages to address the imbalance between supply and demand across the state.
“Our fundamental job is to keep the grid reliable to provide enough demand,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said during a media call Tuesday afternoon.
Winter shortages on fuel took some generators offline, while frozen wind turbine blades from renewable energy sources took down 16,000 MW, and thermal generation like coal led to a decrease in 28,000 to 29,000 MW.
ERCOT turned to local utility providers asking them to make cuts to their energy loads.
The decision of where to implement the rollouts was left to local officials, “because they know their areas better,” ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin said.
The cuts would be commensurate with the usage share.
In Brownsville, the Public Utilities Board had minutes to decide who they would thrust into the rolling outages.
They took multiple factors into consideration, including how much power is used by affected accounts and their private and public functions in the city.
“That means that we try to avoid whenever possible turning off a hospital or police station,” Ryan Greenfield, PUB public information officer, said. “Certain areas we do try to avoid, I guess you’d say more than others, even if they may have more load they also provide more critical services.”
DEALING WITH THE FALLOUT
“You want me to start crying first and then answer you?” Raymondville Mayor Gonzalez quipped from his dark but warm house. “I’ve been on the phone all day long.”
Gonzalez counts himself fortunate to have a functioning non-electrical heater in a residence that was going on 19 hours without power.
Police and fire services were not affected in his city, but they closed down city hall and life came to a halt. Water was still running, but that was after their fuel-based generators kicked in at the water and sewage plants.
A safe house was opened at the local housing authority to provide overnight shelter, but it, too, was reliant on fuel. Gonzalez said the county judge helped find some to ensure it would be open Wednesday.
Now they’re watching their fuel levels hoping they won’t have to stop using water or their sewage system.
Roma residents were not as fortunate.
“It’s not easy for me to talk about, I know that a lot of you guys are upset,” the mayor, Jaime Escobar Jr., said in a video posted on the city’s social media page Thursday evening.
Around the same time, Starr County Commissioner Raul Roy Peña announced they obtained a water tank they would be taking to Roma and other areas affected by the water shortage.
“In Roma, we’re trying to do everything we can to work with the power companies to try to restore the power,” Escobar Jr. said.
Starr County’s Judge Eloy Vera reached out to the Texas Division of Emergency Management to ask for generators for the water plant. He encountered the effects of another interdependent network.
“My understanding is that they’re on backlog on account of the northern part of the state was the first one to be affected. So whatever they had is being used over there,” Vera said.
One of the most densely populated cities in the Valley, McAllen, faced problems on the road.
Darling estimated about 80% of the traffic signal problems were due to rolling outages, and the other 20% may have been a result of lines or transformers freezing.
Water plants in McAllen remained operational but were affected.
The city issued a warning to residents late Monday night asking them to leave at least one faucet dripping to keep lines from freezing and pipes from bursting.
Monday night, Darling said the city’s water plants even offered to help the water supply at Edinburg and Mission — a city that has an interlocal agreement with McAllen for emergencies like this.
But demand on McAllen’s water supply grew after many who took the advice to leave the faucet slightly open may have left a large flow running all night, triggering a demand on the water system, draining water towers of their supply and creating water pressure problems, Darling said.
Due to the increase in demand, the offer to help Edinburg was taken off the table, according to the city’s public information officer. Mission received help after their demand grew as more people stayed put after the roads froze over, Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said.
STATE OF CONCERN
ERCOT officials were not able to say how long they expect to continue the controlled blackouts during the Tuesday media call. Shortly after, they announced in a news release that “approximately 2,500 MW of load is in the process of being restored – enough power to serve 500,000 households.”
State Rep. Terry Canales critiqued ERCOT on Facebook and said, “There has been a major communication failure at the state level but each of you deserves accurate information and I plan to continue to provide it.”
Before the restoration of the 2,500 megawatts, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he signed an executive order calling for an investigation into ERCOT, a cooperation established via state legislature, for failing to be “anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.”