No hiding: ERCOT shouldn’t attempt to escape accountability

There’s plenty of good-natured, weather-related ribbing in the Rio Grande Valley this time of year. Permanent residents often smirk when our Winter Texans complain about unseasonably warm weather that’s in the 80s, while those northerners giggle when year-round residents don jackets whenever temperatures drop into the 60s.

Such kidding exposes a much more serious issue: Many Valley residents aren’t prepared for extremes in weather, whether they are hot or cold.

They and other Texas residents need to be confident that when temperatures hit extreme levels, they can still run their heaters when it’s freezing or air-conditioners when it’s baking. What they don’t need is our energy grid managers to try to avoid accountability by claiming governmental immunity.

Attorneys for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Jan. 9 argued before the Texas Supreme Court that they should have sovereign immunity from lawsuits. ERCOT is trying escape a rash of lawsuits stemming from the catastrophic system failure during a February 2021 statewide ice storm. That storm killed hundreds and left much of the state, including south Texas, without power for several days of sub-freezing weather. Most of the blame has been directed at the council, which had not prepared its delivery network for the icy conditions that caused the massive statewide power failure.

The council asserts that because it performs a public function and is regulated by the state, it should enjoy the same immunity that government entities have against many lawsuits.

In reality, ERCOT essentially is a private contractor, a fact it asserted when it jacked up fuel prices during the deadly ice storm. Private companies can be sued, however, and the lawsuits have rained upon them since the 2021 calamity.

The council wants to have it both ways. It should not, however, use the ruse to escape public accountability.

Investigations of the power failure found that ERCOT had been lax in maintaining its system. Not only could the lines not handle icy conditions, but the grid hadn’t been expanded to keep up with the public demand for electricity — and energy companies’ efforts to provide it. Solar and wind farms have increased rapidly, evidenced by the many huge wind turbines now churning just north of the Valley. Construction of several new wind farms has been halted because ERCOT’s lines already are overloaded and can’t handle new energy input.

ERCOT has taken measures to improve weatherization of its network, but that isn’t such an issue in hot summer months when the commission still issues warnings that heavy aid-conditioner use could trigger blackouts and brownouts.

In the wake of the 2021 storm, interim ERCOT CEO Brad Jones admitted that the Valley had largely been ignored for some 15 years with regard to power grid maintenance and improvements.

Public accountability — and the fear of lawsuits — should pressure ERCOT to make needed improvements that it already has shown, and admitted, it has ignored in the past.

Our state Supreme Court is known to be friendly to businesses and state government, but we trust the court will place public safety ahead of ERCOT’s financial preferences.