Gov. Greg Abbott promised that the state’s electric grid would be able to withstand pressures caused by any potential winter storm that occurs this year in a television interview Friday.
“Listen, very confident about the grid. And I can tell you why, for one: I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective,” Abbott said. “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.”
After the winter storm in February that left millions across the state without power, the Legislature passed a number of bills requiring additional “weatherization” measures for companies that maintain the state’s electric grid.
But experts have expressed concerns that loopholes have allowed some natural gas providers to exempt themselves from the weatherization requirements, potentially leaving the system still vulnerable.
“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June when he signed two of the bills.
“You’re going to have another winter and another summer that’s going to strain the electric grid,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston. “If there’s any kind of problem for people, there’s a direct connection to how Democrats can use that to their political advantage against Republicans.”
Well, “guarantee” is a strong word.
After last winter’s freeze hamstrung power giant Vistra Corp.’s ability to keep electricity flowing for its millions of customers, CEO Curt Morgan said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry.
During the peak days of the storm, Vistra, Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told lawmakers shortly after the storm.
But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died.
Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”
But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.
No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.
That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.
Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm.
“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”
If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview.
Texas has done “next to nothing” to weatherize its natural gas supply, said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant.
“We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry accountable. That is the problem,” Lewin said. “It’s not a technology or engineering problem. It’s a regulatory problem.”
And maybe that doesn’t matter, at least for this year. I’m sure Greg Abbott can afford to have a meteorologist on his political staff, and I’m sure that person will have advised him that another freeze like the one we saw this year is unlikely. Even a freeze that isn’t quite as bad probably won’t happen. Given that Abbott isn’t going to lift a finger to improve the grid’s reliability, why not bet big on the more probable outcome, even if the downside is so massive. At this point he’s made his bed anyway, and if we make it through next summer without anything bad happening he gets to claim the credit for it. I’m too risk averse to want to make that bet, but here we are. As they say, it’s a bold move and we’ll see if it pays off for him.