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blackouts

When we say “fix the grid”…

This is one of the obvious ways we could attempt to do that.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The state’s High Plains region, which covers 41 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, is home to more than 11,000 wind turbines — the most in any area of the state.

The region could generate enough wind energy to power at least 9 million homes. Experts say the additional energy could help provide much-needed stability to the electric grid during high energy-demand summers like this one, and even lower the power bills of Texans in other parts of the state.

But a significant portion of the electricity produced in the High Plains stays there for a simple reason: It can’t be moved elsewhere. Despite the growing development of wind energy production in Texas, the state’s transmission network would need significant infrastructure upgrades to ship out the energy produced in the region.

“We’re at a moment when wind is at its peak production profile, but we see a lot of wind energy being curtailed or congested and not able to flow through to some of the higher-population areas,” said John Hensley, vice president for research and analytics at the American Clean Power Association. “Which is a loss for ratepayers and a loss for those energy consumers that now have to either face conserving energy or paying more for the energy they do use because they don’t have access to that lower-cost wind resource.”

And when the rest of the state is asked to conserve energy to help stabilize the grid, the High Plains has to turn off turbines to limit wind production it doesn’t need.

“Because there’s not enough transmission to move it where it’s needed, ERCOT has to throttle back the [wind] generators,” energy lawyer Michael Jewell said. “They actually tell the wind generators to stop generating electricity. It gets to the point where [wind farm operators] literally have to disengage the generators entirely and stop them from doing anything.”

[…]

Wind energy is one of the lowest-priced energy sources because it is sold at fixed prices, turbines do not need fuel to run and the federal government provides subsidies. Texans who get their energy from wind farms in the High Plains region usually pay less for electricity than people in other areas of the state. But with the price of natural gas increasing from inflation, Jewell said areas where wind energy is not accessible have to depend on electricity that costs more.

“Other generation resources are more expensive than what [customers] would have gotten from the wind generators if they could move it,” Jewell said. “That is the definition of transmission congestion. Because you can’t move the cheaper electricity through the grid.”

A 2021 ERCOT report shows there have been increases in stability constraints for wind energy in recent years in both West and South Texas that have limited the long-distance transfer of power.

“The transmission constraints are such that energy can’t make it to the load centers. [High Plains wind power] might be able to make it to Lubbock, but it may not be able to make it to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin,” Jewell said. “This is not an insignificant problem — it is costing Texans a lot of money.”

Some wind farms in the High Plains foresaw there would be a need for transmission. The Trent Wind Farm was one of the first in the region. Beginning operations in 2001, the wind farm is between Abilene and Sweetwater in West Texas and has about 100 wind turbines, which can supply power to 35,000 homes. Energy company American Electric Power built the site near a power transmission network and built a short transmission line, so the power generated there does go into the ERCOT system.

But Jewell said high energy demand and costs this summer show there’s a need to build additional transmission lines to move more wind energy produced in the High Plains to other areas of the state.

Jewell said the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid, is conducting tests to determine the economic benefits of adding transmission lines from the High Plains to the more than 52,000 miles of lines that already connect to the grid across the state. As of now, however, there is no official proposal to build new lines.

Sure would be nice to have such a proposal, wouldn’t it? That’s a thing that the Governor and the Legislature could make happen if they wanted to. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t want to, and of course Greg Abbott is incapable of taking any positive action. So here we are, with those of us too far away from the existing turbines to benefit from them looking longingly at the Gulf of Mexico for some future relief. I don’t know how much it might cost to build out the transmission network (the story doesn’t say), or to invest in battery storage for solar energy (another thing we’re good at generating in this state, as noted in the story), but I’m sure we could find the money if we wanted to. First, though, we have to want to. And that means electing people who want to. Because we don’t have that now.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

Sure hope our grid can handle a bunch of crypto

I have three things to say about this.

With interest surging in digital currencies and the blockchain technology behind them, more and more investors and operators are turning to Texas, lured by its cheap energy and hands-off regulatory approach. The rush, like those underway in Wyoming, South Dakota and other states, has been welcomed by energy executives and some elected officials who see it as a catalyst for job growth and tax revenue.

But it is also adding massive new demand to the state’s fragile electricity grid and putting pressure on legislators to harness the growth in ways that are sustainable — and that don’t price out residential consumers.

The Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s grid, is projecting that the explosion in cryptocurrency and other “large load” operators could bring as many as 16 gigawatts of new electricity demand by 2026. That’s about a quarter of the grid’s current capacity and enough to power over 3 million homes on a summer day.

“I don’t think anybody thinks all of that will be built, but it’s still a tremendous amount,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

For a state that failed so spectacularly to secure the power supply during last year’s winter blackouts, piling on more demand will be a critical new test, especially in the face of climate change. Last week alone, unseasonably high temperatures drove electricity demand to midsummer levels. Late Friday, the state asked Texans to conserve power after six natural gas-fired power plants tripped offline.

Leaders in the crypto industry say their entrance will improve reliability by bringing uniquely flexible loads — often sprawling, power-hungry data warehouses — that can shut down within minutes and put electricity back on the grid when demand peaks.

[…]

Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who has consulted for a crypto mining company, said the same hallmarks of the state’s deregulated electricity market that helped lead to such growth in wind and solar over the past two decades could make it hard for leaders to rein in bad actors.

“They have the ability to be part of the energy transition that we need, but I’m becoming less convinced that the majority of them care enough to do it,” Rhodes said of the industry.

Any new regulation will have to wait until next year’s legislative session. Last cycle, the House and Senate set up a study group that includes two Republican members and the president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a trade group whose lobbyist is a former top aide to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The group will meet to take public testimony this month.

Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, has been leading the crypto push in the House. He said his focus is on helping the industry grow with minimal restrictions and on ensuring there is enough power to meet demand, including new generation from fossil fuels and possibly nuclear power.

“It’s all about creating a level playing field so that folks know what the rules of engagement are, and therefore can be successful,” Parker said.

If new rules are on the way, many in the industry aren’t worried that they’ll stifle growth.

“We just had a gubernatorial race where we had three candidates tripping over each other to be the most bitcoin candidate there was, so I don’t see regulation coming now,” Griffin Haby, co-founder of Limpia Creek Technologies, told attendees at a crypto conference last month in Houston, referring to the Republican Party primary. “But you never know.”

1. This story weirdly does not mention the utter mess that the crypto market is in right now. I’m hardly a crypto expert, and things change quickly over there, so one might simply say that it’s all a bit of minor turbulence that will have no effect on the longer term projections. Fair enough, but the volatility of the market, the zeroing out of some entire currencies, the huge loss of investors’ capital, you’d think it would have at least merited a sentence or two.

2. We all know that the Republicans will do absolutely nothing to bolster or protect the grid as they roll out the red carpet for coinminers. They did nothing after the freeze last year, so it would be delusional to think they’ll do anything here. Maybe those “large load” operators will come swarming in, and maybe the coinminers themselves will have a bit of civic responsibility. That’s about the best you can hope for as long as the Republicans are in charge.

3. It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Forget the future projections, hope that the grid doesn’t crap out on us tomorrow or next week or (God forbid) in August.

How much is Greg Abbott sweating right now?

I hope it’s a lot. It should be a lot.

With temperatures soaring statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott is scrambling to reassure Texans he’s closely monitoring the state’s shaky electric grid as other GOP officials vow to get back to work fixing a system many, including Abbott, declared they had repaired after deadly outages during last year’s winter storms.

An hour after high-level meetings with Abbott, the state’s electricity monitor warned the public that six power plants had failed, forcing the state to call on Texans to reduce air conditioning usage and watch their energy consumption through the weekend. Electric Reliability Council of Texas did not disclose which units had gone offline or when they’d be back up.

ERCOT data showed demand for power in Texas was projected to be within 2,000 megawatts of the total supply by mid-afternoon on Saturday, triggering the conservation alert. Typically the state has a much bigger cushion. When operating reserves drop below 1,750 megawatts for more than 30 minutes, ERCOT can interrupt power for large industrial customers and can call for rotating blackouts if reserves drop to 1,000 megawatts. A megawatt is about enough electricity to power 200 homes on a hot day.

Peak demand on the grid was expected between 5 and 6 p.m on Saturday.

Abbott, who said last June that lawmakers did “everything that needed to be done” for the grid, released a photo of himself on Friday, meeting with officials from ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission in his office just over an hour before the conservation warning was sent out.

“We continue to work closely to ensure Texas’ power grid remains reliable & meets the needs of Texans,” Abbott said.

[…]

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has been blistering at rallies, reminding voters that more than 700 Texans died, by some estimates, when the grid failed in 2021 during the winter storms. Lawmakers had been repeatedly warned that the power grid needed reforms, but those warnings had largely been unheeded until millions of Texans were left without power during the record freezing temperatures last winter.

O’Rourke has been campaigning on forcing more weatherization requirements on energy providers and connecting the Texas grid to the national grid to ensure the state can tap into national emergency supplies when needed, something Republicans who control the Legislature have declined to do.

On Friday, he blasted Abbott for waiting until after 5 p.m. on Friday to make ERCOT put out their conservation alert, even though he had been meeting with them well before that.

“He doesn’t want Texans to know that he STILL can’t keep the power running in the energy capital of the world,” O’Rourke said on Friday after the ERCOT alert went out.

By the time you read this, the worst is likely to be over, and maybe there haven’t been any power outages resulting from the extra demand on the grid. But you know, it’s not even halfway through May yet. There will be more opportunities for us to be told to turn the A/C down as the temperatures creep up towards 100. Maybe if Greg Abbott had spent some of that federal COVID relief money on fixing the grid instead of having the National Guard write jaywalking tickets we’d be better off now.

Here are some tweets to sum it up:

The classics always have something to say to us.

More on the oligarch suing Beto

From the Observer; I’m picking it up after the initial statements by Beto that got Kelcy Warren’s undies in such a wad:

Free-speech advocates and many legal scholars have long decried these sort frivolous lawsuits—known as SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—as a blatant abuse of the country’s legal system by powerful and wealthy people and corporations in an attempt to silence outspoken activists, critical reporters, and rivals alike.

“Kelcy Warren is far from the first billionaire to file a lawsuit against someone who says something they don’t like. … And even though they’re highly unlikely to succeed on the merits, they file them anyway,” Evan Mascagni, policy director for the anti-SLAPP advocacy group Public Participation Project, told the Observer.

“SLAPP-filers don’t go to court to seek justice. Rather, they file these meritless lawsuits to silence, harass, and intimate their critics. Defending against a meritless lawsuit can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars and clog up the court system for years while at the same time having a chilling effect on the writer or speaker.”

With one of Abbott’s top donors going directly after his political ally’s opponent, Warren’s lawsuit marks an unprecedented incursion into Texas politics—one that is likely to only further elevate the mega-donor’s role in the most high-profile election this year. It seem to be an unwelcome move for Abbott, whose campaign promptly issued a statement saying that it had no involvement with the suit. O’Rourke, meanwhile, is spoiling for the fight—and has doubled-down in his rhetoric in the wake of the lawsuit. Earlier this month, O’Rourke compared Abbott to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him an “authoritarian” and a “thug,” and said, “he’s got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas”—an apparent reference to Warren.

The law firm—Kasowitz Benson Torres—that Warren hired to take on O’Rourke is notorious for aggressively litigating these types of suits on behalf of its powerful clients, including his company, Energy Transfer Partners. The firm’s founder, Marc Kasowitz, was also the longtime attorney for the infamously litigious former President Donald Trump.

[…]

While it’s not clear if O’Rourke will ultimately file a motion to get the suit tossed, experts say the state’s anti-SLAPP law was created for cases like these.

“My general impression of the lawsuit is that it’s very much subject to dismissal under the TCPA,” Lane Haygood, an Odessa-based lawyer who has worked on free-speech cases in the state, told the Observer.

“The statements that could survive [an anti-SLAPP dismissal] are the ones that get closest to accusing Mr. Warren of committing a specific crime,” Haygood added. “There are a couple of times that O’Rourke uses words like extortion or bribery, which are defined crimes under the Texas Penal Code. But they are also rhetorical shorthand and hyperbolic, and so in context, Texas courts are generally likely to hold that such language is not specific enough to be actionable defamation. It is the difference between saying ‘John Smith assaulted me on September 4, 2021,’ and ‘John Smith is a bully who beat me up.’ ”

O’Rourke has dismissed Warren’s claims as blatantly frivolous, saying that everything he’s said is based on publicly available facts and media reports. So far, he’s indicated that he wants to let the case play out—paying for any legal costs with campaign funds. This week, his attorneys filed motions to change the venue of the lawsuit to a court in his home of El Paso County and called for a trial by jury.

Under the state’s anti-SLAPP law, O’Rourke has 60 days from the date he was served—February 28—to file a motion to dismiss. It’s not uncommon for attorneys to wait until the deadline to do so in case the defendant files an amended petition, Haygood said.

Or O’Rourke may see the public spectacle of this lawsuit as a political gift that’s well worth going to court over—especially since his ample campaign funds should easily cover the legal costs of a drawn-out legal battle.

See here and here for the background. Beto has basically until the end of April to file a motion for dismissal, which is still the legally sound strategy. Politically, though, it likely makes more sense to say “bring it”, and start filing tons of motions for discovery. I have no idea what Beto will do, but I’d love to sit in on his next call with the lawyers.

Beto responds to oligarch’s lawsuit

Game on.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke is blasting a pipeline company executive and top donor to Greg Abbott’s re-election campaign for filing a defamation lawsuit against him as he tries to unseat the two-term Republican governor.

O’Rourke’s attorney filed a legal response to the suit in San Saba County on Monday saying it lacked any factual or legal grounds and that O’Rourke denies all the allegations made by Kelcy Warren, a major Abbott donor.

O’Rourke is also asking for a trial by jury. He calls Warren’s lawsuit an attempt to stop him from talking about the role pipeline companies like Warren’s played in causing power outages during the February 2021 freeze that killed over 200 Texans, by the state’s count.

“But no matter how much money they have, or how hard they try to silence me in the courts, I will never back down from standing up for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said.

[…]

Since 2019, Warren has given Abbott $1.25 million, making him one of Abbott’s top four financial backers for his re-election campaign.

Warren, from Dallas, is chairman of the board at the gas pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners and its former CEO. Abbott over the years has appointed Warren to high-profile boards and commissions — Warren is a member of the University of Texas Board of Regents and was previously a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

Warren’s lawsuit alleges that O’Rourke is trying to “publicly humiliate Warren and discourage others from contributing to Gov. Abbott’s campaign.”

“What Mr. Warren is interested in stopping are the irresponsible, defamatory and highly offensive statements by Mr. O’Rourke related to his donation to Gov. Abbott’s campaign,” says a statement from Energy Transfer Partners.

See here for the background, and look deep in your heart for all the sympathy you can muster for this poor, maligned, misunderstood billionaire who only wanted to get an exorbitant return on his investment. Is that so much to ask?

Some details, for the lawyers:

From that first document:

The Plaintiff sued O’Rourke for defamation, and claims venue is proper (indeed, mandatory) in San Saba County because he resided here when the allegedly defamatory statements were made. Original Petition, ¶ 10 (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §15.017).

This claim is untrue. Although the Plaintiff does effectively control some real property in San Saba County, most of it is: (1) undeveloped; and (2) held in the name of an entity that the Plaintiff controls, not the name of the Plaintiff. The evidence shows the Plaintiff in fact lives in Dallas County, Texas, where his homestead is located, where he is registered to vote and where he actually, physically resides. Because the Plaintiff has Filed suit in a county other than a county of mandatory venue, the Court must grant this Motion to Transfer Venue and order the suit to be transferred to El Paso County, Texas, the county of O’Rourke’s residence.

And from the second:

Without waiving the right to plead further, Defendant specially excepts to the remainder of Plaintiff’s claims because Plaintiff has failed to assert factual and legal grounds for recovery against the Defendant under Texas law, or any other applicable law, for the remainder of his purported causes of action. The Defendant requests that Plaintiff be ordered to replead to state a legally actionable cause of action within a specified reasonable time and, upon Plaintiff’s failure to do so, that Plaintiff’s claims against the Defendant be dismissed.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that’s fancy lawyer-speak for “This whole thing is bullshit”. You love to see it. I hope this is giving Greg Abbott indigestion. The Daily Beast has more.

One of Abbott’s billionaire patrons just sued Beto

OMG, this is amazing.

The former CEO of one of the nation’s biggest pipeline companies and a major donor to Gov. Greg Abbott is suing Democrat Beto O’Rourke for defamation, slander, and libel for talking about his company’s role in the 2021 Texas winter storm and referring to the executive’s subsequent donations to Abbott’s re-election as “pretty close to a bribe.”

Kelcy Warren, who was a top executive at the gas pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, filed suit against O’Rourke in San Saba County, seeking more than $1 million in damages from O’Rourke, claiming he is trying to “publicly humiliate Warren and discourage others from contributing to Gov. Abbott’s campaign.”

O’Rourke on Monday responded with a press conference just 5 miles from Energy Transfer Partners’ headquarters in Dallas calling the lawsuit “frivolous” and aimed at trying to stop him from telling the truth about what happened before and after the deadly storms on Abbott’s watch.

“He is trying to stop me from fighting for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “And just as we did before, we are not backing down right now.”

For months, O’Rourke has been blasting Abbott for accepting a $1 million contribution from Warren after the Texas power grid failure during the storm. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Energy Transfer Partners made an additional $2.4 billion last year when the state’s grid manager pushed power prices sky-high to end rolling blackouts. The freeze killed more than 200 people by the state’s estimate and resulted in billions in property damages.

O’Rourke said all he’s done is “connect the dots” for people so they see how Abbott received generous donations from companies that profited on the winter storms.

During a campaign stop in San Antonio last month, O’Rourke said energy companies have essentially paid off Abbott for not being more aggressive and holding them accountable.

“That’s pretty close to a bribe by any definition that I’m familiar with,” O’Rourke said in San Antonio, though he did not call out Warren by name.

Warren also took issue with O’Rourke retweeting a story from Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA in January which details how another energy company, Luminant Corp., had filed a complaint against Energy Transfer Partners with the Texas Railroad Commission. Luminant says in the complaint that Energy Transfer Partners threatened to shut off gas supply to the company unless it paid $22 million in fees connected to the 2021 storms. O’Rourke retweeted the story, with a comment: “That’s extortion.”

In the court filing, Warren’s attorneys argue that O’Rourke’s heated rhetoric has been damaging to “Warren’s reputation and exposed him to public hatred, animus, contempt or ridicule, or financial injury.”

See here and here for some background. A copy of the complaint is here. I almost don’t know where to begin with this. Well, okay, how about what an absolute whiny crybaby snowflake? Did that mean ol’ Beto hurt your widdle fee-fees? Poor, poor, obscenely wealthy baby.

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I’m not going to pretend I know what the likelihood of success for poor downtrodden Kelcy Warren is. I do know that it’s likely months before this ever sees the inside of a courtroom, and if it somehow manages to survive a motion to dismiss it could be a couple of years before we get to the deposition and pretrial hearing stages. But suppose we were to have the lawyers on each side begin the discovery process right now. Who do you think would be more nervous about it, Beto or Abbott? I kind of don’t think Beto will have much to hide. How many emails and texts between Abbott and Warren do you think they might find?

I mean, has anyone introduced ragtag man of the people Kelcy Warren to the Streisand Effect? What better way to make sure that Beto’s main campaign theme is a topic for every local news station to cover on a regular basis? I’ve already seen tweets to this effect, but my first reaction was that Beto is going to have to list this lawsuit as an in-kind donation to his campaign on the July finance report. You literally can’t buy this kind of publicity.

I guess most of us will never understand the pain and suffering and angst and ennui of common folk like Kelcy Warren. We should be grateful to him for performing this service for us. May we come to know him and his inner turmoil much more intimately now. The Trib, who so insensitively refers to Warren as an “oil tycoon”, has more.

More on Abbott’s involvement in “getting the power back on”

Also known as more from the Brazos Electric Power Co-op lawsuit against ERCOT, but that didn’t fit well in the title.

The former chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission testified in court Thursday that during last year’s winter storm and blackout Governor Greg Abbott had ordered her to ride out to the power grid control room in Taylor with one of his top advisers.

DeAnn Walker, who resigned in the political fallout of the blackout, said Abbott told her to, “get the power back on” and keep it on and had a state game warden drive her out to the control room.

“He told me to go out to the Taylor facility and to figure out a way to get the power back on to all the customers and to not go back into rolling outages,” she said in federal bankruptcy court in Houston.

[…]

The utility commission originally ordered power prices to the $9,000 cap on Feb. 16, as power plants began freezing up and dropping off the grid at a fast rate. The next day, as generators were beginning to come back online, there was pressure from some power companies to let the power market resume normal operations.

But Magness and Walker resisted, testifying the grid was still unstable and at risk of falling into a total blackout that could take weeks to recover from.

On Thursday Walker, a former adviser to Abbott who was appointed to the utility commission in 2017, faced questions about why she didn’t call a meeting of the utility commission to consult with other commissioners about keeping power prices at the $9,000 cap.

She replied that she believed the commission’s order from Feb. 16, “was still in place.”

“That was an independent decision I made,” she said. “It wasn’t something as a commission we discussed.”

Asked if she discussed it with anyone else, Walker said, “I don’t remember.”

Walker struggled to remember details of the blackout at numerous times during her testimony Thursday, at times drawing criticism from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Jones.

At the end of her testimony, Jones commented, “I see no purpose in simply highlighting the areas of your unreliability.”

“I am disappointed in your conduct and your lack of candor this morning.”

See here for the previous day’s testimony from former ERCOT head Bill Magness. While it may sound like Abbott was ordering Walker to do something good, it contradicts his previous claims that he was not involved in the decisions being made by ERCOT and the PUC. In addition, the crux of this lawsuit is that ERCOT and the PUC mandated that the price cap for energy remain at the maximum level of $9,000 per kilowatt hour for days after the grid began coming back up, which put many millions of dollars into the pockets of some power generators at the expense of companies like Brazos Electric and their customers, which is to say people like all of us. The lawsuit, part of Brazos’ bankruptcy filing, is over how much they actually owe their suppliers. The plaintiff’s argument, which is backed up by a lot of outside experts, is that the max price cap, which ostensibly was to coax offline generators back online, did nothing of the sort. It was just a huge windfall for the providers that were already producing.

Anyway. A favorable decision for Brazos Electric would obviously be good for them, and I would hope good for their customers. It would also cause other power retailers to follow suit, and who knows how chaotic that might get. Not that it would be a bad thing, just a big uncertainty. And if there are a bunch more lawsuits of this nature, ERCOT is going to be very busy defending itself.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas does not have sovereign immunity from all lawsuits and the Texas Public Utility Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over all claims against ERCOT, according to a ruling by an appeals court ruling this week.

The 12-to-1 decision Wednesday by the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas was widely anticipated because it could have ramifications in hundreds of lawsuits pending in Houston courts stemming from the deadly winter storm in 2021 in which ERCOT is a defendant.

In the ruling, judges cleared the path for Panda Power Funds to pursue hundreds of millions of dollars in damage claims in state court against ERCOT. Panda claims that ERCOT committed fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty when it published intentionally inaccurate reports in 2011 and 2012 that projected a “serious and long-term scarcity of power supply.”

As a result of ERCOT’s allegedly false market data, Panda invested $2.2 billion to build three new power plants — operations that have not generated the revenue that ERCOT predicted.

[…]

The Fifth Court opinion, authored by Justice Erin Nowell, also reverses a decision the same court made in 2018 that ERCOT has sovereign immunity.

“To date, the supreme court has not extended sovereign immunity to a purely private entity neither chartered nor created by the state, and this court will not create new precedent by extending sovereign immunity to ERCOT,” Nowell wrote. “ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity and the legislature did not grant exclusive jurisdiction over Panda’s claims to the PUC. To the extent we previously held otherwise, that holding is in error.”

“Although ERCOT argues it has the power to make binding law, which it calls the ‘quintessential sovereign power,’ the applicable statutes do not support this argument,” the court ruled.

Justice David Schenck dissented, but there is no record of a written dissent.

Lawyers on both sides say the case is now headed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The issue of ERCOT’s sovereign immunity is critical in more than 200 individual wrongful death, personal injury and property damage lawsuits brought by victims of the winter storm that name ERCOT among defendants. Those cases have been consolidated before a judge in Houston.

“This is a huge win for both Texas consumers and businesses whose lives and livelihoods were so drastically impacted by the actions and inactions of ERCOT,” said Houston trial lawyer Derek Potts, who represents dozens of victims of the storm. “It is safe to say that more litigation against ERCOT is coming.”

See here, here, and here for more on the Panda Power case, which originated in 2019 and thus has nothing to do with the freeze lawsuits. Well, it didn’t at the time, which was of course before the freeze, but it sure does now. Justice Nowell is now a candidate for State Supreme Court, by the way. Just passing that along.

Go ahead and blame Greg Abbott for your high electricity bills

They really are his fault.

The former head of the Texas power grid testified in court Wednesday that when he ordered power prices to stay at the maximum price cap for days on end during last year’s frigid winter storm and blackout, running up billions of dollars in bills for power companies, he was following the direction of Governor Greg Abbott.

Bill Magness, the former CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said even as power plants were starting come back online former Public Utility Commission Chairman DeAnn Walker had told him that Abbott wanted them to do whatever necessary to prevent further rotating blackouts that left millions of Texans without power.

“She told me the governor had conveyed to her if we emerged from rotating outages it was imperative they not resume,” Magness testified. “We needed to do what we needed to do to make it happen.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last year the governor’s spokesman, Mark Miner said the governor was not “involved in any way” in the decision to keep prices at the maximum of $9,000 per megawatt hour – more than 150 times normal prices. He described a decision to send an aide to ERCOT’s operations center in the middle of the crisis as based on the feeling the grid operator was spewing “disinformation.”

Magness’s decision to keep power prices at the maximum cap for more than 24 hours after conditions on the power grid began to improve is now at the center of a bankruptcy trial waged by the Waco-based electric co-op Brazos Electric.

Brazos contends that decision was made recklessly, adding up to a $1.9 billion power bill from ERCOT that forced them into bankruptcy.

“It did nothing at all to cause more generation to come online,” said Lino Mendiola, one of the attorneys representing Brazos. “It was an attempted remedy that didn’t solve any of the problems caused by the winter storm.”

The original order to raise power prices to the cap was made by the Public Utility Commission on Feb. 15, to try to get power plants back online and encourage large power users like factories and petrochemical plants to stay offline. ERCOT elected to keep prices at the cap until Feb. 19, a decision that the Texas Independent Market Monitor criticized in a report last year as having, “exceeded the mandate of the Commission.”

“This decision resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to ERCOT’s market,” wrote Carrie Bivens, director of ERCOT’s Independent Market Monitor.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seems like kind of a big deal, doesn’t it? Maybe also puts some recent pronouncements by Abbott in a different context, too. Abbott, through a spokesperson, has now denied the claims of the testimony, which of course he would. I can’t wait to hear what else comes out of this lawsuit.

Winter storm litigation about to get busy

Some test cases will be underway soon.

During the past year, the wrongful-death, personal injury and property damage lawsuits — nearly all consolidated before one judge in Houston — moved at a snail’s pace. Hardly any court hearings were conducted. No witnesses were deposed. Settlement discussions never took place.

The next two months, however, are pivotal to the survival of the lawsuits.

On orders of a judge, plaintiffs’ attorneys have spent recent weeks updating their cases, adding dozens of corporations as defendants and presenting new theories about why the power grid nearly collapsed in the brutal cold, leaving millions without power and contributing to the deaths of hundreds.

Key defendants in most of the earliest lawsuits were the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electricity grid, and large generators and transmission companies such as CenterPoint Energy, TXU Energy, Reliant and NRG Energy.

Now the suits have added the power providers’ parent companies, subsidiaries and business partners, such as power producers and retailers such as Vistra, Duke Energy, NextEra and Talen Energy.

Judge Sylvia Matthews has given attorneys until Feb. 28 to choose five individual suits from the 174 brought by more than 400 plaintiffs to be so-called test cases.

“By all accounts, this is a judge who wants these cases to move forward and doesn’t allow grass to grow under her feet,” said Mikal Watts, a Houston lawyer who represents 65 people in the cases.

[…]

Not all the legal disputes are part of the multidistrict litigation.

For example, nearly all the energy companies named in the wrongful-death, personal injury and property lawsuits also are battling each other and ERCOT over issues such as wholesale power pricing that reached $9,000 per kilowatt-hour.

“Lawyers on both sides agree that the financial ramifications of Winter Storm Uri caused the biggest transfer of wealth in Texas history,” said Houston lawyer Derek Potts, who is involved in several of the pending lawsuits. “The question is, ‘Was it legal?’”

“Actual discovery has not even started, and that is when we will pinpoint what links in the chain are to be held responsible,” he added. “The pipeline companies, for example, reaped a tremendous windfall from Winter Storm Uri and the outrageous prices. Is that legal?”

See here for some background on the cases before Judge Matthews and our new best friend, the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, for which I still want someone to write me a long background story. I’m very interested both in those five initial test cases and in the fight over the ridiculous price level that power was allowed to reach last year. I’d sure like for the answer to those questions posed to be “No”, but I have no idea what it would mean if a court were to make that decision. Not that I wouldn’t want to find out, just that it would be more chaotic than if the Legislature took action. But chaos may be the only way forward, so here we are. Original story is from Texas Lawbook, but it’s behind a paywall. The above is taken from the Chron excerpt.

Houston’s preparations for the next freeze

We learned from the experience, which I hope will serve us well for the next time.

The grid’s near collapse last February had drastic consequences for local governments, none more acute than the challenge water systems confronted in trying to keep taps flowing without power. In Houston, the outages and difficulties with back-up generators resulted in a four-day boil-water notice. In Texas, providers to nearly two-thirds of the population were unable to send clean water to customers.

Public Works has done test runs, called “black starts,” for years at its main water plants, but now has expanded the practice to eight other critical facilities. The department also has provided CenterPoint with an updated list of critical infrastructure, hired new contractors for generator maintenance at pump stations, pursued an $8 million grant for wastewater plant generators, stocked up on chemicals to treat water and roadways and drafted protocols to distribute bottled water.

“We are more prepared than a year ago, but still not as prepared as we want to be and need to be,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has managed responses to seven federally declared disasters in his six-year tenure. “It’s a constant work in progress.”

During the freeze, workers scrambled to fix generators, maintain pressure in the system, and account for chlorine shortages and spare supplies of bottled water.

The prolonged power outages proved more daunting than those in Hurricane Harvey or any other event of the last 15 years, said Drew Molly, who leads drinking water operations for Public Works.

“This one took the prize. This was a bad situation,” Molly said. “As rough as it was, I think there’s some things … that are going to make Houston more resilient going forward.”

The most substantial generator failure in the city’s network occurred at the northeast plant, where machines tripped offline during the switch to back-up power and led to an hours-long outage. Molly said Public Works is working on a procedure to proactively switch to generators before the power goes out to avoid that scenario in future storms, though it may require state approval.

[…]

John C. Tracy, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M, said those kinds of common-sense adjustments often are the most prudent system upgrades after severe events.

“You cannot prevent this from happening, all you can do is prepare and respond,” Tracy said.

Texas should include the risk of weather events like hurricanes and winter storms in its water plan, drafted every five years to address the state’s water needs. Currently, it only accounts for droughts, Tracy said. The change could help make billions of dollars available to cities and water authorities for a broader array of projects through what is called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which provides low-cost financing to help communities develop water infrastructure.

You can read the rest to see more about what the city is doing – Harris County has a more limited role since the county doesn’t manage a water system – and overall it seems like they’re doing sensible things. You don’t really know until you’re actually tested, but doing good prep and some regular drills and simulations should help.

Of greater interest to me is the bit in that last paragraph about the use of SWIFT funds. The House passed a bill last spring that would have done exactly that, made $2 billion available from that fund for weatherization projects. That sounds like a decent idea, but the bill (and an accompanying joint resolution for a constitutional amendment, which I presume was necessary because SWIFT was established via amendment) was never taken up in the Senate. You remember all that talk from Greg Abbott about how everything is now peachy with the electric grid? This is exactly the sort of thing that could have been done to improve things, but it wasn’t. You tell me why this didn’t happen, or better yet have Dan Patrick tell me, because this died without a peep in the Senate, and that’s his fiefdom.

By the way, the last I’d heard of SWIFT since the 2013 referendum vote was in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, when there was briefly some talk about tapping into SWIFT funds for flood mitigation projects. Far as I can tell, that went nowhere as well, though it’s possible that federal relief funds obviated the need for it. I don’t know enough to say one way or the other. What I do know is that I have no idea how SWIFT has been used since it was set up in 2013, which sure seems less than optimal to me. Some dashboards and a searchable database, that’s all I’m asking here.

In case you’d forgotten, we still haven’t fixed the power grid

It has other problems too, which we also haven’t addressed.

Millions of Texans lost power in February 2021. Hundreds died as a result. Tens of billions of dollars in damages were lost. Billions were just transferred from consumers by government action, and now consumers are paying billions to bail out corporations. What went wrong?

Stripping away everything else, the system operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, failed because generator companies did not invest in weatherization practices after a similar failure in 2011. For eight of the 10 years prior to 2021, the average wholesale price of electricity in ERCOT was too low for generator companies to earn returns on capital. Consequently, they had every incentive not to invest in weatherization. The ERCOT market rewarded volatility at the expense of reliability, despite a decade of warning.

[…]

We identified that the ERCOT market rewards gaming to drive up prices in times of tight supply — driven by the weather or contrivance. Recall the 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind” about Nobel Prize-winning game theorist John Nash.

Nash showed that sellers will explicitly or tacitly collude to drive up prices if given the opportunity — as the OPEC cartel demonstrates. The ERCOT market has been subject to complaints about market manipulation since 2003. For example, suppose the ABCD Generation Company operates 10 large plants in the ERCOT service region. For much of the year, it operates seven plants, keeping three idle. Let’s have bad weather hit anytime.

Ask yourself what the payoff is to start the three idle plants if there is a chance that adding the power generated by those three plants would keep the average wholesale market price at 3 cents per kilowatt hour when not starting those plants virtually guarantees that the wholesale price jumps higher — perhaps to the price cap of $9 per kWh under the ERCOT market rules in 2021? Is there a question about what the generators would do?

The ERCOT market has trusted participants to make infrastructure investments, conduct maintenance and needed upgrades, and to maintain reserves at the generator rather than system level. But without having incentives or mandates to maintain electric reserves in case of a surge in demand, the Texas marketplace has been caught off guard when demand outpaces the supply of energy.

The ERCOT market exchanged reliability in favor of volatility and increased uncertainty for consumers and generators alike.

The common argument for the design of the ERCOT market is that it keeps electricity prices low, a key issue for energy-intensive manufacturing plants along the Gulf Coast. Proponents continue to argue that electricity rates in Texas are lower than in states with regulated utilities.

The data do not support that claim. Individual customers in the ERCOT territory paid on average $5,500 more on their electric bills over a 14-year period. Prices for consumers within the ERCOT marketplace are consistently higher than for the roughly 15 percent of Texas customers in regulated marketplaces outside the ERCOT service area.

Estimates by the Wall Street Journal show that ERCOT’s consumers paid almost $28 billion more between 2004 and 2019 than they would have in an old-fashioned regulated market.

A report by the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power found that prior to partial deregulation in 2002, Texans paid rates 6.4 percent below the national average, while in the following 10 years, they paid rates 8.5 percent above the national average.

We’ve discussed these topics before, but there’s always more to learn or be reminded about. The author of this piece is Ed Hirs, who co-produced a report about ERCOT in 2013 that detailed all of these problems, which remain in place. In other words, it’s been an issue the entire time that Greg Abbott has been Governor. Go read the rest.

A year after the freeze

A sobering portrait of grief and loss from last year’s freeze, from the Chron.

A year ago, a blast of frigid weather swept across the state, paralyzing the power grid and setting off a catastrophe. Power generators went offline, leaving millions in the dark for days without heat or water. Frozen pipes ruptured, damaging tens of thousands of homes in Houston alone. The state’s overwhelmed electrical grid came within five minutes of a total collapse.

Hundreds of Texans died from a variety of freeze-related causes, including automobile wrecks, hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning from fires or generators brought inside their homes.

In a place all too familiar with natural disasters, many still remain shocked by the failures of the electrical grid and government leaders, who failed to heed prior warnings about the importance of ensuring power plants prepared for winter storms.

Add to that the fear that another winter storm could spell disaster once more, even as residents across Houston and Texas still are fixing property damage, awaiting the results of lawsuits and mourning those lost in last year’s freeze.

“I think about her every day,” William said of his mother. “If it weren’t for that freeze, I feel like she would still be alive.”

This is a more focused and intimate look at people who lost loved ones last February, rather than a broader look at the numbers. (*) It’s about the people, not the policies and the ways that they failed us, and it’s tough to read because you can feel the sadness and guilt and despair. It’s worth your time.

(*) If you want to read a story about the numbers, it’s here.

The noble sacrifice of the coin miners

You’re welcome.

Chad Harris got an urgent phone call during last February’s epic Texas winter storm, something he was expecting as the operator of the single largest bitcoin mining and hosting facility in North America.

“You need to shed your power now; we need it,” Harris said, recalling the conversation with his local transmission company in Central Texas. As CEO of Rockdale-based Whinstone, which later became a subsidiary of Riot Blockchain, he had a ready answer.

“I told them we already had done it two days ago,” he said.

That storm left at least 4.5 million electricity customers in Texas without power.

This time around, there’s been a year of dialogue between mining companies, the governor’s office and the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Miners met with Gov. Greg Abbott in October and said they would shut down in the event of another winter storm.

Earlier this week, Riot Blockchain sent a letter to Abbott with its plan to voluntarily shut down and had 99% of its operations powered off by 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“Last year, the miners turned off during [the] winter storm, but there were fewer bitcoin miners then and less megawatts to be taken offline,” said Lee Bratcher, president of the Texas Blockchain Council, an association representing the blockchain industry. “It still made an impact on thousands and thousands of homes. But this year, there are more and larger mining operations that can push back power and they’ve been proactive.”

After the 2021 storm, ERCOT contacted mining companies — drawn to Texas by lower energy costs — for help since they are heavy electricity users. ERCOT realized miners could assist in balancing supply and demand during extreme weather by shutting down operations and selling unused power back to the grid as part of an emergency response program.

Yeah, and you can save more gas by not driving a Hummer instead of not driving a Honda Civic. Any virtue you may derive from that still needs to be balanced against the gas-guzzling you had been doing before. I’m glad that the coin miners were willing to do their part to keep my lights on, but let’s not throw them a parade just yet.

Okay, so maybe there will be some blackouts

Oops.

With freezing weather expected to hit a large portion of Texas this week, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday tried to assure Texans that the state is better prepared this year than last, but said there could be local power outages throughout the state.

“Either ice on power lines … could cause a power line to go down, or it could be ice on trees that causes a tree to fall on power lines,” Abbott said.

This week’s cold front could be the first significant test of the state’s main power grid since last February’s freeze left millions of Texans without power for days in subfreezing temperatures. Hundreds of people died because of that storm.

“No one can guarantee there won’t be [power outages],” Abbott said Tuesday, just over two months after he promised the lights would stay on this winter.

Coulda fooled me. It’s almost as if you can’t believe a word this guy says.

We’re all grownups here, and we all know that power outages occur all the time, for reasons that have nothing to do with the capability or robustness of the state’s electric grid. Stuff happens, and the local folks are pretty good about responding to these situations. That’s not the point here. The point is that we had an enormous systemic failure a year ago, one that came with a tremendous cost. It was the third such failure in recent years, and there were clear lessons learned and improvements to be made from the first two that just never happened. Even after that third massive and deadly failure and the lessons we re-re-learned, we got way more blather and empty promises from Greg Abbott, who raked in millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the power grid fat cats who made absolute bank off of the debacle, than action. And now Abbott is trying to hedge his bets a little and claim that when he said there would be no power outages this winter, he didn’t really mean it. You tell me what we should do about that.

Who’s worried about electricity in Texas?

The guy who writes The Watchdog for the DMN, for one. The people with real power in this state, not so much.

I was lonely.

For more than a decade, it was as if I were the only North Texas journalist regularly covering the flaws of the Texas electricity system. It’s not that I was so smart. I heard from hundreds of readers every year who complained about the confusing and unfair deregulated market.

Yet when the Texas Legislature met, nothing ever happened. An electricity activist, Carol Biedryzcki, promoted common-sense solutions that nobody listened to. Sylvester Turner, a former state representative who is now Houston’s mayor, introduced reform bills that never got voted on.

Another Houston representative, Gene Wu, introduced fix-it bills, too. Lawmakers who cared about the issue could fit in a small elevator.

It became obvious that no governor or state lawmaker wanted to tangle with what former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said of the electricity industry: “The most powerful, dangerous lobby… that has ever been created by any organization in this country.”

[…]

Then came the horrific February freezeout, and everything changed. People died. Homes were ruined. Businesses were shuttered. The suffering was immeasurable for days. One of the worst Texas weather events ever.

The story was suddenly front and center. The Texas energy house of cards collapsed. Complete favoritism toward the industry was as obvious as the noontime sun. Right before our eyes, in real time, corruption flourished.

[…]

When the power returned, I began by pointing fingers at the governors, lawmakers, regulators and industry powerhouses who were responsible.

“Don’t count on state lawmakers to admit culpability,” I wrote. “And don’t trust their coming investigations to be unbiased.”

I released the 2021 edition of my annual electricity shopping guide. It’s a free step-by-step guide with tips that I’ve shared with tens of thousands of Texans, online, in the newspaper and as a paper flier.

DeAnn Walker, the chairperson of the (p)UC, who months before in a huff had eliminated the Enforcement Division, appeared before the state Senate. I called her the “incredible shrinking chairman.”

“You’re the commissioner!” one Republican senator chastised. “Y’all don’t have any teeth,” another scolded.

Her reply shows why she lost the P: “If you believe we have that authority, I’m open to moving forward with it,” Walker said. Believe it.

She resigned in disgrace and was replaced as chair by Arthur D’Andrea.

He lasted two weeks. In a 48-minute conference call with investors, first reported by Texas Monthly, he assured them he was doing everything within his power “to tip the scale as hard as I could” so billions of dollars in overcharges from the freezeout would not be reversed.

He laid out the strategy that would come later when lawmakers, the Texas Railroad Commission (regulating oil and gas) and the (p)UC approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds to pay back energy companies’ losses.

Unfortunately, companies that made millions of dollars during the crisis will see some of that bailout money, too.

Who repays the $10 billion? You. But don’t worry, it’s a long-term loan.

D’Andrea also told investors in that call that he didn’t “expect to see a ton” of improvements passed by lawmakers. He was correct. Although for the first time ever, many reform bills were introduced. Most died.

The Watchdog kept a scorecard for good reform bills. Most had notations of either “Stuck in committee” or “No action taken.”

Texans should not have been surprised at electric grid operator ERCOT’s failing. The non-profit was a cesspool of corruption years before. In 2005, a massive procurement scandal led to criminal convictions. Fake companies were created by ERCOT managers, and millions of dollars were siphoned from ERCOT funds.

There’s more, but you get the idea. A lot of this we’ve seen before, but there’s no harm in being reminded. Greg Abbott is counting on a normal winter and a whole lot of short attention spans to claim a victory for doing nothing. Don’t let him do it.

The cities and the freeze

Well, at least some government entities are trying to learn from the February disaster, even if they’re having a rough go of it.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

[…]

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Now do the story about what Greg Abbott has learned from the experience and what he’s doing about it. Oh, wait…

The final official death toll from the big freeze

It’s undoubtedly an underestimate.

Texas has added 36 more deaths to the official death toll from the February snow and ice storm, bringing the total to 246 in what was one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history.

The Department of State Health Services disclosed the new total in a report on the storm that was released Friday and described as the “final report” in an analysis by the department’s Disaster Mortality Surveillance Unit. The deaths occurred between Feb. 11 and June 4. The figure includes people who were injured in the storm but did not die until later, and also people whose bodies were found after the storm, including during repairs of damaged homes.

The 246 deaths spanned 77 counties and included victims ranging from less than 1 year old to 102 years old, according to the report. Close to two-thirds of the deaths were due to hypothermia. Of the deaths, the report classified 148 as “direct,” 92 as “indirect” and six as “possible,” using criteria developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DSHS previously pegged the death toll at 210 in July. The agency said in the report that it identifies deaths through “mortality surveillance forms, death certificates, and verification of informally reported deaths.”

[…]

In addition to hypothermia, DSHS attributed the storm-related deaths to “exacerbation of pre-existing illness” (10%), motor vehicle accidents (9%), carbon monoxide poisoning (8%), fires (4%) and falls (4%). The Texas Tribune and NBC News reported in December that portable generators, which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, are some of the deadliest consumer products.

There are other ways to approach this question. Last spring Buzzfeed used “excess mortality” – a comparison to the actual number of deaths at that time to the historic baseline – and estimated that as many as a thousand people may have died as a result of the freeze. That comes with large error bars, but even the low end of that range is almost twice as much as the official DSHS tally. However you look at it, it was a lot, and it was totally unnecessary. And it remains a big risk going forward because Greg Abbott and the Legislature and the Railroad Commission did basically nothing to mitigate it. That’s the real headline here.

Nobody bullshits like Greg Abbott

Some stories I blog about require subtle thought and detailed analysis. Others pretty much speak for themselves.

The two most powerful people overseeing Texas’ electric grid sat next to each other in a quickly arranged Austin news conference in early December to try to assure Texans that the state’s electricity supply was prepared for winter.

“The lights are going to stay on this winter,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoing recent public remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Two weeks earlier, Abbott had told Austin’s Fox 7 News that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on.” The press conference that followed from Lake and the chief of the state’s independent grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, came at the governor’s request, according to two state officials and one other person familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was 150% Abbott’s idea,” said one of the people familiar with the communication from Abbott’s team. “The governor wanted a press conference to give people confidence in the grid.”

A source close to Lake said the idea for the press conference was Lake’s, and the governor supported it when Lake brought up the idea during a meeting.

Abbott has for months been heavily involved in the public messaging surrounding the power grid’s winter readiness. In addition to the press conference, he has asked a major electric industry trade group to put out a “positive” public statement about the grid and has taken control of public messaging from ERCOT, according to interviews with current and former power grid officials, energy industry trade group representatives and energy company directors and executives.

But the messaging has projected a level of confidence about the grid that isn’t reflected in data released by ERCOT or echoed by some power company executives and energy experts who say they’re worried that another massive winter storm could trigger widespread grid failures like those that left millions of Texans without power in February, when hundreds of people died.

Abbott has also met one-on-one with energy industry CEOs to ask about their winter readiness — but those meetings happened weeks after Abbott made his public guarantee about the grid.

“You’d think he would have asked to meet with us before saying that,” one person involved in the energy company meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said of Abbott’s guarantee.

Ten months after the power grid failures caused hundreds of deaths and became national news, an election year is approaching and Abbott’s two top primary challengers and his top Democratic challenger have already been harshly criticizing the governor over his handling of the power grid.

“It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move,” Peter Cramton, an energy markets expert and former ERCOT board member who resigned after the storm, said of Abbott’s promise. “It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now.”

The details may be news, but the basics have been known for some time. Abbott has bet the 2022 election on there not being a freeze big enough to cause another massive blackout. When we make it through the winter without anything bad happening – and let’s be honest, the odds of another freeze like this past February are pretty small, though perhaps the odds of any kind of freeze are higher – he will claim full credit for “fixing” the problem, even though he has done nothing of the sort. But who are you gonna believe, your own uninterrupted power supply or those yappy liberals?

I, being more risk averse and being the type of person who wants to actually, you know, do things, would not take this approach. But given that he was never going to advocate for something that would make a difference anyway, why not double down? The odds are in his favor, if not ever in his favor. Just remember that no matter what happens over the next three months or so, it was all bullshit. Every last bit of it.

ERCOT and PUC swear there will be no blackouts this winter

Do you believe them?

The Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Wednesday pledged that the “lights will stay on” this winter as it inspects power generators and enforces other requirements to avoid a deadly power outage that crippled Texas during a February storm.

Peter Lake, chairman of the PUC, which regulates utilities in the state, said at a press conference that his agency and ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, have moved at “lightning speed” to change the requirements for power producers and natural gas supplies to operate during winter months. The PUC oversees ERCOT.

“Our grid is safer and stronger than ever,” he said. “Because of all these efforts, the lights will stay on. No other grid has made so many changes in such a short amount of time as we have.”

The promise to keep power flowing comes about 10 months after massive outages caused by a winter storm that plunged millions of Texans into freezing darkness, leading to the deaths of hundreds. All commissioners who served the PUC resigned or were fired, as was the CEO of ERCOT. State legislators and new commissioners on the PUC have passed laws and rules requiring power generators and affiliated companies to better prepare for frigid weather.

Among the changes are new penalties and requirements, and a reduction in the maximum price for one megawatt hour of power to $5,000 from $9,000 beginning Jan. 1. Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, said the previous pricing scheme allowed generators to make the bulk of their money during tight grid conditions.

“This is intended to redistribute revenues so instead of making all your money only during extreme scarcity events, you’re getting more money from a flatter curve,” she said. ” You’re still getting $5,000 per megawatt hour in a tight time, which is still a whole lot of cash, but more of your revenue will come from normal days.”

[…]

Silverstein said that the violation reports and other rules changes are a good start, but that more needs to be done. The PUC, she said, should commission an analysis of the current condition of the grid, determine what needs to be done to improve reliability and estimate the cost to consumers, she said. Power generators, she said, should be able to show they can restart the entire grid in the event it collapses. And, she said, the PUC should address Texas’ nation-leading energy demand instead of solely focusing on adding new generation.

“I think they are right to say they have made a meaningful dent in preventing some of the problems that Winter Storm Uri revealed,” Silverstein said. “But that doesn’t mean the job is done yet.”

It is plausible to me that some beneficial changes have been made. Whether any of that makes a material difference or not, who knows. If we do make it through the winter with no problems, the odds are it’s due to a more normal winter and a bit of luck rather than anything transformative, but in the end it is the result that matters. For sure, whether by luck or by better oversight and regulation, Greg Abbott will win his bet and claim credit for it. The Texas Signal and the Trib, which reminds us that the Railroad Commission has not yet drafted any new weatherization rules for gas producers, have more.

A brief look at the winter storm litigation

This story is actually about the judge who will be presiding over winter storm cases, but it caught my eye for a reason that will be apparent.

Sylvia A. Matthews presided over more than 175 jury trials and 160 bench trials during her decade as a Harris County District Court judge. Lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants say she is smart, fair, well-prepared, hard-working, efficient and decisive.

Matthews will need all those qualities over the next several months as she oversees more than 150 highly complex civil lawsuits filed by victims seeking billions of dollars in damages as the result of last February’s winter storm, which was one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in Texas history.

The lawsuits filed across Texas include individuals suing for wrongful death, personal injury and property damages and companies complaining about breach of contracts, interruption of business and price-gouging.

Some of the largest power companies, such as the Houston utility CenterPoint Energy, the Chicago company Exelon and Vistra Energy of Irving, one of the state’s biggest generators and retail electricity providers.

While the lawsuits have been filed in more than a dozen Texas courts, the Texas Supreme Court has consolidated them into one docket, called multidistrict litigation.

The cases are consolidated for efficiency, allowing pretrial issues, such as production of evidence and admissibility of testimony, to be decided in a uniform matter. Once the pretrial issues are decided, the cases are usually sent back to the courts where the lawsuits were filed for trial.

For example, lawyers predict that the 200 lawsuits already filed in the Astroworld tragedy will also be consolidated into a single proceeding for pre-trial purposes.

[…]

The winter storm litigation is likely to take years to resolve, according to legal experts. In fact, the statute of limitations for more lawsuits does not expire for another year, meaning more cases may still be filed.

The stuff in between is about Judge Matthews, a Republican now serving as a visiting jurist following her electoral defeat in 2018. It’s fine, I’m glad she’s good at her job, but it was the stuff about the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel that I noticed. Here’s this thing I’d never heard of before October of this year, and now it’s turning up all over the place, including and not surprisingly in the AstroWorld cases. I feel like someone owes me a nice in-depth explainer about this body. How long has it been in existence, what are the rules that govern it, who serves and how do they get there, and is it just one of those things that it’s been a key player in such high profile and hot button matters as these cases plus SB8 or is it somehow a sign of the times? Oh, to be an assignment editor. Seriously, someone write me that story, I’d read the hell out of it.

Anyway. Litigation over the freeze and blackout and responsibility for the latter will no doubt go on for years, but hopefully it will help provide some answers. Lord knows, we’re not getting any from our state leaders. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further news.

It’s the power grid, stupid

It’s also a campaign theme.

Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.

Specifically, they want to talk about how it failed in February, how they don’t think enough has been done to fix it and why they believe Republicans in statewide leadership positions are the ones to blame.

Democratic candidates and strategists see the power grid as the Republican party’s biggest vulnerability — and they see highlighting it as their best shot at winning crossover voters in the state’s 2022 election cycle, which is expected to be an uphill battle for the minority party.

In stump speeches and messages to supporters, Democrats say that GOP leaders failed at fixing the shortcomings of the state’s energy infrastructure that led to millions of Texans losing power for multiple days during a winter storm in February, which resulted in a death toll that has been calculated as ranging from 210 to more than 700 people.

Beto O’Rourke, the frontrunner to challenge Republican Greg Abbott for governor, has said the two-term incumbent did “absolutely nothing” to heed warnings despite a previous electricity blackout in 2011. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, coined the slogan “fix the damn grid” as one of his campaign’s top priorities. And Luke Warford, who is running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and natural gas industry, has made “Let’s keep the lights on!” his campaign slogan.

“It makes sense for Democrats to want to channel those doubts and put them front and center,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “About the only good thing for Democrats about the extended Republican monopoly [in state politics] and their demonstrated inability to break that monopoly is that there’s only one political party that can be blamed.”

Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree. It’s not much of a campaign slogan if there’s no conflict. The story notes that 1) the public largely agrees with the position that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough, according to the polling data we have; 2) the state’s own studies say we’re still vulnerable to blackouts under the right (or wrong, depending on how you want to look at it) set of circumstances; and 3) numerous Republicans, from Dan Patrick to the pack of jackals running against Abbott in the Republican primary, think that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough to fix the problem. As I said, this is Greg Abbott’s bet, that things will be sufficiently OK through the next winter and summer, and if so he’ll claim the credit for it. Only time will tell.

Greg Abbott’s bet

What, me worry about blackouts?

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.

We’re still vulnerable to blackouts

So says ERCOT.

Electricity outages in Texas could occur this winter if the state experiences a cold snap that forces many power plants offline at the same time as demand for power is high, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The outages could occur despite better preparations by power plants to operate in cold weather.

Heading into the winter, ERCOT considered five extreme scenarios in a risk assessment of the state’s power supply. The grid operator estimates both how much electricity Texans are expected to demand and how much electricity power plants are expected to produce ahead of each season.

Following the widespread February power outages that left millions without electricity for several days, ERCOT changed those assessments to calculate what would happen if extreme conditions occurred simultaneously — like what happened this year.

The calculations show the power grid’s vulnerability to the cumulative impact of multiple pressures that could leave the system short of a significant amount of power. Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times. When Texas’ grid falls below its safety margin of 2,300 megawatts of extra supply, ERCOT, the grid operator, starts taking additional precautions to avoid blackouts, such as asking residents to conserve power.

The calculations for severe risk this winter show that it wouldn’t take a storm as bad as the one in February, when hundreds of people died, to take the grid offline.

[…]

“We’ve had years of poor planning of peak [demand] by ERCOT,” said Alison Silverstein, an expert on Texas’ electricity system who formerly worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. She spoke during a public event hosted by the environmental group the Sierra Club on Saturday. “ERCOT’s power market has historically been managed to minimize costs, not to assure excellent reliability.”

Four of the five extreme risk scenarios ERCOT considered would leave the grid short a significant amount of power, which would trigger outages for residents.

The extreme scenarios have a low chance of occurring, ERCOT emphasizes in its report, and the grid operator estimates more power generation will be available than last winter.

Under typical winter grid conditions, the ERCOT report said, there will be sufficient power available to serve the state.

Well yeah, but if this winter had been typical we wouldn’t have had the massive power failures we did. The point is we did have them. There is a calculation that needs to be done to balance the likelihood of a given event occurring and the bad things that will happen if it does. Not all risks are worth the cost of mitigation, but we do tend to take action against the things that have the biggest downside. House fires are increasingly rare, for a variety of reasons, but we still install smoke detectors and carry insurance against the damage and loss they cause. If we’re not taking all reasonable steps to mitigate against the kind of outage we had this February, we are definitely doing it wrong.

Luke Warford announces for Railroad Commissioner

He’s got the right idea about what to run on.

Luke Warford

A 32-year-old former top staffer for the Texas Democratic Party is running for a spot on the three-person commission regulating the state’s oil and gas industry, hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Christian with a chief focus on the power grid failure earlier this year.

Luke Warford, the party’s former chief strategy officer, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he is running for the Texas Railroad Commission “because I genuinely think this is one of the most important elected offices in the state and because the current people serving on the commission are only looking out for their interests and the interests of their friends, not the interests of Texans.”

“No time was that clearer than during the winter storm,” Warford said, faulting the commission for not doing enough to ensure natural gas companies “weatherize” their facilities, or prepare them for extreme weather.

Christian announced months ago that he would seek a second term in 2022, and Warford is an underdog. The 2020 Democratic nominee for railroad commissioner, Chrysta Castañeda, lost by 9 percentage points, despite getting national money and facing a little-known Republican, Jim Wright, who had unseated an incumbent in the primary.

Warford is undeterred, saying he believes the grid failure “fundamentally changes the calculus” for the race. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that voters are very dissatisfied with how lawmakers responded to the crisis, with 18% approving and 60% disapproving.

Warford may or may not have the primary to himself – filing season still hasn’t begun, so we just don’t know yet. He may be a great candidate on paper, but we’ve all seen good candidates struggle to make themselves known to primary voters because they don’t have any money, and we know what kind of random results we can get because of it. So while I’m glad to see him in the race and I’m especially glad to see the issues he wants to prioritize, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

All that said, Warford has the right idea for how to position this campaign. The freeze and the blackout are necessarily going to be big issues, and the Railroad Commission is uniquely placed to do something about what happened. I fully expect there will be similar messaging from the top of the ticket, which will help. I mean, probably 90% of the state has no idea who or what the Railroad Commission is, but thanks to that deeply scarring incident from earlier this year, more people have likely at least seen a mention of it, and should be receptive to hearing about what they have (not) done and what they can do to make sure another disastrous freeze-induced blackout doesn’t happen again.

Both incumbent Wayne Christian, a former backbencher in the Lege, and Democrat Grady Yarbrough, an annoying perennial candidate, were bigtime underperformers in the 2016 election. Both got the fewest votes for their party on the statewide ballot. Nearly 750K voters, a bit more than 8.5% of the total, picked one of the third-part candidates instead. Some of that is because voters’ attention tends to wander a bit in those lower-profile races, and some of that was because those two were and are unqualified chuckleheads. We can at least take care of our side of that equation this year. Beyond that, raising enough money to make sure the voters know who’s who on this ballot is going to be critical. I welcome Luke Warford to the race and hope he can pull his weight and get the support he’s going to need if he’s the nominee. The Chron has more.

Exempt yourself

Is it really a regulation if you can just say nope, sorry, no can do?

The Public Utility Commission of Texas approved weatherization standards for electricity generators on Thursday, requiring them to be ready for winter cold by by Dec. 1 but allowing them to seek exemptions if they fail to comply.

Among the new requirements, generators will be required to shelter systems from wind, protect sensors for components vital to cold-weather operations, inspect insulation, establish schedules for testing systems that guard against freezing and improve installation of systems to monitor components vital to cold-weather operations. They’ll also be required to train workers on cold-weather protocols and file winter weather readiness reports.

Power producers can seek exemptions if they fail to comply with any of the measures, even if they never plan to implement some of the requirements. Exemptions would require approval of the PUC, which regulates the state’s utilities, and ERCOT, which manages the state’s power grid.

ERCOT, which is overseen by the PUC, will be required to inspect power generators this winter. Any generator that experiences multiple forced outages will have to hire an engineer to assess weatherization efforts.

PUC Chairman Peter Lake said Thursday that the weatherization rules were the first wave of other, more permanent standards that will be developed and implemented by ERCOT at a later day. The rules approved Thursday will ensure that the grid is ready for the coming winter.

“We’ve got to make sure this is in place by winter,” Lake said. “This makes sure the reliability of grid will be vastly improved this year compared to last year.”

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the weatherization mandates mirror those recommended — but never enacted — after the 2011 freeze and subsequent power outages. He said they’re also similar to rules set up in the federally regulated grids, which have had more success staying online during severe weather. He cautioned, however, that could take a couple of years before generators across Texas finish weatherization efforts, and some may skip making changes by applying for the so-called good-cause exemption.

“Generation companies are concerned about these mandates and not having the revenue stream to fund it,” Hirs said. “If there’s no progress in that direction, and I don’t think there is, we may see a bunch of them say ‘Hey, we’re not ready, please grant us an exemption.’ ”

Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, said she doesn’t think the PUC or ERCOT will rubber stamp exemption requests.

That remains to be seen. Like with many other things involving our state government, there’s no benefit of the doubt given the track record and the insistence from Greg Abbott that everything is just fine now. I’d very much like to see some followup reporting in a few months, to see how many exemptions were granted and for what reasons. Maybe this will lead to real improvements, but you’re going to have to show me the facts first.

Please enjoy the higher natural gas prices you’ll soon be paying

And by “enjoy”, I mean “blame Greg Abbott”.

Texans are on the hook for $3.6 billion in natural gas costs incurred by utilities during one freezing week in February — a burden consumers will bear for a decade or longer.

During that same winter week, several natural gas pipeline companies and traders made billions of dollars as they transported and sold natural gas at sky-high prices when supplies were short.

Pipeline companies Energy Transfer of Dallas and Kinder Morgan of Houston made $2.4 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, while British oil major BP made more than $1 billion from its natural-gas trading business during the deadly, historic storm, according to company filings and analyst estimates. Houston pipeline company Enterprise Products Partners said it made $250 million for transporting and selling natural gas at high prices to utilities, industrial customers and power generators during the storm.

Ultimately, Texans will fund these companies’ profits, said Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“It’s pretty clear this is a wealth transfer from the public to investors and traders who could capitalize on the high prices,” Krane said. “The frustrating thing is, even though people were shivering in their homes, their (natural gas) bills are going up anyway. They’re still going to have to pay for this. It’s really a slap in the face.”

More than 1.8 million CenterPoint Energy customers in the Houston area are responsible for the $1.14 billion natural gas bill incurred by the Houston utility when it had to quickly buy natural gas at sky-high prices after demand soared and supplies plunged during the storm.

[…]

Utilities such as CenterPoint pass along the cost of natural gas to customers without any markup and instead make money on its natural gas business through state-regulated distribution fees.

CenterPoint on Friday filed a request with regulators to finance the billions of dollars in excess gas costs. The paperwork submitted to the Railroad Commission outlined how much the financing would cost Houstonians in the coming years, reflected in their monthly bill.

The average natural gas bill in the Houston area — about $30 — could go up by $2 to $5 a month starting next year if CenterPoint is allowed to use state-issued bonds to finance what it owes for that high-priced gas. That means Houstonians could pay as much as $60 more a year for their natural gas over the next decade.

If CenterPoint’s request is rejected, it would levy a fee of $15 to $40 a month over the next year, pushing the average gas bill to almost $80 during summer and to more than $100 in winter. That means Houstonians could pay as much as $480 more for their natural gas over the next year.

The cost would hit everyone in CenterPoint’s territory, even if they couldn’t turn on their natural-gas heating systems because of rolling blackouts, Krane said.

“You either buy your local bill collector a six-pack or a gym membership,” Krane said. “It’s not insubstantial. For some people, it’s going to be pretty tough news if you’re just hanging on.”

See here for some background. As a reminder, this is how the system was designed to work. And of course, Greg Abbott benefited from that transfer of wealth, because that too is how the system is designed to work.

A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

A new report from University of Texas at Austin energy experts lays much of the blame for power outages during the state’s deadly February freeze on the failure of natural gas producers to fully weatherize their facilities.”

The natural gas system could not meet demand,” the authors of the 101-page study wrote. “The production losses stemmed principally from freeze-offs, icy roads and electric outages to the equipment used in the natural gas industry.”

UT issued the study Tuesday, the same day the state’s health department revised its official death toll from the disaster, raising it to 210 from 151. However, at least one data-driven report suggests the actual number may exceed 700.

[…]

For the study, UT researchers looked at the performance of 27 natural gas facilities during the freeze and found that as temperatures dropped, the operators’ pipelines and equipment ceased to function, resulting in an 85% falloff when power companies needed the fuel.

Indeed, 18 of the natural gas facilities it studied had “zero output” on February 17, the peak of the storm.

In addition to their human cost, the failures resulted in massive charges for the state’s power generators, according to the report. CPS Energy, for example, tallied losses on natural gas fuel purchases of as much as $850 million, and losses on purchased power costs of as much as $250 million.

The 101 page report is here. Neither of us is likely to read through the whole thing, but the Findings section of the Executive Summary give you the main points:

The failure of the electricity and natural gas systems serving Texas before and during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 had no single cause. While the 2021 storm did not set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in many parts of the state, it caused generation outages and a loss of electricity service to Texas customers several times more severe than winter events leading to electric service disruptions in December 1989 and February 2011. The 2021 event exceeded prior events with respect to both the number and capacity of generation unit outages, the maximum load shed (power demand reduction) and number of customers affected, the lowest experienced grid frequency (indicating a high level of grid instability), the amount of natural gas generation experiencing fuel shortages, and the duration of electric grid operations under emergency conditions associated with load shed and blackout for customers. The financial ramifications of the 2021 event are in the billions of dollars, likely orders of magnitude larger than the financial impacts of the 1989 and 2011 blackouts.

Factors contributing to the electricity blackouts of February 15-18, 2021, include the following:

  • All types of generation technologies failed. All types of power plants were impacted by the winter storm. Certain power plants within each category of technologies (natural gas-fired power plants, coal power plants, nuclear reactors, wind generation, and solar generation facilities) failed to operate at their expected electricity generation output levels.
  • Demand forecasts for severe winter storms were too low. ERCOT’s most extreme winter scenario underestimated demand relative to what actually happened by about 9,600 MW, about 14%.
  • Weather forecasts failed to appreciate the severity of the storm. Weather models were unable to accurately forecast the timing (within one to two days) and severity of extreme cold weather, including that from a polar vortex.
  • Planned generator outages were high, but not much higher than assumed in planning scenarios. Total planned outage capacity was about 4,930 MW, or about 900 MW higher than in ERCOT’s “Forecasted Season Peak Load” scenario.
  • Grid conditions deteriorated rapidly early in February 15 leading to blackouts. So much power plant capacity was lost relative to the record electricity demand that ERCOT was forced to shed load to avoid a catastrophic failure. From noon on February 14 to noon on February 15, the amount of offline wind capacity increased from 14,600 MW to 18,300 MW (+3,700 MW).2 Offline natural gas capacity increased from 12,000 MW to 25,000 MW (+13,000 MW). Offline coal capacity increased from 1,500 MW to 4,500 MW (+3,000 MW). Offline nuclear capacity increased from 0 MW to 1,300 MW, and offline solar capacity increased from 500 MW to 1100 MW (+600 MW), for a total loss of 24,600 MW in a single 24-hour period.
  • Power plants listed a wide variety of reasons for going offline throughout the event. 3 Reasons for power plant failures include “weather-related” issues (30,000 MW, ~167 units), “equipment issues” (5,600 MW, 146 units), “fuel limitations” (6,700 MW, 131 units), “transmission and substation outages” (1,900 MW, 18 units), and “frequency issues” (1,800 MW, 8 units). 4
  • Some power generators were inadequately weatherized; they reported a level of winter preparedness that turned out to be inadequate to the actual conditions experienced. The outage, or derating, of several power plants occurred at temperatures above their stated minimum temperature ratings.
  • Failures within the natural gas system exacerbated electricity problems. Natural gas production, storage, and distribution facilities failed to provide the full amount of fuel demanded by natural gas power plants. Failures included direct freezing of natural gas equipment and failing to inform their electric utilities of critical electrically-driven components. Dry gas production dropped 85% from early February to February 16, with up to 2/3 of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage.5
  • Failures within the natural gas system began prior to electrical outages. Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants.
  • Some critical natural gas infrastructure was enrolled in ERCOT’s emergency response program. Data from market participants indicates that 67 locations (meters) were in both the generator fuel supply chain and enrolled in ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Response Service program (ERS), which would have cut power to them when those programs were called upon on February 15. At least five locations that later identified themselves to the electric utility as critical natural gas infrastructure were enrolled in the ERS program.
  • Natural gas in storage was limited. Underground natural gas storage facilities were operating at maximum withdrawal rates and reached unprecedently-low levels of working gas, indicating that the storage system was pushed to its maximum capability.

The ERCOT system operator managed to avoid a catastrophic failure of the electric grid despite the loss of almost half of its generation capacity, including some black start units that would have been needed to jump-start the grid had it gone into a complete collapse.

Just as a reminder, the grid was not on the first special session agenda, and as of today isn’t on the second session’s agenda. I have heard it suggested that Abbott could add grid items to the agenda, or put them on but near the bottom of the agenda for this special session, to make it harder for the Dems to be away. The main problem with that analysis is that Abbott has been busy telling everyone in sight that the grid has been totally fixed. What’s to put on the agenda if that’s really the case? His problem for now, all of ours the next time the words “rolling blackouts” get mentioned.

One million reasons why Greg Abbott thinks the grid is just fine

Or 2.4 billion reasons, depending on how you want to count it.

The Texas electric grid collapse during the February winter storm killed hundreds of Texans and caused an estimated $295 billion in damages, while generating seismic gains for a small and powerful few. The natural gas industry was by far the biggest winner, collecting $11 billion in profit by selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis. No one won bigger than Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren: Energy Transfer Partners—the energy empire Warren founded and now is executive chairman of—raked in $2.4 billion during the blackouts.

That immense bounty soon trickled down to Governor Greg Abbott. On June 23, Warren cut a check to Abbott’s campaign for $1 million, according to the governor’s latest campaign finance filing, which covers January through June. That’s four times more than the $250,000 checks that the billionaire has given to Abbott in prior years—and the most he’s ever given to a state politician in Texas.

In the months after one of the worst energy disasters in U.S. history, Abbott has dutifully steered scrutiny away from his patrons in the oil and gas industry. Last month, the governor signed into law a series of bills that strengthened regulation of the state’s grid. But experts warned that lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent another grid failure and failed to crack down on natural gas companies. At a bill signing ceremony on June 8, Abbott proclaimed that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”

The unusually large contribution from the blackout’s biggest profiteer raises questions about Warren’s influence over the governor and has prompted outrage at what many see as a blatant political kickback for kowtowing to the powerful natural gas industry.

[…]

As he gears up for a reelection bid in 2022, Abbott has resisted calls to include further power grid fixes in a special session. Instead, his current special session agenda centers on sweeping “election integrity” legislation that prompted House Democrats to break quorum for the second time this year and hole up in Washington, D.C., until the session expires.

The governor has relentlessly pinned blame for the grid failure on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials (ERCOT), and even the state’s giant power generators, all while ignoring the significant failures of the natural gas industry. Lawmakers watered down proposed regulations on the gas supply system in the face of aggressive industry lobbying.

By refusing to include additional grid reforms in special sessions, Abbott has ensured that the natural gas sector will avoid any further legislative scrutiny. That, experts warn, means the state’s grid remains at risk of future collapse. Earlier this month, Abbott issued another love letter to his fossil fuel benefactors, ordering his three brand-new Public Utility Commission (PUC) appointees to create incentives for fossil fuel and nuclear power generators and impose new costs on wind and solar plants.

While gas companies made huge profits during the winter storm, the financial fallout has been passed on to Texans. In May, lawmakers passed legislation that provided several billion dollars in state bonds for power companies that were waylaid by the exponential hike in energy costs. Texans will be paying that off through higher gas bills for at least the next decade.

Not really much to add to this, is there? It’s not like this is anything new, but it sure feels more blatant than usual. If there isn’t an effective advertising message in this, I don’t know what one might be.

Your thermostat may be plotting against you

Welcome to 2021.

Amid [recent] sweltering temperatures in Houston, the agency that operates the state’s power grid asked residents to cut back on how much electricity they used to help it meet demand. That’s how some people apparently learned the hard way that their “smart thermostats” were programmed to rise in their homes when grid conditions got tight.

A user posting on the Reddit page for discussions about Houston wrote of knowing eight people with thermostats that bumped up automatically and made their homes less cool — sparking a conversation about how and why this happens. The concerns were first reported by KHOU.

Turns out, utility customers can opt in to programs that automatically adjust their thermostats when demand is high and grid capacity is strained. Those people can also opt out. Some, it seemed, were caught unawares.

One user wrote of being automatically enrolled in a program and then waiting months while trying to get out of it. Another reported sending an email to get removed from the service.

A third chastised them all: “This is what happens when you don’t read the contract.”

A software provider called EnergyHub works with thermostat manufacturers to run such programs. No one is enrolled without their consent, said Erika Diamond, the company’s vice president for customer solutions.

The idea is to reduce energy load when the grid is stressed, such as during an extreme weather event, Diamond said. Temperatures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport hit at least 95 degrees every day from June 11 through June 16.

I’m sure this was somewhere in your user agreement, which I know we all read thoroughly. One could easily argue that this is a net benefit for all, as the modest reduction in A/C that everyone affected by this would experience would save energy and maybe avoid some blackouts. It’s almost certainly more effective than asking people to voluntarily dial it back, as some won’t do it and others won’t be aware you’re asking. But it would be better if people were generally aware of this, even if it meant more of them opted out or manually overrode the auto-adjustment as they can do, if only to prevent the inevitable conspiracy theories and overall mistrust that a lack of awareness will spawn. At least it’s mostly been not-so-hot since then, so this has been less of an issue, but obviously we can’t just count on that. Reform Austin and Mother Jones have more.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

Abbott tells the PUC to, like, “do something” about electricity and stuff

He’s a Very Serious man making Very Serious proposals.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave state electricity regulators marching orders to “improve electric reliability.”

In a letter to the Public Utility Commission, Abbott directed the three-person board of directors, who he appoints, to take action that would require renewable energy companies to pay for power when wind and solar aren’t able to provide it to the state’s main power grid, echoing a move state lawmakers rejected in May.

Abbott also told the PUC to incentivize companies to build and maintain nuclear, natural gas and coal power generation for the grid — which failed spectacularly during a February winter storm, leaving millions of Texans without power or heat for days in below freezing temperatures.

Texas energy experts were skeptical that Abbott’s orders would actually improve the reliability of the state grid, which operates mostly independently of the nation’s two other major grids.

“What is here is not a serious or prudent plan for improving the grid,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s more of a political job favoring some [energy] sources over others. For Texans to have a more reliable power supply, we need clearer thinking that makes the best of all the sources we have.”

Abbott’s letter also called on the PUC to direct the state’s main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to better schedule when power plants are offline, an issue that caused tension between state regulators and power generators after some power plants unexpectedly went offline in June and led ERCOT to ask Texans to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees for a week during a heat wave to conserve energy.

Abbott responded to the plant outages by declaring the power grid “is better today than it’s ever been.”

Does anyone believe that? I don’t know what the odds are of another major power failure between now and, say, next November, but does anyone think such platitudes will be accepted by the public if one does happen? Even Dan Patrick thinks that power grid reform items – most of which never went anywhere during the session – should be on the special session agenda. Maybe we all get lucky and nothing bad happens any time soon, but if that’s the case it won’t be because Abbott was busy urging us all to clap louder.

We’ll be paying for the freeze for a long time

What’s more, we have done nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Publicly funded state agencies needing to keep the lights and heat on during the freeze racked up huge bills. In February 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prisons, paid about $1.2 million for natural gas. This February the cost soared to nearly $8.5 million.

The University of Texas-Austin paid $940,000 for gas in February 2020. In 2021: $3.65 million.

Last month, state legislators passed laws to help companies borrow billions of dollars to pay for storm-inflated power costs and bill ratepayers over time to pay it back. Yet well before that, many Texas cities that own public utility companies already had been forced to scrounge up additional millions to cover gas and electric bills hugely inflated by the storm-caused shortages.

Outside of Dallas, Denton borrowed $140 million. Georgetown, just north of Austin, borrowed $48 million to cover the cost of providing electricity to its residents during the storm. Ratepayers will have to cover that, as well as a projected $5 million in interest and costs over the term of the loan.

Other cities dipped into their savings accounts to pay the storm-inflated power costs, depleting reserve funds. Garland siphoned millions from its rainy-day account. Weatherford, a small city outside of Fort Worth, drew down $13.7 million.

Wherever the money came from, eventually it will be repaid by local citizens, said Steve Moffitt, vice president of Schneider Engineering, a Boerne-based company working with municipal utility companies across the state to find the extra money. “At the end of the day, it has to come from customers somewhere,” he said.

The small city of Hearne borrowed $1.9 million to cover costs incurred by its publicly owned electric utility company. Ratepayers will pay off the debt over the next 10 years, said City Manager John Naron.

“Usually if we get a $2 million loan, we’re fixing streets, the sewage system, street lights,” he said. “Now we’re borrowing $2 million and getting nothing for it.”

When the dust cleared on the biennial legislative session that ended June 1, one thing was clear. Although it was ordinary Texans who suffered when the freeze hit four months ago — millions were left shivering in the dark for days; hundreds died — it is also ordinary Texans who would foot much of the bill, said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas.

“Consumers are being forced to prop up the system that failed us,” he said.

[…]

The magnitude of the financial fallout is difficult to digest. Experts estimate that based on the sky-high prices, nearly $50 billion-worth of electricity was consumed in Texas during the one-week storm — 250 times the normal cost, said Beth Garza, an energy analyst for R Street who from 2014 to 2019 was ERCOT’s independent market monitor, which watchdogs the electricity market.

Companies that had gas and electricity to sell cashed in on a Uri  windfall. Some Wall Street investors made millions, too.

For those forced to buy gas and electricity during the height of the freeze it was expensive at best, catastrophic at worst. Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s largest and oldest member-owned electric company, declared bankruptcy after racking up about $2 billion in charges when its generators failed.

To spare ratepayers the financial pain of getting hit with giant utility bills all at once, last month state lawmakers passed several laws to help the biggest losers borrow money and pay it back over time. The laws are complex, and analysts and companies said they are still deciphering how they will be used.

Pending high-stakes legal battles over the storm’s giant bills add more uncertainty to the final tab. “There are a zillion contractual disputes underway right now,” said Garza, pointing out that those, too, will end up costing companies – and their customers — giant legal fees.

Still, analysts projected the taxpayer tab would come to roughly between $7 and $9 billion. Yet that doesn’t include numerous other hidden costs.

The primary advantage to our market for power and electricity has always been low prices. Lots of firms offer a variety of plans, both fixed and flexible rates, and for the most part it has worked pretty well, as long as you do a bunch of research and remember to switch plans again before your low-rate plan ends and you get dumped into a default higher-rate plan. (Some people do lots of research.) All of this is predicated on the Texas energy market being geared towards low prices, and the way it does that is by not mandating capacity. There’s no backup power, no plants generating extra power that isn’t used, and that means we’re not paying for anything we’re not using. It’s efficient, and that efficiency keeps prices down.

The down side is what we saw in February. Because there was no extra capacity, when a number of plants went down, there wasn’t any power to spare. The only way to get more juice was to pay for it, and when prices are allowed to be unconstrained, you can be sure someone is going to make a buck off of it. We also learned that another key ingredient to our everyday low prices for electricity was that the power plants could be and were run as super low-cost operations, which in this context meant no money spent on weatherization. I think we all know how that turned out.

The argument in favor of our system is that we have paid a lot less for our electricity over a long period of time, so that even with the price shocks of February and the borrowing that various municipalities and utilities and co-ops have had to do, we’re still coming out ahead. But that isn’t of much help right now, and as we did nothing to change the fundamentals of our power market, we could face the same situation again at any time. People will be paying more now for what happened his past winter, and they have no insurance against a repeat. Even more, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I don’t think we’re any more prepared mentally and emotionally for the next time this happens than we were this February. Maybe if we go another ten years before it happens again it won’t much matter. Do you want to make that bet? Like it or not, you already have.

Nobody knows why the grid was short on power

Really inspires confidence, doesn’t it?

Last Monday, Texas’ main power grid operator asked Texans, mid-heat wave, to turn their thermostats to 78 degrees during the afternoon and evening for the week to reduce electricity demand on the grid after 12,000 megawatts of power generation unexpectedly went offline — enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day.

By the end of the week, that appeal from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas expired without a public announcement, and ERCOT officials still have not said why they asked Texans to cut back on electricity use.

Were there damages to the power grid infrastructure stemming from February’s deadly winter storm? Were there nefarious actors looking to manipulate the electricity market? What does this mean for power generation during the rest of the hot Texas summer?

ERCOT hasn’t said — or released data to answer any of these questions raised by industry experts. And that is exactly how the Texas power grid is supposed to work, energy experts said.

“ERCOT knows what plants fail, but not why,” said Bob King, an energy consultant in Austin who has worked in the Texas energy industry for more than 30 years.

[…]

In the meantime, ERCOT’s independent watchdog will investigate what happened. Beth Garza, who was director of the watchdog from 2014 to 2019, said that’s standard procedure after such an event.

“They will look if there is any indication if there is any nefarious or bad acting on any particular generations’ part,” Garza said.

Last week’s power generation outages marked the second time ERCOT has asked Texans to cut back on electricity use since February’s storm. Garza and other experts also raised concerns about the winter storm’s impact on “thermal” sources of energy, which in Texas are largely powered by natural gas plants.

“One thing I’d be curious about: What the effects of February’s cold weather was on thermal units,” Garza said. “Was some of that being worked on and fixed (last week)?”

We do know that it wasn’t because too many plants were down for routine maintenance, which contradicts a claim made by Greg Abbott. We may find out some more information soon, as the PUC has ordered ERCOT to release its data in the next seven days, though how much information we’ll get is not clear. The bigger point, as was made in the story, is that all this happened at a time when it wasn’t as hot as it’s going to get later in the summer. What will be in for then? Like I said, it doesn’t inspire confidence. Reform Austin has more.