During the February 2021 winter storm, millions of Texans were left without power as they searched for information about when the lights would return.
Nearly a year later, state officials insist the power grid is ready for the winter. But what about the lines of communication that failed along with it?
“Communication is something that people made clear was not adequate last February,” said Public Utility Commission Chairman Peter Lake “As you’ve heard, we’ve made big strides in improving that as well.”
Lake described several changes that have been made to address communication shortfalls during the winter storm. The newly established Texas Energy Reliability Council will have members representing groups like the PUC, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Railroad Commission (which regulates oil and gas), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and TxDOT stationed “shoulder to shoulder” at the State Operations Center in the event of an emergency, he said.
“They have built out protocols on who to call, how to notify people, and for the first time, all of the people and the industries — these include the companies that are in both power generation and natural gas — are all in the same room and they know that is a central point of communication,” Lake said.
ERCOT, the state’s power grid operator, also has a new strategy for social media.
“ERCOT keeps its communication tool on the sideline in case of emergency,” Lake said. “They’re not tweeting about the weather. … If you see a tweet from ERCOT, it’s serious. This is an emergency tool, communication tool. We will only use it in case of emergency.”
About one in five Americans are active on Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center.
Senate Bill 3, the state’s grid reform bill, establishes an emergency alert system for power outages similar to a Silver or Amber Alert.
A rule related to the system and when it would be activated is pending before the commission. Comments are due Jan. 11.
“It’s never going to be, kind of, fly by wire again,” Lake said. “So it’s an entirely new communication protocol.”
But some experts are wary that communication will be better this winter if there’s an emergency. Tim Morstad, the associate state director for AARP Texas, said he’s been “under-impressed” by the amount of communication with everyday Texans.
“We do natural disaster preparedness for hurricanes along the coast. We need to start doing that level of preparation and preparedness for outages,” he said. “That’s unfortunately the reality. In the worst case scenario, it’s unnecessary and we avoid a big outage in a winter or a summer. In the best case scenario, it could save some lives.”
Morstad said state level press conferences have focused on getting people not to worry about the summer or winter. He’d like to see that level of effort directed at preparedness tips like getting on a critical care list for those who have medical needs.
“While it’s not going to spare them from an outage, it may provide them additional protections and help them in the case of a Uri-type situation again,” he said, referring to the Febrary storm.
Oncor customers can get updates on the website and from its 24-hour outage line at 818-313-4747. During emergencies, extra staff will be called to increase the number of people getting out information. Oncor will also offer text alerts and updates on weather and emergency situations provided through its My Oncor mobile application, spokesperson Kerri Dunn said
The goal is to ensure there are multiple channels for communications, Dunn said.
“While a lot of these have existed for a while with Oncor, our commitment from February is that we want to make sure that we’re upping those means of communications,” she said.
Oncor got more calls on Feb. 14 and 15 during the storm than in all of 2020, Dunn said.
“It was really record breaking as far as influx of calls,” she said. “And with that, we did see some stress on our systems that were preventing customers from getting in contact with folks in a timely manner throughout different portions of the vent, which certainly is not something we’re OK with. So we’ve been working with our vendors and technology on the back end. Performing additional stress testing. Making sure that to the fullest extent possible, we can increase that bandwidth and perform much better during high-volume events.”
Oncor is also working with more than 30 area managers and communities to understand the best way to stay in touch with local leaders and disseminate information.