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US FERC, NERC to launch inquiry into extreme winter weather power outages

Highlights

Focus remains on power restoration

Joint inquiry to begin in coming days

New York — As millions of customers are experiencing power outages, the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. said Feb. 16 that they would open a joint inquiry into the bulk power system's operations during the extreme winter weather conditions battering the Midwest and South-Central states.

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The joint inquiry, slated to begin in the coming days, will see FERC and NERC team "with other federal agencies, states, regional entities and utilities to identify problems with the performance of the bulk-power system and, where appropriate, solutions for addressing those issues," the commissions said in a single statement.

As of late afternoon Feb. 16, nearly 4.7 million utility customer accounts were without power across the US, with just over 3.8 million of those in Texas, according to poweroutage.us, which aggregates US utility outage data. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid for most of Texas, was hit particularly hard, with more than 30 GW forced offline, the worst blackouts in the state in decades as electricity supply could not keep pace with record-high demand and record-low temperatures.

According to S&P Global Platts Analytics, nearly 12 Bcf/d or about 13% of US gas production is offline because of cold weather impacts.

The brutal cold snap that continues to blanket much of the US has shown no signs of letting up. The National Weather Service reported a second major winter storm will hit the Southern US with heavy snow and icing starting Feb. 16 before moving east.

"The arctic air mass over the central US will continue well below normal and record-breaking temperatures into midweek," the weather service added.

'Closely monitoring'

FERC Chairman Richard Glick said the commission was "closely monitoring" the extreme weather across the country and its impact on electric reliability, and was in contact with ERCOT, Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

"I have directed FERC staff to coordinate closely with the RTOs/ISOs, utilities, NERC, and regional reliability entities to do what we can to help," Glick said in a Feb. 15 statement. "In the days ahead, we will be examining the root causes of these reliability events, but, for now, the focus must remain on restoring power as quickly as possible and keeping people safe during this incredibly challenging situation."

Analysts with ClearView Energy Partners said in a Feb. 15 research note to clients that "at least a few renewable power critics may point to Texas' woes as reasons to evaluate, if not temper, the transition toward cleaner intermittent resources." Similar arguments were made when a nearly week-long heat wave in the West forced California Independent System Operator to order rotating outages last August to maintain grid reliability.

However, ClearView doubted that Texas state legislators would take steps to "meaningfully undermine solar and wind development in Texas on the heels of these events."

Early reports from ERCOT indicate generation from multiple fuel types went offline, and Texas' renewables buildout has not been driven by state policies but by investor interest in the "sunny and windy plains" the state has to offer for new projects, ClearView said of its skepticism that support for clean generation deployment would wane in the state.

On the other hand, a number of clean energy advocates are pointing to the widespread outages to bolster their arguments in support of major investments to update the electric grid and to build out transmission, particularly interregional lines.