South Texas county judge says they’ve ‘been steamrolled’ by electricity crisis

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Congressman says 'we did not get answers as to why (ERCOT) not prepared.'

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — A South Texas county judge told Border Report on Wednesday three-quarters of households in rural Zapata County have been without electricity and water for three days and he’s fed up with the situation and receiving no support from American Electric Power company.

“It’s a terrible situation. About 75% of households have been without power for nearly three days,” Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell said. “I’ve been communicating with AEP reps trying to bring power back on to no avail.”

Zapata County, Texas, has about 16,000 residents as in on the border with Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents Zapata County and a vast portion of South Texas, says he spoke with Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) officials and told them they “must begin prioritizing certain areas” to ensure families and necessary businesses, like hospitals and water system plants aren’t without electricity.

Many border communities are currently without electricity and water, some going on four days. This includes the entire town of Roma, in neighboring Starr County, he said.

During a news conference held at a hospital Wednesday in Mission, Texas, Cuellar stressed repeatedly, “this is more of a state issue,” but said that he and other border representatives are pressuring ERCOT officials, and he wants the Department of Energy to get involved.

“We did ask them, ‘didn’t you all see this storm coming in?’ And why did you not warn people that ‘hey you got to take certain steps?'” Cuellar said. “Quite honestly, we did not get answers as to why they were not prepared.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, speaks to reporters on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, at Mission Regional Medical Center in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Their answer was: ‘This one was bigger than what we expected and so we had to go with blackouts,'” Cuellar said. He said they spoke with ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin.

But the problem is that most areas of the state have not been under rolling blackouts, but rather permanent power outages. Electric outages have prevented normal distribution of gasoline, which is in extremely short supply in South Texas and residents are waiting for hours to fill up their vehicles and gas cans, which are necessary in order to power generators.

Vehicles wrap the block in Mission, Texas, waiting to buy gas on Feb. 17, 2021. Many pumps have run out of supplies or stations are closed due to electricity black outs (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

There are concerns that when power does begin to go online that these rural less-populated border region will be forgotten and not restored, Rathmell said.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell is seen on Nov. 20, 2020, at the county courthouse. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It’s unbelievable how they’ve picked winners and losers during this crisis but my county has been steamrolled,” Rathmell said.

It’s unbelievable how they’ve picked winners and losers during this crisis.”

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell

Cuellar was among a delegation of Democratic border congressional leaders who sent ERCOT a letter on Tuesday stressing the “grave conditions” as millions of Texas — including residents on the Texas/Mexico border — have been without electricity most of this week.

“As you know, it’s not one or two hours,” Cuellar said. “On top of that, it didn’t happen as a rollout. There were certain critical infrastructure that got the blackout.”

Laredo Medical Center, the largest hospital in Laredo, lost power in half of the facility, he said.

“I know everybody is important but there are certain critical areas,” he said. “But they didn’t give me an answer.”

In a news release issued Wednesday, AEP Texas said ERCOT directed it to shed load once again, adding that AEP Texas crews and employees were on standby and remain focused on customers who have been without power for the longest amount of time.

“Our primary focus is on critical services facilities, such as hospitals, water and sewer plants, as well as customers who have been without power for the longest amount of time,” said Jeff Stracener, AEP vice president of Distribution Region Operations said in a statement. “We continue to explore any and all opportunities to restore power to customers, even as the generation shortage continues.  The number of customers we are able to restore will be limited, but we remain committed to providing relief where possible.”

ERCOT was formed in 1996 after the Texas Legislature deregulated the state’s electric system. Criticism has emerged about ERCOT’s handling of the weather crisis and whether it has done enough. Many also question how several of those on the ERCOT board of directors aren’t even Texas residents.

When asked by Border Report on Wednesday whether that should be reformed, Cuellar responded “That doesn’t sound right. Texans should run Texan councils.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (Nexstar File Photo/Wes Rapaport)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday criticized ERCOT and called it a priority of the Legislature to investigate what has unfolded and how to reform the council going forward.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.”

Woodfin, of ERCOT, said more customers are coming back online every minute and the council is working to restore electricity to the entire state. He blamed frozen wind turbines and other equipment affected by the unusually cold arctic air blast.

Abbott and other Republican politicians have blamed wind and solar power for the outages. However, several different power supplies failed during the winter storm, including natural gas-fired power plants that were knocked offline due to icy conditions. Traditional thermal power plants, which rely mostly on natural gas, provide the bulk of power in Texas and were the larger problem, according to the Associated Press.

Wind energy is a growth industry in Zapata County. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“The ability to restore more power is contingent on more generation coming back online,” Woodfin said in a news release Wednesday. Since the winter storm began on Monday, approximately 185 generating units have tripped offline due to frozen wind turbines, limited gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation, he said.

Dozens of “warming centers” have opened in South Texas in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties. Temperatures dropped well below freezing on Monday and Tuesday but reached the low 50s on Wednesday afternoon, still power wasn’t restored to most South Texas communities.

Cuellar said he asked ERCOT why they were holding back power to South Texas as warmer weather hit the region, and was told it is due to storm still hitting northern areas. He said he told them that if this type of conservation is their policy to help other regions, then during the 100-degree summer months, electricity should be withheld from northern towns and re-routed to South Texas.

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