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ERCOT

Congress has questions for Abbott

Will he answer them? That’s the bigger question.

Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Reps. Marc Veasey of Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, are conducting a probe into Gov. Greg Abbott and why Texas’ electrical grid was unprepared to handle last week’s snowstorm.

In a recent letter to the governor lead by Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, members picked apart Abbott’s response to the crisis, including the governor’s visit to Fox News in which he spread lies about wind and solar energy being the chief culprit behind the blackout.

“These statements either suggest a lack of understanding of the Texas power grid’s fundamental operations or were an attempt to shift blame away from the very real issues that have existed within the state’s energy structure for years,” read the letter.

“The response to this ongoing crisis raises significant questions regarding Texas’ grid design, preparation, and whether the state is taking appropriate action to aid citizens in this crisis,” the letter continued.

The members of Congress criticized Texas’ isolated power grid for being unable to import enough power from other states while it was under extreme stress — an issue of resiliency they said would be needed to be solved in the face of changing climate and more frequent extreme weather events.

Lawmakers also requested Abbott answer several questions relating to the crisis, including why Texas failed to implement weatherization recommendations made by a 2011 federal report that was conducted after a snowstorm caused blackouts in Texas that same year.

[…]

Members of the energy committee said they had “broad jurisdiction” over energy policy and requested Abbott deliver the answers before March 22.

They may indeed have jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean Abbott will recognize or respond to it. Look at how spectacularly unsuccessful Congressional Democrats were at getting anyone from the Trump administration to respond to subpoenas. Like so many other norms, the custom and expectation that such subpoenas would be heeded was shredded by Trump and his goons. The problem here is not jurisdiction, it’s enforcement. No one is going to show up at the Governor’s mansion with an arrest warrant if Abbott sticks that letter in the round file. The worst he can expect is some carping from Congressional Democrats, and maybe a tut-tutting editorial or two. I’m not saying that Congress shouldn’t try to get answers from Abbott. I am saying that all they can do is ask. Until and unless they can do more than that, we shouldn’t expect better results.

ERCOT’s overcharges

Oops.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas made a $16 billion error in pricing during the week of the winter storm that caused power outages across the state, according to a filing by its market monitor.

Potomac Economics, the independent market monitor for the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees ERCOT, wrote in a letter to the Public Utility Commission that ERCOT kept market prices for power too high for nearly two days after widespread outages ended late the night of Feb. 17. It should have reset the prices the following day.

That decision to keep prices high, the market monitor claimed, resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to Texas power companies. The news of the overcharging was first reported by Bloomberg.

Some of the providers that were charged during the high price period could pass the costs to customers, depending on the type of contract they have, according to Detlef Hallermann, director of the Reliant Energy Trade Center at Texas A&M University.

In Texas, wholesale power prices are determined by supply and demand: When demand is high, ERCOT allows prices to go up. During the storm, PUC directed the grid operator to set wholesale power prices at $9,000 per megawatt hour — the maximum price. Raising prices is intended to incentivize power generators in the state to add more power to the grid. Companies then buy power from the wholesale market to deliver to consumers, which they are contractually obligated to do.

Because ERCOT failed to bring prices back down on time, companies had to buy power in the market at inflated prices.

The error will likely result in higher levels of defaults, wrote Carrie Bivens, a vice president of Potomac Economics, the firm that monitors the grid operator. She said the PUC should direct ERCOT to remove the pricing interventions that occurred after outages ended, and allowing them to remain would result in “substantial and unjustified” economic harm.

At least $1.5 billion could be passed on to retail electric providers and their customers. Some retail providers have already begun to file for bankruptcy.

[…]

“The ERCOT market was not designed to deal with an emergency of this scale,” wrote Patrick Woodson, CEO of ATG Clean Energy Holdings, a retail power provider based in Austin, to the Public Utility Commission. The pricing failure, he wrote, “has pushed the entire market to the brink of collapse.”

Bivens wrote that while she recognizes that retroactively revising the prices is “not ideal,” correcting the error will reflect the accurate supply and demand for power during the period after the outages.

First and foremost, most if not all of that $16 billion in overcharges needs to be refunded to the customers and retail providers. This isn’t a matter of reading the fine print, it’s a matter of the market failing. No one should have to pay those extortionate rates, and no one should have their credit ratings dinged because they were charged those extortionate rates.

Second, the PUC cannot be allowed to authorize such rates again in the future. I don’t know if this was a process problem or a judgment problem, but either way the effect was extremely damaging. That needs to be a high priority.

But in some sense, these are just details. The big picture problem is that the system we have in place failed completely during the freeze week. The bright idea behind this deregulated, market-driven system of power delivery is that it’s supposed to provide incentives to power companies to ensure there’s a sufficient supply of power, while lowering prices for the customers. The latter has long been a massive failure, but we see now how the former failed as well. All it did was serve as incentive for the system to be gamed. We can tinker around the edges and maybe put in some guard rails, but the underlying problem won’t be solved.

Of course, the Republicans in charge aren’t interested in systemic reform, because they think everything was just fine outside of that one unfortunate week. The real first step in solving this problem is getting people into office that want to solve it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: That’s not how you fix it.

Texas’ utility regulator had an opportunity Friday to eliminate some of the $16 billion that the state’s grid operator erroneously overcharged power companies during last month’s deadly winter storm — but the board of the Public Utility Commission chose not to do so.

Some Texas electricity customers could have benefited from a decision to readjust the electricity market prices for the week of the storm, according to PUC Chair Arthur D’Andrea and some independent analysts. But other customers could have been harmed by such a move, D’Andrea said.

“I totally get how it looks like you’re protecting consumers [by readjusting electric prices],” D’Andrea said Friday during a PUC meeting. “But I promise you you’re not.”

D’Andrea added that a retroactive decision would have winners and losers: “You don’t know who you’re hurting. And you think you’re protecting the consumer and it turns out you’re bankrupting [someone else].”

[…]

State Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was hoping for a different decision by the PUC on Friday.

“Keeping the market at an artificial $9,000 for 32 hrs cost $16B,” Springer tweeted, adding that the Potomac Economics report “says those hours should be repriced, I agree.”

You have the power to do something about that, Sen. Springer. What are you going to do?

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

Who watches the utility overseers?

Apparently, nobody. At least, not anymore.

Late last year, as winter approached and power companies prepared for cold weather, Gov. Greg Abbott’s hand-picked utility regulators decided they no longer wanted to work with a nonprofit organization they had hired to monitor and help Texas enforce the state’s electric reliability standards.

The multiyear contract between the Public Utility Commission and the obscure monitoring organization, the Texas Reliability Entity, was trashed. Over the next months, right up until the crippling storm that plunged millions of Texans into the dark and cold, the state agency overseeing the power industry operated without an independent monitor to make sure energy companies followed state protocols, which include weatherization guidelines.

The Public Utility Commission’s decision in November to end its contract with the Texas Reliability Entity didn’t cause the historic grid failures that this week transformed Texas into an undeveloped country, leaving large swaths of the state without power or water as temperatures dropped and stayed below freezing. A PUC spokesman said the agency still had ample protections to ensure energy companies followed state rules and guidelines.

On Thursday, Abbott called for a state law requiring power plants to be better weatherized. Yet over the past quarter-century, state leaders have refused to require the companies to prepare for severe weather, even as once-in-a-lifetime storms have arrived with increasing frequency.

Critics say the utility commission’s move to strip away a regulatory layer, especially with potentially severe weather approaching, was just the latest example of the consistently light touch Texas politicians have used to oversee the complex industry that generates and distributes power.

“It’s astonishing to me that the PUC would get rid of the independent reliability entity with no plan to replace it,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, who sits on the Texas House Energy Resources Committee. “No staff, no oversight on reliability.”

Anchía said he would demand answers from PUC brass on the independent monitor function next week when House members will hold a hearing to investigate the factors that led to the Texas blackout.

I will admit, I had never heard of the Texas Reliability Entity before reading this story. There’s a lot of nuance in this story – it’s not clear that the Texas RE was doing an adequate job, but it’s also not clear that the mandate they had amounted to much – so read the whole thing. The main takeaway for me is that the state as a whole has basically taken the reliability of the power grid for granted, partly because of the belief that we don’t have sufficiently bad weather (non-hurricane division) to worry about, partly because we believe in the exceptionalism of our lightly-regulated system, and partly because I think we’ve just never thought about it. We’re thinking about it now, and I’d say we need a top-to-bottom review of what we want out of the power grid, what responsibilities and enforcement powers the regulators will have, and how often we inspect and audit these things and report on them to the public. We should have learned all these lessons in 2011 but we didn’t, and we really have no excuses if we don’t learn them now.

Anger at Abbott

I want to believe, I really really want to believe.

It was clear by Tuesday afternoon that Texas was in a full-blown crisis – and Gov. Greg Abbott had largely been out of sight.

More than 4 million households did not have power amid dangerously low temperatures, and an increasing number did not have heat or running water. Some families were burning furniture to stay warm, grocery stores were emptying, and people were dying. In the freezing darkness, many desperate Texans felt they were left to fend for themselves.

Abbott, a Republican, emerged that evening for a series of television interviews. In short, curt sentences, he told Texans in the Lubbock and Houston areas that he had issued an emergency order and called for an immediate legislative investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electrical grid. He angrily accused the council of not having a backup power supply and not sharing information with Texans, “even with the governor of Texas.”

Then he went on Fox News.

“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said, looking more relaxed as he chatted with host Sean Hannity, falsely blaming his state’s problems on environmental policies pushed by liberals.

This deadly disaster is one in a series that Abbott has faced in his six years as governor: Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 68 people, at least six major mass shootings that left more than 70 people dead, and a pandemic that has killed nearly 42,000 people in the state. Now, at least 32 people have died in Texas because of this storm.

In each crisis, Abbott often carefully studied the situation – and its political ramifications – before taking action, usually demanding future legislative changes that may never happen. He is known to deliver different messages to the various constituencies in his state, all while trying to build a national profile as a conservative leader.

[…]

Critics have said Abbott and his administration failed to take the storm’s threat seriously or issue sufficient emergency warnings throughout – with meteorologists giving ample warning of a serious storm that could bring record cold, cause power demand to spike, and threaten electrical infrastructure more than a week in advance. Texas Republicans have been accused of neglecting winterization upgrades recommended to the electrical grid more than a decade ago.

“He hasn’t done anything,” said Conor Kenny, a Democrat who is a former planning commission chairman in Austin. “All he has done is call for an investigation into his own administration.”

Abbott’s staff declined to make him available for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions.

Some longtime Abbott supporters are worried that this crisis could politically hurt the governor, who is up for reelection next year. Several prominent Democrats are eyeing the race, and a group of liberal activists – some of whom worked on former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign – started a political action committee last year called the Beat Abbott PAC.

“Short-term, I am absolutely certain that the governor’s popularity will suffer as a result of this,” said Bill Hammond, a Republican lobbyist and former head of the Texas Association of Business. “He is the head of state government at this time . . . and it’s just like the quarterback, the blame and the credit go to the quarterback.”

But Hammond said he expects that Abbott will quickly rebound, as he has before. Abbott can make upgrading the power grid a defining goal and will be well-positioned to be reelected to a third term, he said.

“He was upset as anyone could be about this,” Hammond said. “Our [political competitors] will use this against us, no question about it, but we have plenty of time before next winter, and then we will come out of this stronger.”

[…]

Harry LaRosiliere, the Republican mayor of Plano in fast-growing Collin County near Dallas, said the power and water shortages are exposing how too many Texas politicians did not invest in the everyday needs of residents, such as highways, schools and public utility projects. A few years ago, LaRosiliere said, a major company decided not to relocate to Plano because it worried that Texas would eventually run out of water.

Instead of making investments to keep up with population growth, LaRosiliere said politicians in Austin are too often focused on divisive social issues including setting rules on which bathrooms transgender individuals can use and expanding gun rights.

This was a WaPo story reprinted in the Chron, so if it seemed like it was written for people who didn’t know much about Texas, that’s the reason. The quote from Mayor Harry LaRosiliere aside, it’s mostly Dems who think Abbott will pay a price for his lackluster leadership, and mostly Republicans who think he’ll be fine. Whatever you think about Bill Hammond, he’s right that the next election is a long way off, and there is the time and opportunity for Abbott to do something – or at least make it look like he’s done something – that voters will like. And while multiple articles have cited that UH Hobby School poll that showed Abbott with a 39% approval rating (including the next story I’m about to comment on), no one ever mentions that his overall approval was one of the best from that poll, and it’s just one poll. I want to believe, I really want to believe, but we’re way too far out from November 2022 to make any assessments.

If the freeze and blackouts were tough on Greg Abbott, they provided Beto O’Rourke with an opportunity to show what a different kind of leadership could bring to Texas.

While Ted Cruz was getting clobbered for fleeing Texas amid its historic winter storm, the Democrat he defeated in 2018, Beto O’Rourke, was already deep into disaster relief mode — soliciting donations for storm victims, delivering pallets of water from his pickup truck and once again broadcasting his movements on Facebook Live.

It was part of an effort orchestrated by O’Rourke and his organization, Powered by People, in response to the crisis. It was also, to Texas Democrats, a sign that O’Rourke the politician is back.

The former congressman and onetime Democratic sensation acknowledged last month that he’s considering running for governor in 2022, and he has discussed the possibility with Democratic Party officials and other associates. The drubbing that Texas Republicans are taking in the wake of the deadly storm may provide him with an opening — even in his heavily Republican state.

“After all of Texas freezes over because of poor leadership, I think it’s a different state of Texas than it was two weeks ago,” said Mikal Watts, a San Antonio-based lawyer and major Democratic money bundler.

If O’Rourke runs for governor, Watts said, “I think he could catch fire.”

Say it with me now: I want to believe, I want to believe. (I say that as I remind you that I’m still Team Julian, and he gave the barest of hints that maybe he could possibly be running as well.) I will say this, the one thing that might help drive down Abbott’s approval is an opponent who gets a lot of attention and who is good at focusing people on Abbott’s myriad failures as Governor. Whatever Beto and Julian ultimately decide to do next year, as long as one or both of them are doing that much, it’s a good thing.

Dan Patrick’s priorities

They haven’t changed. He might have had to shoehorn in a thing or two because he’s not stupid and he knows he had a close call in 2018, but the essence of Dan Patrick is eternal.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday unveiled his top 31 priorities for the 2021 legislative session, a mix of newly urgent issues after last week’s winter storm, familiar topics stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and a fresh injection of conservative red meat into a session that has been relatively bland so far.

Patrick said in a statement that he is “confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time” and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state’s electrical grid operator, as well as “power grid stability.”

Patrick’s specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.

The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that “defund the police.” Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act” that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.

However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick’s agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick’s eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an “abortion ban trigger” that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.

Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick’s list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put “Fair Sports for Women & Girls,” an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: “Protect Second Amendment Businesses,” “Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts,” and “Second Amendment Protections for Travelers.” It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.

Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott’s speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.

You can see the list here. And yes, that Star Spangled Banner Protection Act slots in at number 4, behind the budget (the one bill the Lege is required to pass) and the two hastily-added power grid items. Which means that in the absence of last week’s freeze and blackouts, that would have been Dan Patrick’s top legislative priority. And that, even before you get to the rest of the garbage on his list, tells you all you need to know about Dan Patrick.

Actually, there is one more thing to point out. Note that tenth item, about the capability for cities and counties and school districts to hire lobbyists to advocate for their issues at the Legislature. As we have discussed, the power companies have plenty of well-paid lobbyists at the Capitol representing their interests. Those lobbyists are funded by your power bills. Dan Patrick is just fine with that. This is what he’s about. The Chron has more.

We need more focus on the Public Utility Commission

Let’s start with this tweet:

Now keep that in mind when you read this.

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.”

“Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.”

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

I get that everyone is mad at ERCOT, and I’ve certainly tossed that name around quite a bit myself. But the real power is in the PUC, and the PUC is appointed by the Governor. That’s where the buck stops, and as this story demonstrates, they have a lot to answer for.

This is a long story, which goes deep into the failures by the PUC to force power companies to do anything as well as the failure of the Legislature to take any meaningful action, and I want to encourage you to read the whole thing. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that this massive screwup happened at the start of the legislative session, so not only is it all fresh in everyone’s mind, there’s also the time to do something about it if we want to make it a priority and we don’t get buried under self-misinformation. Dan Patrick does have “ERCOT Reform” and “Power Grid Stability” high on his priority list, one spot ahead of the extremely pressing matter of sports teams not playing the national anthem before games (which you just know he would have had higher had it not been for the blackouts), but note that he’s focusing on ERCOT and not the PUC. Note also his item about preventing cities and counties from hiring lobbyists, and then read this:

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn’t been previously reported, is an example of the industry’s outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC,” said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want.”

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company’s opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state’s power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system,” Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down.”

Emphasis mine. You can be sure that the Capitol will be swarming with energy company lobbyists for the rest of the session. But then, Dan Patrick is “not in the business of trying to tell everyone what to do”, so don’t be surprised when he fails to deliver any tangible results.

The economic hardship of the freeze

We may have power and water again (mostly), but some things that were lost can’t easily be gotten back.

Last Tuesday, as Houston temperatures hovered below freezing for much of the day, Gloria Sanchez’s lights — and heat — cut off and on. For Sanchez and millions of other Texans, necessities usually taken for granted — including warmth, water and access to food — had suddenly been thrown into question. Then she got a call from her manager at one of the two jobs she works to make ends meet. Bath & Bodyworks would close because of unsafe driving conditions.

With that, 32 hours of wages disappeared.

“It broke my heart,” Sanchez said. “Because I knew my check was going to come out short.”

The winter storm will likely cost the country $50 billion in damage and economic loss, according to an estimate from forecasting company Accuweather. Much of the economic impact will be felt by hourly workers like Sanchez, economists said.

“You need to think about what’s permanently gone and what has just been delayed,” said Patrick Jankowski, an economist at the Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group.

Oil and gas production can ramp back up to meet demand. Sanchez’s 32 hours without pay are gone forever.

[…]

“It’s a kick while you’re down to all of the service industries, restaurants and others who were already battling through the pandemic,” said Peter Rodriguez, an economist and dean of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “So regrettably, it really exacerbates the pain for them, more than it creates new pains for other industries in particular.”

Last week had to have been especially tough for restaurants and retail, which have been dealing with the pandemic for a year already. Support your favorite neighborhood places, they could really use it right now. The one bit of good news for workers is that the federal COVID relief bill, which will include the additional $1,400 payments to many people, is on track to be passed soon. It may still take some time for the funds to actually get out to the recipients, though. It’s just going to be rough for a lot of folks this month.

The longer-term picture has some warning signs, too.

As for long term impacts, Rice’s Rodriguez fears employers may think twice about relocating their businesses, both to Texas generally and to Houston — no stranger to natural disasters — in particular. He said the prolonged outages could make it look like the state has unreliable infrastructure.

“It’s true that this is very rare, but that’s not the way it will play into the memories of people making investment decisions,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll wonder about just our overall ability to manage crises.”

We really need to get our act together. No one who hasn’t guzzled the Kool-Aid is still talking about Texas exceptionalism with a straight face.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

Suing Griddy

This is going to be interesting.

A Chambers County resident filed a class-action lawsuit against electricity retailer Griddy on Monday, accusing the provider of price gouging customers during last week’s freeze. She is seeking $1 billion in relief for affected customers.

Attorneys for Lisa Khoury said in the lawsuit that her bill spiked to $9,340 the week of the storm, compared to her average monthly bills that range from $200 to $250. Griddy drafted payments from Khoury’s bank account several times, according to the lawsuit, pulling $1,200 before she blocked further charges from her bank. She still owes thousands.

Griddy passes wholesale electricity rates directly to customers, who in turn pay the company $10 a month. This differs from fixed-rate electricity plans which offer a consistent rate regardless of market conditions.

But because of a price hike fueled by a shortage of supply and skyrocketing demand, some customers were faced with bills charging tens of thousands of dollars. While electricity bills are likely to rise across the board, Texans on variable rate plans faced immediate and alarmingly high prices.

Texas’ Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9 per kilo-watt hour — a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour — in response to rising demand. The hope was power generators would be enticed to produce more electricity.

“Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply,” the order stated.

Representatives for Griddy could not immediately be reached for comment. The electricity retailer addressed concerns of price gouging on its website and firmly placed the blame on the Public Utility Commission. The company states that it did not profit from raised prices.

A quick perusal of Griddy’s Twitter shows that they are blaming the PUC, and that they did suggest alternate electricity providers for their customers to switch to during freeze days; there are several news stories, including this one that ran in the Chron, about that as well.

This is one of those situations where the system is working exactly as designed – here are a couple of stories that explain the mechanics of this. I guess the courts could rule that what the PUC did violated the state’s laws on price gouging, but that seems like a stretch to me. I Am Not A Lawyer, so if you know better than me, please speak up.

More likely, there will be some kind of legislative solution to this. This Trib story goes into that option.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas lawmakers are promising relief for Texans hit with massive electric bills after a winter storm bludgeoned the state’s power grid, leaving millions of residents freezing without electricity.

But how they’ll accomplish that remains unclear. The state’s deregulated electricity market not only allows for staggering price spikes, but effectively compels them for some customers.

While many Texans are on “fixed rate” electricity plans that insulate them from market swings, others pay rates tied to the spot price of wholesale electricity, which skyrocketed during the storm.

As the bad weather bore down, it froze natural gas production and wind turbines, choking off the supply of electricity as demand skyrocketed. In response, the Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, let the wholesale market price of electricity rise to $9 per kilo-watt hour, a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour.

The rate hike was supposed to entice power generators to get more juice into the grid, but the astounding costs were also passed directly on to some customers, who were suddenly being billed more for electricity each day than they normally pay in a month.

[…]

Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the costs would be passed on to customers one way or another.

“If they [the electric provider] don’t have a mechanism that allows them to do that in the immediate — like on the next bill or the next several bills — it’ll end up getting rolled into the overall cost of service,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to get passed on in an immediate way, in a shocking way … or spread out over time.”

Tim Morstad, associate state director with the Texas AARP, said “prices are going to rise” but with a delay for those not on variable rate plans.

“Forgive me for stepping back to say — this system is truly designed to have high prices and huge fluctuations. And putting consumers through that by design is a bad process. It’s setting people up for pain,” he said.

Texas has an unusually deregulated electricity market that’s touted for offering customers the ability to pick from hundreds of plans offered by dozens of electric providers. Parts of the state are carved out, including cities like Austin, that get energy from a municipally owned utility, or people served by cooperatives. Those too could see cost increases down the line.

Lawmakers and Abbott have pledged to protect consumers from the big bills, and excoriated the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the outages last week. The reliability council, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, is overseen by a Public Utility Commission.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about what options were on the table.

Lawmakers have demanded that the utility commission roll back its decision to allow the huge rate increases, or suggested cobbling together some package of emergency waivers or relief money to buffer Texans’ from the high bills.

“We cannot allow someone to exploit a market when they were the ones responsible for the dire consequences in the first place,” said state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa.

I have no idea what Abbott will suggest. He’s nobody’s picture of a creative thinker, and “solving problems” is not in his skill set. I’m hardly an expert either, but it seems to me that the first order of business is to prevent people from getting multi-thousand-dollar electric bills, and the simplest way to do that is probably just to order everyone’s bill capped at some value that relates to their usual experience, and have the state pick up the difference since the providers do in fact have the legal right to charge these amounts. That’s the easy part. The much harder question, at least for the leadership we are stuck with, is what to do about it for the future. That either involves some form of re-regulation that puts limits on how “free” the electricity market is, or ignoring it and hoping you survive electorally. I know what I’d do, but I’m not a Republican. Good luck with that.

One more thing, as long as we are talking about freeze/blackout-related lawsuits:

The family of an 11-year-old boy who died last week in Conroe during power outages while Texas endured a freezing winter storm is suing Entergy Texas and operator of the state’s power grid for a total of $100 million.

In the lawsuit filed Saturday, the family said Cristian Pineda died of hypothermia after the temperature in his house plunged due to the forced blackouts. Pineda’s family of five shared a single room for warmth, and Cristian shared a bed with his younger brother, the lawsuit states.

His family found Cristian unresponsive in the morning. The Houston Chronicle first reported news of the lawsuit.

The family is suing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the decentralized electrical grid system. The Texas grid is not governed by federal regulations.

As the story notes, our old buddy Tony Buzbee is filing this lawsuit, along with at least seven others, against ERCOT. Whether or not he can do that is an open question.

ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

The ruling by the high court will have widespread implications in the wake of last week’s blackouts. It would not only determine whether Texans can use the legal system to hold ERCOT accountable for power outages that led to more than 48 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage, but also the future of ERCOT and the state’s power markets if the court opens the door to the likely flood of lawsuits.

[…]

“The political rhetoric around ERCOT and the weather emergency has embraced transparency and accountability,” Rottinghaus said. “A ruling that holds ERCOT immune from such lawsuits may run against that. It could be a political liability.”

Panda Power filed suit in 2016 against ERCOT, alleging the grid operator issued “seriously flawed or rigged” energy demand projections that prompted the Dallas power company to invest $2.2 billion to build three power plants early last decade. The plants ended up losing billions of dollars, with one forced into bankruptcy.

ERCOT’s reports calling for more power generators came in the aftermath of a major ice storm in February 2011, which crippled Texas power plants and forced rolling blackouts across the state.

Panda Power’s case was halted in 2018 when an appeals court in Dallas asserted ERCOT was protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The Texas Supreme Court in June 2020 said it would review the appellate court decision, heard the case in September 2020 and is expected to render a decision before it recesses in June.

We’ll see about that. There’s definitely some pressure, on the courts and on the Lege and on Greg Abbott, to Do Something about all this – and again, I remind you, that the “all this” in question is what was supposed to happen based on existing laws. How long that pressure lasts, and what happens if there are no legal or legislative outlets for it, that’s the big political question.

UPDATE: Multiple ERCOT board members have resigned. All are folks who did not live in Texas, which yes is one of the weirder things about ERCOT. Not directly related to this story, but this is as good a place as any to note it.

On informing the public during an emergency

Another thing the state didn’t do well.

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

[…]

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” [Austin resident Suzanne] Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

We received numerous alerts from the city of Houston and Harris County, before and during the disaster. There were automated calls to the landline and to our cells, plus emergency alerts on the cell and emails. Not all of these worked during power and Internet or cellular outages, but a lot of people still have good old-fashioned landlines (ours is now VOIP and so less useful at these times, but we still had those other methods). If power and cable are down, AM/FM radio still works. There were plenty of options available to the state, and there’s no reason why a lot of information couldn’t have been broadcast by all available means well in advance of the freeze. Space City Weather was warning about arctic conditions five days in advance of Monday’s frigid temps. Not everyone will get the message, of course, and not all who do will heed it, but a lot more could have been done. It’s of a piece with the overall lack of planning to keep the electric grid up and running in the first place.

Even worse than all that is stuff like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office has heard from the White House during this week’s winter freeze, but Gov. Greg Abbott has not reached out at all.

The mayor first raised the lack of communication in an interview Friday morning with MSNBC, telling Stephanie Ruhle he had not heard from the governor’s office as millions went without power and water this week.

“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis,” Turner said. “I have not talked to the governor, but we’re pushing forward.”

At a press conference later Friday morning, Turner said the state has sent National Guard troops to help staff a warming center at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Texas Department of Transportation also has been “very, very helpful,” the mayor said.

“Between TxDOT and the National Guard, they have provided some assistance,” Turner said.

Asked whether he or his staff has reached out to Abbott, Turner said: “I have been very laser-focused on dealing with the situation right here in the city of Houston. The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”

It’s not just Mayor Turner and Houston that have been ignored by Greg Abbott. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have said the same thing. I don’t even know what to think about that. I have no idea what Abbott is doing. He was actually pretty visible during Hurricane Harvey, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do this sort of thing, and he surely knows that being out in front of an emergency and being visibly in charge and helping others is a boon to one’s image (unlike some other politicians I could name). But by far the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by local officials and third parties. It’s beyond bizarre.

The traveling Paxtons

Seriously?

Ski bunny

While millions of Texans languished in their homes last week without heat, many of them racking up astronomical electricity bills, the state official in charge of consumer protection left to take an out-of-state trip.

According to a campaign spokesman, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the state during the middle of the power outage crisis to meet with a fellow attorney general in Utah for a “previously planned meeting.” Hs wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was also on the trip, reported the Dallas Morning News, which first broke the story.

The revelation marks the third instance of a Texas public official leaving the state during the disaster that affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties.

[…]

Ken Paxton spokesman Ian Prior said that Paxton met with Utah AG Sean Reyes to discuss several matters, including their multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt confirmed that Paxton was in Salt Lake City for meetings on Wednesday and Friday, and had “lengthy discussions” on the Google case.

Prior said Paxton also attended a demonstration of Utah’s law enforcement scenario simulator, which includes a wide variety of situations law enforcement must deal with and is used for training. He said Paxton is considering the program for Texas. Reyes said that meeting would have taken place in the suburb of Murray, about a 15-minute drive away.

“While there, AG Paxton had a number of meetings with the Utah Attorney General over the course of several days,” Prior said. “I cannot further share additional details or the specific reasons on the need for the meeting concerning Google as it involves an ongoing investigation.”

Prior did not respond to questions about the timing of the Paxton’s trip, why the trip was not postponed or whether taxpayers funded the trip.

I’ll bet he didn’t. Not likely to be any good answers to those questions. Oh, and did we mention that Mrs. Paxton, a/k/a State Sen. Angela Paxton, was also there?

On the day of Paxton’s Wednesday meeting, the state’s electrical grid operator reported 2.7 million households in Texas remained without power. Water infrastructure in many cities was also being strained. By Thursday, nearly half the state had had its water disrupted in some way. Many lost running water altogether, while others were issued boil-water notices.

“AG Paxton did lose power, but did not leave Texas until after power had returned to most of the state, including his own home,” Prior said in a statement.

Follow up questions about whether the attorney general was back in Texas on Monday were not answered.

A spokesperson for Angela Paxton confirmed that she was also on the trip, which she said “included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement.”

While away, Ken Paxton’s office did send a handful of advisories about his office’s plans to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s grid operator — “and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather.”

“We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans,” he said in a press release Friday. The release made no mention of his whereabouts.

I’m sure you’re aware that I have a very low opinion of the Paxtons, as I do of Ted Cruz and all the other malfunctioning members of our Republican state government who have no call to service. But even I would have expected them to have slightly better political instincts than this. State Rep. Chris Turner speaks for me:

I don’t begrudge people a certain amount of business travel, but come on. This very easily could have been done remotely, and let’s not forget we are still in a pandemic, which makes any kind of air travel highly questionable at this time. And all of that is before the refusal to answer questions about the specifics of this little jaunt. What is wrong with these people? The Current has more.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

Some of them have. How much remains to be seen.

The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.

Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.

It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.

“Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.

“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”

[…]

Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.

“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”

Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”

We’re at peak bad news for these guys – and now you can add State Rep. Gary Gates to that list – but who knows how long it will last. It’s also hard to take anything JoAnn Fleming says seriously, as she’s one of the major wingnut power brokers in North Texas. It’s one thing for someone like her to be mad at these guys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to vote for a Democrat against them.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to. Greg Abbott doesn’t have an opponent yet (though hold on, we’ll get back to that in a minute), Ted Cruz isn’t on any ballot until 2024, and Rick Perry is a Dancing with the Stars has-been. If there’s anger at them for their words and deeds and lack of action, that’s great, but it only goes so far. What if anything will this be channeled into?

One possible vehicle until such time as there’s a candidate running against Greg Abbott is President Biden. He’s done all the Presidential things to help Texas recover, and he’s coming for a visit next week, both of which have the chance to make people like him a little bit more. This is an opportunity for him as an example of good leadership, and also for future legislative proposals. If that translates into better approval/favorability numbers for Biden in Texas, that should help the Democratic slate next year. The longer the national GOP remains in disarray as well, the better.

The leadership example, if it can stand as a contrast to what Abbott et al have been doing, can serve as the baseline argument in 2022 and beyond for change in our state government.

What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.

It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we’re rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn’t poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn’t rely on heat or water.

In a hospital.

The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.

Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.

It’s a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.

Putting that another way:

Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.

I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.

I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.

This is an opportunity for someone to say “It doesn’t have to be like this” and maybe get heard in a way that’s been nigh-impossible for Texas Democrats in recent years, Beto in 2018 semi-excepted. Even if the main effect is to make normal Republican voters less excited about supporting their team in 2022, that helps too.

But first we need someone to step up and make that argument. We know Beto is thinking about it, and at last report, Julian Castro was not inclined to run. But that Politico story also has this tidbit:

“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.

Emphasis mine. Who knows what that means, or how it’s sourced. I mean, despite that earlier story about Castro, he’s a potential candidate until he’s not. Who even knows if Ted Cruz will run for re-election in 2024 – we all know he wants to run for President again, however ridiculous that may sound now – so considering a bid against Abbott is the only one that makes sense. I’d like to hear him say those words himself before I believe it, but I feel duty-bound to note that paragraph. We can hope from there.

Now we get to worry about food

Because the supply chain also suffered from the massive power outages.

Now would be a good time to donate

The state’s week of weather hell started with a deadly 133-car pileup outside of Fort Worth. A winter storm unlike any Texas has ever seen quickly followed, and seven days later, millions are without power and reliable water.

And now Texans are running out of food. From farm to table, freezing temperatures and power outages are disrupting the food supply chain that people rely on every day.

Across the state, people are using up supplies they had stockpiled and losing more as items start to spoil in dark refrigerators. Some are storing their remaining rations in coolers outside, and trips to the grocery store often do little to replenish pantries.

“It was out of meat, eggs and almost all milk before I left,” Cristal Porter, an Austin resident, said about her local Target which she visited Monday. “Lines were wrapped around the store when we arrived. … Shelves were almost fully cleared for potatoes, meat, eggs and some dairy.”

Two days later, one of Porter’s neighbors went to that same Target, and the store was completely out of food, with no sign of additional shipments arriving or employees restocking shelves.

With grocery stores across the state shuttered for lack of power, supermarkets that remain open have seen supplies dwindle, shortages that ripple over to food pantries that count on grocery store surplus to keep their own shelves stocked.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley have frozen over in what The Produce News described as a “Valentine’s Day produce massacre.” School districts from Fort Worth to Houston have halted meal distributions to students for the next several days, and Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said dairy farmers around the state are pouring $8 million worth of milk down the drain every day because they can’t get it to dairies.

Celia Cole, the CEO of hunger-relief organization Feeding Texas, said that so far, eight food banks have asked the state for extra help feeding their communities. Several food banks affiliated with Feeding Texas have also started providing food supplies to emergency warming shelters in the state’s major cities. Wednesday afternoon, the Central Food Bank of Texas canceled its deliveries scheduled for Thursday in Austin and Rockdale.

“The Food Bank’s fleet, equipment, facilities and operations have been adversely impacted by the extremely low temperatures, and hazardous road conditions are hindering our staff and volunteers from getting to our building safely,” the organization announced in a media alert. “These conditions are also keeping us from distributing food safely.”

[…]

Between the current strain on grocery stores and the potential for huge damages to the state’s agricultural sector, this storm could hamper food access for weeks to come. Miller and Cole emphasized that it’s impossible to know the extent of the losses until power returns, but the food supply will continue to drain unless farmers and stores get electricity back soon.

“They’ve been very, very badly hit – the agricultural sector, generally —by the pandemic, so they’re already struggling,” Cole said. “And so I think although the impact if the power gets restored quickly might not be huge in absolute terms, it’s hitting a sector that’s already reeling from the pandemic.”

There’s likely not much that we could have done about the effect the weather had on the crops and animals themselves. But the loss of power, and the extreme disruption it has caused not just in people’s daily lives but in the food supply chain, that’s a risk that cannot be considered acceptable. I’ve gone into this plenty of times now and won’t repeat myself here, but it’s important to keep the human misery factor in mind as much as the actual dollars-and-cents cost of this past week. That’s as good a segue as any to this reminder that the Houston Food Bank needs all the help it can get right now to meet the need caused by the storm and the blackouts.

Like many others in Harris County, residents at Big Bass Resort in Jacinto City had run low on groceries by Thursday. After the winter storm iced roads and kept millions holed up without water and power, Texas officials anticipate major food shortages in the days and weeks to come, prompting the Houston Food Bank to kick start mass food giveaways that are already ramping up through the weekend.

Calls from residents in need have led the food bank to expect long lines at facilities where its partner groups distribute their food. The food bank has a massive reach across southeast Texas, with 159 million meals provided across 18 counties during the past fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Paula Murphy.

“The food bank and all the partners we work with, we’re almost like the last resort,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of the organization. “It can, for a lot of households, be the difference between getting by and tragedy.”

Aside from any issues grocery stores might have restocking their shelves, most food shortages equate to income shortages, Greene said. Families who were already struggling financially – some still recovering from past floods and others laid off during the pandemic – might be experiencing rougher situations after losing a week’s worth of income due to an inability to work during the freeze.

Some money that was spent on food before the storm likely went to waste, as a lack of electricity caused refrigerated or frozen items to spoil, Greene said. And unforseen expenses from building damage can make affording food difficult.

Greene expects food shortages to mirror experiences during hurricanes. A large number of households need aid in the first few days after a storm, and then the number trickles down to low-income households that sustained significant damage, he said.

Because of the anticipated needs, Harris County officials have urged out-of-state supporters to donate to the food bank.

“Even as the lights come back on, we’re facing a food and water crisis in Harris County, Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted Thursday.

If you’re not Ted Cruz and are looking for a way to help go to and make a donation or sign up to volunteer. Direct your out-of-town friends and family who want to help there as well. This really is like the immediate after-effect of a hurricane.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

The “public service” part of being a public servant

It’s not that hard, though obviously some people make it look easier than others.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [flew] to Houston [Friday] with more than $2 million to help Texas recover from a week of catastrophic blackouts and water outages.

“I’ll be flying to Texas today to visit with Houston Rep. Sylvia Garcia to distribute supplies and help amplify needs & solutions,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Friday morning.

Earlier in the week, Ocasio-Cortez sent out fundraising appeals to her massive campaign donor network and her nearly 13 million social media followers.

“Please chip in what you can afford today and 100% of your donation will automatically be split between these organizations on the ground providing immediate relief,” the fundraising pitch said.

Those organizations include the Houston Food Bank, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, Corazon Ministries, Central Texas Food Bank, North Texas Food Bank and Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.

Very nice. Also of note:

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and his wife, Reagan, are partnering with the Astros Foundation and Brothers Produce to distribute 18,000 cases of water on Saturday at the Astros Youth Academy.

The event will be a drive-through and a limit of two cases of water per car is in place. Distribution will begin at 9 a.m. and last until cases run out.

The Astros Youth Academy is located at 2801 S. Victory Drive.

Also very nice. And one more:

My point here is that one of the defenses of Ted Cruz that was put forth by various sycophants is that he’s just a plain ol’ US Senator, he doesn’t actually do anything, so why shouldn’t he go off to Cancun for a couple of days while everyone else is freezing in the dark with no potable water? He’s useless and impotent, and no one will miss him. I mean, they’re not wrong in their characterization of Ted Cruz, but they are definitely wrong about the potential for good that someone who is not at all like Ted Cruz can do. You don’t even have to be a public servant to do good, you just have to want to do good and find a way to do it. It’s not that hard, if you’re not like Ted Cruz.

UPDATE: Okay, I stand corrected. Ted Cruz can be good for something after all.

Country music artist Kacey Musgraves is trying to channel the anger over Sen. Ted Cruz’s widely criticized Cancun jaunt into relief for his constituents suffering through Texas’ snowmageddon.

The Lone Star State-based singer is selling a T-shirt on her website to raise money for those affected by the freeze while letting purchasers proudly proclaim just how they feel about the state’s widely reviled junior senator.

The tee is a white ringer with the phrase “Cruzin’ for a bruzin’” printed in bold black letters on the front.

“Regardless if you support him, you gotta admit Cancun was a bad look and that this is funny AF,” Musgraves wrote in an Instagram post revealing the design. “I’m HALFWAY to raising $100k for Texans who really need it. All proceeds are being donated.”

They are on sale through tomorrow, so buy one quickly, while they last.

It could have been worse

Hard to imagine, but this would qualify.

Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday.

As millions of customers throughout the state begin to have power restored after days of massive blackouts, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, said Texas was dangerously close to a worst-case scenario: uncontrolled blackouts across the state.

The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid can take months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout,” she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn’t worse is because of those grid operators.”

Okay, you’ve convinced me, that would have been Bad. I can’t even begin to fathom what life in that scenario would look like. But look, what this means more than ever is we didn’t do a proper job of assessing and mitigating the risks that we faced. This was not an unforeseen event, nor was it a “five hundred year flood” situation, since we had extreme weather like this in 2011 and 1989, well within our institutional memory. What’s fascinating about all this is that the folks at ERCOT did a pretty good job estimating the demand that the grid would face. Where they completely missed the boat was on the supply side. Rice professor Daniel Cohan explains:

ERCOT didn’t do too badly predicting peak demand — 67 GW in its extreme scenario. We don’t know how high the actual peak would have been without these rolling blackouts, but perhaps around 5 GW higher, with some conservation by industrial consumers.

Scheduled maintenance played a role too, as plants tune up for summer peaks. Why so much of that maintenance continued amid week-ahead forecasts of an Arctic blast deserves a closer look.

But ERCOT’s biggest miss came in preparing for outages at what it thought were “firm” resources — gas, coal, and nuclear. Those outages topped 30 GW, more than double ERCOT’s worst-case scenario. Just one of those gigawatts came from a temporary outage at a nuclear unit. Most of the rest came from gas.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of individual gas power plants broke down. Most outages came because delivery systems failed to supply gas to those plants at the consistent pressures that they need.

These failures highlight the unique vulnerabilities of relying so heavily on natural gas for power. Only gas electricity relies on a continuous supply of a fossil fuel delivered from hundreds of miles away. And that fuel is also needed for heat. So when an Arctic blast drives up demand and drives down supply of heat and electricity at the same time, power plants languish in line while homes and hospitals get the heating fuel they need.

That makes these blackouts an energy systems crisis, not just a power crisis. Every one of our power sources underperformed. Every one of them has unique vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by extreme events. None of them prepared adequately for extreme cold.

That was adapted from this Twitter thread, and you should read them both. There’s a lot that can and should be done to improve the system, and we need to think of it in systemic terms. Even Greg Abbott seems to think we need to think big:

I mean, I don’t have any faith in anything Abbott wants to do, but at least he’s not talking about something that’s completely disconnected from, or opposite to, the problem. That’s better than what we’re used to. Maybe the Lege can take it from there.

When the going gets tough, Ted Cruz gets going

All the way to Cancun. Smell ya later, suckers!

At least he was wearing a mask

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was feeling the heat Thursday as photos circulated online showing the Texas Republican traveling to Cancún while millions in his home state were left in the cold without power and water, reeling from a major winter weather disaster.

The senator, who was spotted on a Wednesday flight, said in a statement that his family lost heat and power like many, and with school out for the week, his daughters asked to go.

“Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” Cruz said.

It was unclear whether the quick return was originally planned, but it wasn’t quick enough for many regardless. By Thursday morning, the trip had already sparked renewed calls for Cruz’s resignation — six weeks into 2021, the senator with 2024 presidential ambitions has also been the focus of scorn over his objections to certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory, an effort his campaign used to raise money that also led to calls for his resignation and an ethics complaint from Senate Democrats.

Cruz was also called out earlier this week for having mocked California’s rolling blackouts in 2020.

“I got no defense,” Cruz tweeted in response. “A blizzard strikes Texas & our state shuts down. Not good. Stay safe!”

Political experts in Texas, however, don’t expect all this bad PR to stick. Even after the insurrection at the Capitol, Cruz consistently ranks among the most popular Republicans in the state. He was second only to Donald Trump in a University of Houston poll released last month, easily weathering the outrage from the Capitol attack.

“While he may be one of the most disliked politicians in Texas, he is also one of the most well liked — and his base is not going to budge, even under these circumstances,” said Renée Cross, senior director at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which conducted the poll.

Republican political operatives, however, were shaking their heads at the Cancún trip, even as they questioned what Cruz realistically could have done about the crisis in Texas that he couldn’t also do remotely.

Derek Ryan, a Republican political consultant in Texas, predicted the photos will haunt the senator for some time.

“‘Whether he can help or not, in 2024 the ads will be, ‘While you and your family froze, Cruz fled to Mexico,’” Ryan tweeted. “Perception is reality.”

“You need to be seen as engaged, you need to be seen as active in your community, helping out,” Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas, said.

“He is a senator, so what can he actually do right now? Most of what they can do is make calls, send emails, make statements … He could argue a lot of those things, I can do from my phone, from virtually anywhere,” Steinhauser said. “But he decided to come back home… he sees this is a perception problem.”

Let’s be clear about a couple of things:

1. Speaking as a dad, I get the desire to make life better for your kids, in whatever circumstance. I thought about packing us all up and going somewhere this week – where, I had no idea – because it did suck to be in a cold, dark house with nothing to do. I don’t actually blame him for that desire, but using the kids as a shield for his own questionable decision, that’s a coward’s move. You made the decision to fly to Cancun, as opposed to driving to a hotel or sleeping over with a friend who had power, or just toughing it out and commiserating the the millions of other Texans in the same boat. Own it.

2. Nobody cuts Ted Cruz any slack because Ted Cruz has earned his reputation as one of the biggest jerks in America. He’s always among the first in line to kick someone else when they’re down – see the tweets about California, or about Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his trip to Cabo a few months ago, which was noted later in the story – so people line up to do the same when he stumbles. He’s also been especially critical of politicians he doesn’t like who dare to take vacations, which again brings up the hypocrisy angle. Ultimately, Ted Cruz gets extended the same grace he extends to everyone else, which is to say none at all. It’s the purest application of the Golden Rule that ever existed.

3. Honestly, what did he think was going to happen here? He’s not only one of the most hated people in the country, he’s also one of the most recognizable. The odds of him travelling to Cancun and back without being noticed were exactly zero. Hell, even his supposed friends are adding to the feeding frenzy (more here).

4. Oh, and did we mention the pandemic that’s still going on? Ted Cruz and his family taking an international flight was a bad idea even without the “constituents freezing in the dark” optics. Go back to the story and review what Cruz said about Steve Adler. It’s almost as if that was completely cynical, because the rules only apply to other people, not to Ted Cruz.

5. I get that the people who love Ted Cruz really love Ted Cruz, but no one’s approval ratings are set in stone. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are now lower than they ever were during his reign of terror, and his sycophants are as zealous as they come. The thing about an event like this is that it doesn’t actually have anything to do with politics or a bill or some other argument that Republicans are having with Democrats. It’s about Ted Cruz doing something that looks to be deeply selfish and indifferent to anyone else. Some number of people who like him will like him less as a result of this. Maybe that’s not a big number, and maybe some of them eventually forgive him. Maybe even those who are done with him will never vote for the next Democrat that runs against him. My point is that with someone this evenly polarizing, it doesn’t take much to tilt the balance that currently favors him in this state. He had an awfully close election last time, though to be fair he was running in a tough year for Republicans. It wouldn’t have taken much to alter the outcome.

6. And he had a HPD escort when he arrived statewide. What a guy.

Anyway. The next time Ted Cruz will be on a ballot is a long time from now. The attack ads will write themselves, but who knows what might transpire between now and then to make us all hate Ted Cruz in a different way. In the meantime, please enjoy the voluminous Twitter snark at Ted Cruz’s expense. Politics is fleeting, but sincere mockery is forever.

UPDATE: Some more Twitter venom for Cruz.

Winter storm/blackout/boil water situation, Day 439

I may be a bit off in my counting of the days, but it’s close enough. Between my house and my in-laws’ house, I have had power for maybe 14 hours total since Monday morning, with a bit more time for Internet thanks to a backup battery we have here that we can plug the cable modem and Eero router into. For obvious reasons, I’m not able to stay on top of the news as a result. The blackouts will continue for at least another day or so, the water needs to be boiled until further notice, we have a cracked water pipe but at least it’s under the house and not inside a wall and we may try to wrap some plumber’s tape on it while we wait in line to get it fixed, but all things considered we are fine. So many people are so much worse off, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating. If there’s anything you can do to help someone in need – friend, neighbor, complete stranger – please do so. We’re all in this together.

With that in mind, allow me to offer a hearty Fuck You to Rick Perry, for suggesting that all of the suffering and deprivation are a justifiable price that we should be willing to pay for not having a more regulated power generation system. I am truly at a loss for words here. May we all remember this in 2022, when we get to vote on who runs our state.

On the subject of ERCOT and the system we do have, let me key in on one part of this conversation with energy expert Joshua Rhodes about why things are the way they are here.

TM: When it comes to frozen wells and wind turbines, or other infrastructure that is physically affected by the cold, are there preventative measures that could have been taken, such as winterizing?

JR: There are plenty of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. It gets a lot colder there than it does here, even today. There are ways of producing gas. All of that infrastructure is site-specific. I would assume it’s more expensive. We could winterize wind turbines better but it would cost more money. We can winterize pipes on power plants, but it would cost more money. We have to decide, what level of risk are we willing to take and what are we willing to pay for?

TM: How could this have been prevented?

JR: Could we have built a grid that would have fared better during this time? Of course we could have. But we could also build a car that could survive every crash you could possibly throw at it, but it would be very expensive and not many people would probably be able to afford it. At some point we do a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk we are willing to take. We have never had weather like this thrown at us, so it’s not surprising to me that we don’t have infrastructure that can support it.

There are no snow plows out on the road. They’d be handy right now, of course, but we don’t use them very often. We don’t have that capability in the state generally because we don’t want to pay for it. We may decide now as a society that we do, but that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with our collective self, if you will.

I thought Rhodes was way too deferential to the power generation industry overall, but this here is nearly as tone deaf as Perry’s idiocy. Yeah, sure, we can’t prepare for every possible contingency, but surely we can all recognize that a risk that leaves millions of people without power for multiple days in the midst of freezing temperatures is one that we ought to consider mitigating. As someone who works in cyberdefense at a large company, I can assure you we mitigate the hell out of much smaller risks than that. Actual rolling blackouts that leave a modest number of people without power for a couple of hours at a time is one thing. This was very much not that. Worse, it had already happened ten years ago and was studied at the time, yet nothing of any substance was done. This is a heads-must-roll situation. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is part of the problem.

There’s a lot more out there but I only have so much battery life on the laptop. Stay safe, stay warm, and boil that water – if you have it – until told otherwise.

So what’s going on with the power supply?

First, as a personal update, we have been without power at our house since about 7 PM on Monday, and we had no Internet on Tuesday morning. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening from my in-laws’ house, where they have had both since earlier in the day. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll be able to return home, but maybe not. Expect my output to be spotty for the next few days – I happened to have the two Fort Bend posts queued up over the weekend, so that helped. From here on out, it’s up in the air.

Let’s start with the basic question of what went wrong?

Millions of Texans were without heat and electricity Monday as snow, ice and frigid temperatures caused a catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid.

The Texas power grid, powered largely by wind and natural gas, is relatively well equipped to handle the state’s hot and humid summers when demand for power soars. But unlike blistering summers, the severe winter weather delivered a crippling blow to power production, cutting supplies as the falling temperatures increased demand.

Natural gas shortages and frozen wind turbines were already curtailing power output when the Arctic blast began knocking generators offline early Monday morning.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which is responsible for scheduling power and ensuring the reliability of the electrical network, declared a statewide power generation shortfall emergency and asked electricity delivery companies to reduce load through controlled outages.

More than 4 million customers were without power in Texas, including 1.4 million in the Houston area, the worst power crisis in the state in a decade. The forced outages are expected to last at least through part of Tuesday, the state grid manager said.

CenterPoint Energy, the regulated utility that delivers electricity to Houston-area homes and provides natural gas service, started rolling blackouts in the Houston region at the order of state power regulators. It said customers experiencing outages should be prepared to be without power at least through Monday.

“How long is it going to be? I don’t know the answer,” said Kenny Mercado, executive vice president at the Houston utility. “The generators are doing everything they can to get back on. But their work takes time and I don’t know how long it will take. But for us to move forward, we have got to get generation back onto the grid. That is our primary need.”

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, said the rolling blackouts are taking more power offline for longer periods than ever before. An estimated 34,000 megawatts of power generation — more than a third of the system’s total generating capacity — had been knocked offline by the extreme winter weather amid soaring demand as residents crank up heating systems.

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, blamed the failures on the state’s deregulated power system, which doesn’t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants.

“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” said Hirs. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.

“For more than a decade, generators have not been able to charge what it costs them to produce electricity,” said Hirs. “If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”

Woodfin said ERCOT and generators followed best practices for winterization, but the severity of the weather was unprecedented — “well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter.”

The hit to power generation came as frigid weather froze wind turbines and forced outages among natural gas and other power plants. Most of the power knocked offline came from thermal sources, Woodfin said, particularly natural gas.

Yes, the vast bulk of the drop in capacity came from natural gas.

Failures across Texas’ natural gas operations and supply chains due to extreme temperatures are the most significant cause of the power crisis that has left millions of Texans without heat and electricity during the winter storm sweeping the U.S.

From frozen natural gas wells to frozen wind turbines, all sources of power generation have faced difficulties during the winter storm. But Texans largely rely on natural gas for power and heat generation, especially during peak usage, experts said.

Officials for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages most of Texas’ grid, said that the primarily cause of the outages on Tuesday appeared to be the state’s natural gas providers. Many are not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production.

By some estimates, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures, while freezing components at natural gas-fired power plants have forced some operators to shut down.

“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. While he said all of Texas’ energy sources share blame for the power crisis — at least one nuclear power plant has partially shut down, most notably — the natural gas industry is producing significantly less power than normal.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Webber said.

More than half of ERCOT’s winter generating capacity, largely powered by natural gas, was offline due to the storm, an estimated 45 gigawatts, according to Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

The outages during this storm far exceeded what ERCOT had predicted in November for an extreme winter event. The forecast for peak demand was 67 gigawatts; peak usage during the storm was more than 69 gigawatts on Sunday.

It’s estimated that about 80% of the grid’s capacity, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity, or six gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.

Woodfin said Tuesday that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, is offline and that 30 gigawatts of thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy, is offline.

So don’t blame wind, or at least don’t blame it more than you blame gas. And wherever you’re from, remember to have a little compassion for the suffering of others. Don’t be like this, and especially don’t be like this.

It’s been a long day, and like much of the state, I’m out of energy. If you want to read more, Bloomberg and Gizmodo and other sources are out there. I understand that the ERCOT situation has now been added to the list of emergency items for the Lege to consider. I’d suggest that it’s the only real emergency among those items, and it’s not going to be fixed without a major overhaul of the kind that this Legislature and this Governor will not accept, but at least it’s on the agenda. Assuming they can restore power to the Capitol in time for them to do anything about it, of course. Stay warm and safe, y’all.

UPDATE: Here’s some cheerful news.

Texas’ power grid operators can’t predict when outages might end, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials said Tuesday.

As of 6 p.m. more than 3 million Texans, many of them in North Texas, are enduring extended outages as icy conditions have settled in across the region.

ERCOT, the agency that oversees the state’s power grid, is trying to avoid a total blackout by instructing utility companies, including Oncor Electric Delivery, to cut power to customers.

“We needed to step in and make sure that we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout, which could keep folks without power — not just some people without power but everyone in our region without power — for much, much longer than we believe this event is going to last, as long and as difficult as this event is right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said.

When reporters pressed for a timeline, he and Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin could not say how much longer the outages would last. An uncontrolled blackout could leave Texans without power for “an indeterminate amount of time,” maybe a month, Magness said.

We’re going to need some better answers than that.

These blackouts don’t roll

How it started.

Texas’ electrical grid operator is implementing rolling blackouts across most of the state Monday after a massive winter storm brought unprecedented demand for electricity and forced multiple power-generating units offline.

The blackouts began at 1:25 a.m. Central time. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said they would likely last “throughout the morning and could be initiated until this weather emergency ends.”

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said in a press release.

The blackouts are designed to reduce demand for electricity until capacity can be restored. ERCOT officials hinted on Sunday that they might be necessary, saying they’d most likely last between 10 minutes to 45 minutes at a time.

How it’s going:

We’ve been without power for 2.5 hours as I write this – we have some battery backup to keep the WiFi going and recharge devices, but not much more than that. They say a little time spent offline is good for you. We’ll see about that. Stay warm, y’all.

UPDATE: We got our power back after eight hours, which makes us very fortunate.

CenterPoint Energy customers who are currently experiencing an outage should be prepared to be without power for at least the rest of the day, CenterPoint said Monday afternoon.

As the Texas electric system faces an unprecedented power shortage due to extreme winter weather, Texans’ electricity consumption is far surpassing the state’s current power generation.

The current estimated number of customers without power due to the request for reduced load is approximately 1.162 million, while an additional 62,500 customers are without power due to other storm related events.

Customers who do have power are asked to reduce their electricity use to the lowest level possible.

On Monday morning, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is responsible for scheduling power and ensuring the reliability of the electrical network, declared a statewide power generation shortfall emergency and asked electricity delivery companies to reduce load through controlled outages.

As soon as generating capacity is brought back online and ERCOT permits, CenterPoint Energy will deploy resources to restore customers.

However, CenterPoint said if additional generating capacity goes offline, it will result in additional customer outages.

“How long is it going to be? I don’t know the answer,” said Kenny Mercado, executive vice president at the Houston utility. Mercado, said in an interview. “The generators are doing everything they can to get back on. But their work takes time and I don’t know how long it will take. But for us to move forward, we have got to get generation back onto the grid. That is our primary need.”

The power outages rolling through the state are expected to last through today and at least part of tomorrow, the state grid manager said Monday.

Just a thought here, but maybe this is a more important issue than whether or not sports teams play the Star Spangled Banner before their games. Just a thought.

Also, in case anyone was wondering:

Like I said, maybe a more important issue than some of the effluvia that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick have been talking about.

Beware of blackouts

This would not be great.

The nonprofit organization that operates Texas’ power grid warned Sunday that it may be forced to impose rolling outages in the state on Monday and Tuesday as a major winter storm brings record low temperatures and causes massive demand for electricity.

Power reserves in the state were stable Sunday afternoon, but the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is anticipating the need to go into emergency operations from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning, said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT.

“During this fairly unprecedented cold weather event across the entire state, electric demand is expected to exceed our previous winter peak record set in January of 2018 by up to 10,000 megawatts,” Woodfin said. “In fact, the peak demand on Monday and Tuesday is currently forecasted to meet or exceed our all time summer peak demand of 74,820 megawatts.”

Texans purchase their electricity from companies, cooperatives or cities, but ERCOT works with those utility providers to manage the flow of power to more than 90% of the state.

If demand comes closer to capacity, ERCOT can declare a level-one, level-two or level-three energy emergency alert, which allows the council to use additional resources to respond to demand. According to ERCOT’s alert steps, the organization can import power from other regions, request extra power from transmission companies and release generation reserves under these alerts.

Temporary power outages are a last resort and would generally only occur after other resources had been exhausted. Woodfin said outages would be more likely to occur on Monday and Tuesday, but there is “certainly a possibility” that something could change and they could occur Sunday evening.

“If the additional resources available during an EEA (are) still not sufficient to balance generation and load, and we still don’t have enough resources to serve the demand, then we could have to implement what’s called rotating outages … so that we’ve got enough resources to cover what’s what’s left,” Woodfin said.

Outages typically last from 10 to 45 minutes for residential neighborhoods and small businesses, but the exact response would vary by transmission company, according to protocols for emergency alerts from ERCOT. ERCOT has only instituted three systemwide rotating outages in its history. The most recent one was more than 10 years ago on Feb. 2, 2011 in response to a blizzard affecting the state.

So good news, this is a very rare event, and ERCOT has tools at its disposal to make it less likely to occur. Bad news, the fact that they’re talking about it at all, and the fact that it would occur at a time when it’s super duper cold. Bundle up, turn off lights and try not to overdo your own electricity usage, and hope for the best.

UPDATE: Wow.

Nearly half of Texas’ installed wind power generation capacity has been offline because of frozen wind turbines in West Texas, according to Texas grid operators.

Wind farms across the state generate up to a combined 25,100 megawatts of energy. But unusually moist winter conditions in West Texas brought on by the weekend’s freezing rain and historically low temperatures have iced many of those wind turbines to a halt.

As of Sunday morning, those iced turbines comprise 12,000 megawatts of Texas’ installed wind generation capacity, although those West Texas turbines don’t typically spin to their full generation capacity this time of year.

Fortunately for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electric grid, the storm’s gusty winds are spinning the state’s unfrozen coastal turbines at a higher rate than expected, helping to offset some of the power generation losses because of the icy conditions.

It’s going to be a strange couple of days. Hold on.

Beware the renewable energy disinformation

It’s out there, in more ways than one.

David Dunagan doesn’t want a 760-acre solar power plant to be built across his fenceline. The Old Jackson Power Plant will replace farmland in Van Zandt County with gleaming, metal panels. Though the 127-megawatt plant will provide clean, renewable energy for some of the nearly 7.5 million residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex Dunagan has been organizing local landowners to stop it for the last year.

Generations of landowners have raised cattle or grown crops like hay and sweet potatoes in this slice of rural northeast Texas, and turning those fields into an industrial power plant isn’t an easy pill to swallow. One of Dunagan’s major worries is the environmental impact that the Old Jackson plant could have. “It’s literally in the middle of East Texas tornado alley,” he says. “There is a propensity for these facilities to get torn up, and the materials are scattered everywhere. These panels, there are several heavy metals used in thin layers,” he adds. “It’s been proven that these panels tend to leach over time, into the soil and water.”

Thing is, that hasn’t been proven. That’s because it’s not true. According to Wyatt Metzger, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, there’s little truth to the leaching-panel claim. Concerns about what happens if panels are discarded improperly at the end of their 30-year lifespan, are legitimate, however. But the idea that inclement weather could turn a functioning solar farm into a Superfund site littered with lead and cadmium-laced debris has caught on across the country as solar energy developments take off.

It’s a talking point that Dunagan picked up from so-called experts such as Michael Shellenberger, a staunchly pro-nuclear environmentalist who’s called climate activists “alarmists.” It’s been repeated by a national group called Citizens for Responsible Solar, which presents itself as a grassroots coalition, but was formed by a Republican consultant in Virginia. The myth has been pushed by the Foundation for Economic Education and the benign-sounding Institute for Energy Research, both libertarian think tanks that have direct ties to billionaire fossil fuel executives and climate change denialists Charles Koch and David Padden. Koch and Padden fund the Heartland Institute, one of the most infamous climate denial groups.

[…]

Disinformation about renewable energy isn’t new. For decades, fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks have painted wind turbines as a bird-killing, unreliable, and property-value damaging source of energy. “We’re starting to see the same forces shift over, focusing on solar farms,” says Dave Anderson, a researcher with the Energy and Policy Institute who tracks fossil-fuel-funded disinformation about renewable energy. At the same time, solar energy is on the cusp of a growth spurt: Texas’ solar capacity is on track to grow by 150 percent this year. A similar upward trajectory is expected next year.

Many of the state’s largest solar plants have been built in West Texas, where land is cheap and sun is plentiful. In many of these counties, landowners were already used to having pumpjacks and wind turbines on their sprawling ranches, so solar wasn’t very different. Now, as the price of solar technology has dropped drastically, it’s more feasible for solar companies to locate their plants closer to energy-consuming cities, says Josh Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. In places like Van Zandt, Bell, or Wharton County, just outside of Sugar Land, developers will save on the cost of electric transmission from far West Texas. But here, residents aren’t as welcoming of the new, industrial developments.

This is going to get worse as the Biden administration makes a big push towards renewables as part of its climate change agenda. Be aware of what the propaganda is and be prepared to push back on it when you see or hear it.

Suing ERCOT

Interesting.

Panda Power built three power plants earlier in this decade, investing billions of dollars based on projections from the state’s grid manager that Texas desperately needed more generation to meet growing electricity demand. But those projections turned out to be wildly wrong — Texas, in fact, had plenty of power — and Panda ended up losing billions of dollars and putting one of the plants into bankruptcy, unable to sell electricity at prices sufficient to cover debts.

The Dallas company is now in court, alleging that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas intentionally manipulated the projections to encourage new power plant construction and relieve the political pressure that was building on the grid manager to increase generation in the state. The case has implications that reach beyond whether Panda gets its money back to issues as profound as the reliability of power grid, the integrity of the wholesale electricity market and the accountability of an organization whose decisions affect thousands of businesses, millions of people and billions of dollars.

The Texas Supreme Court is considering whether ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation, is entitled to its sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governments and their agencies from lawsuits. The high court’s decision, expected later this year, could determine whether electricity buyers and sellers can hold the grid manager responsible for pricing errors, mistake-ridden forecasts or life-and-death consequences of power outages.

These problems aren’t just hypothetical. After a data error this spring forced electricity buyers to pay millions of dollars more than they should have, ERCOT declined to reprice the power, arguing that such errors are so frequent that continual repricing would disrupt the electricity market.

Case details are here. I have no idea how this may play out, but it’s one of those things that no one is paying attention to that may turn out to be a big deal, so I figured it was worth noting. I’ll keep an eye on it.

We can make the end of coal in Texas happen

It’s already happening. It just needs a bit of a boost.

Texas might have the perfect environment to quit coal for good.

Texas is one of the only places—potentially in the world—where the natural patterns of wind and sun could produce power around the clock, according to new research from Rice University.

Scientists found that between wind energy from West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and solar energy across the state, Texas could meet a significant portion of its electricity demand from renewable power without extensive battery storage. The reason: These sources generate power at different times of day, meaning that coordinating them could replace production from coal-fired plants.

“There is no where else in the world better positioned to operate without coal than Texas is,” said Dan Cohan an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University who co-authored the report with a student, Joanna Slusarewicz. “Wind and solar are easily capable of picking up the slack.”

[…]

Coal still generates about 25 percent of the state’s power, but its share is shrinking. Since 2007, coal used in generating electricity has decreased 36 percent. Last year, Vistra Energy of Dallas shut down three coal-fired plants in Texas, citing changing economics in the power industry that make it difficult for coal to compete.

Texas has more than 20,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity, which could rise to 38,000 megawatts by 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Solar energy, however, has developed much more slowly in Texas, despite the abundance of sunshine. Texas installed about 2,500 megawatts of solar capacity in 2018.

The research article is here. Texas has done well generating wind energy, but needs to step it up with solar. The Lege could provide some incentives for this, so maybe mention to your State Rep the next time you call their office that this would be a productive thing to do.

The war on coal is over in Texas

Coal lost, and good riddance.

Wind power capacity edged out coal for the first time in the Texas history last week after a new 155-megawatt wind farm in Scurry County came online. The farm in question is the Fluvanna Wind Energy Project, located on some 32,000 acres leased from more than 130 landowners.

Fluvanna pushed total wind power capacity in the state to more than 20,000 megawatts, while coal capacity stands at 19,800 megawatts and is slated to fall to 14,700 megawatts by the end of 2018 thanks to planned coal powerplant closures. Next year, Luminant will shutter three coal-fired plants—Monticello, Sandow, and Big Brown—and San Antonio’s CPS Energy will close J.T. Deely Station. Wind capacity in the state will reach 24,400 megawatts by the end of 2018, according to projections from Joshua Rhodes, a research fellow at UT Austin’s Energy Institute.

But capacity is one thing, electricity generation is another. In the first ten months of 2017, wind generated 17.2 percent of power in the state, and coal 31.9 percent, according to ERCOT. But wind should soon see large gains there. “By our analysis, in 2019 we’ll have more energy from wind than coal,” Rhodes said.

Don’t anyone tell Donald Trump.

Clean Power Plan’s day in the DC court

We’ll see how it goes.

Dozens of lawyers from the government, industry and public interest groups packed the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, to hear the divisive case that comes just weeks before a heated presidential election and illustrates how a President’s picks for the lower court might impact his own agenda.

The plan is currently frozen because last February, the Supreme Court voted to delay implementation until the appeals process could play out.

Opponents to the plan claim that the EPA went too far under the law to push the rule.

Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh at one point questioned EPA’s authority.

“This is a huge case,” he said and noted that it could “fundamentally” transform the industry. Kavanaugh said the administration’s policy is “laudable” but questioned under the separation of powers whether Congress, and not the EPA, had to speak clearly on the issue.

Judge Thomas B. Griffith chimed in asking, “why isn’t this debate going on in the floor of the Senate?” rather than before a panel of judges. But Judge Patricia A. Millet reiterated at one point that the Supreme Court “has already said” that the EPA has the authority to regulate in the area.

Other judges questioned whether by 2030, the rule would be any more transformative to the coal industry, for example, than market forces would be.

Judge David S. Tatel asked whether the agency was simply “invoking existing authority.”

While the morning session in court was dedicated to statutory arguments, in the afternoon the court heard arguments concerning whether it was unconstitutional. The challengers’ constitutional arguments did not appear to to get much traction with the judges.

[…]

During complex arguments before a multi-member court is dangerous to try to determine — based on questions posed at oral arguments — how a judge will ultimately rule. It’s worth noting however, that Tuesday’s case comes before an appellate court that has been transformed during the Obama administration.

Before Obama took office the appeals court tilted toward conservative appointees with six judges nominated by a Republican president and three nominated by a Democratic president. There were also two vacancies.

Currently, the active judges on the court consist of four GOP appointees and seven Democratic appointees. In 2013, Obama placed four judges on the court, three of them immediately after the Senate changed its filibuster rules. Tuesday’s case was heard by all the active members of the court except for Chief Judge Merrick Garland who has recused himself from hearing cases because he has been nominated to the Supreme Court.

“The party of an appointing president surely makes a difference in some types of cases — environmental for example — more than others,” said Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. “When the full court meets is when the party of appointing president is likely to matter most because the great majority of decisions are made by three-judge panels, randomly drawn and not necessarily reflective of the overall composition of the court.”

See here for the background. ThinkProgress agrees with the basic vote counting, with the possibility of a GOP judge siding with the Dems. The long and short of it is that we’ve seen this basic fight play out multiple times before – the Obama administration proposes a regulatory enforcement plan for the EPA, various Republican states led by Texas freak out and file suit, and the courts sort it out, usually with the feds winning. But do keep in mind that all of this is happening because 1) a Democratic President who cares about fighting climate change proposed this regulatory scheme, among others, and 2) an appeals court that has more Democratic appointees than Republican ones will make the decision that is likely to stand thanks to the current makeup of the Supreme Court. The fastest way to undo this is to not have a Democratic President in place after November. I’m just saying.

Back to court for the Clean Power Plan

Here we go.

One of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s final acts on Earth may have been to doom it.

Last February, on the final Tuesday of Scalia’s life, the Supreme Court handed down a 5–4 decision suspending the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. It was a surprising development — a lower court panel that included a conservative Republican judge previously denied a request to stay this plan — and a chilling development for anyone who cares about the planet. The Clean Power Plan is the Obama administration’s most ambitious effort to fight climate change. And it is difficult to exaggerate the consequences if these efforts fail:

In the relatively short term, the Environmental Protection Agency predicts that the Clean Power Plan will “avoid thousands of premature deaths and mean thousands fewer asthma attacks and hospitalizations in 2030 and every year beyond.” In the longer term, major cities could be swallowed by the ocean. Displaced residents will trigger a worldwide refugee crisis. Entire regions of the United States could be converted into a permanent Dust Bowl. The sheer magnitude of the catastrophe will rival any tragedy that has faced humanity since the Book of Genesis.

Scalia’s vote to stay the Clean Power Plan was enough to delay it, but not enough to destroy it. Now, however, the effort to permanently kill the plan is about to face its first big test.

A ten judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — arguably the second-most powerful court in the country — will hear arguments on the fate of the plan on Tuesday. With Scalia dead, and the Supreme Court evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the D.C. Circuit’s decision could be the last word on the plan’s legality.

While Scalia did not live to cast a vote eradicating the plan, his ghost still haunts this case. It lingers over the parties’ briefs, casting doubt upon long-settled doctrines viewed as rock solid just a few years ago. West Virginia v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, the challenge to the Clean Power Plan, is the culmination of a years-long effort by conservatives to hobble the executive branch — an effort Scalia started to embrace during his final years on the Court. And, if the Clean Power Plan falls, it will be because this effort scored just enough victories during the twilight of Scalia’s life.

See here, here, and here for the background. Needless to say, Texas is leading the charge in this litigation.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of trying to “force Texas to change how we regulate energy production,” through what he called an “unprecedented expansion of federal authority.”

“What we need is more reliable energy — not less, and the EPA is trying to stop that,” the Republican said while appearing on a panel in Washington, D.C.

Paxton specifically targeted the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s state-by-state effort to fight climate change by shifting away from coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable resources.

His appearance on the panel, organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, came one day before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is to hear four hours of oral arguments over the carbon dioxide-cutting rule. Those watching the litigation say the outcome could make or break Obama’s legacy on climate change.

[…]

The regulations would force states to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants however they see fit — accelerating a shift from coal that started years ago. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change.

For Texas — the nation’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter by far — that would mean cutting an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down about 21 percent from 2012 levels.

Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans have argued that doing so would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability on the grid. They say the regulations subvert state power.

Eighteen states and a litany of health and environmental groups have joined the Obama administration in defending the Clean Power Plan.

On Monday, one environmental group criticized Paxton for championing coal interests while challenging the regulation.

“Dirty coal just doesn’t make sense anymore, economically or environmentally, but Attorney General Paxton appears to want to go down with a sinking ship,” Luke Metzger, director of the advocacy group Environment Texas, said in an email. “Texans support transitioning to clean energy and the Clean Power Plan is helping make that possible.”

Proponents of the rules, backed by early analyses, suggest that market forces and existing policies alone would push Texas most of the way toward its target.

One study released in May predicted that coal generation would shrink from about 28 percent of state power generation to 6 percent by 2035 — not factoring in the controversial federal regulation.

Aside from inflation, Texans would see “virtually no price increase” if natural gas and solar prices continue to get cheaper as some expect, concluded the study by the Brattle Group, a global research firm that often crunches numbers for Texas regulators. Funding for that study came from the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, which supports natural gas and renewable energy sources.

boy, nothing says “forward-thinking” like protecting the interests of coal-burning power plants. The DC Court’s decision here is very likely to be the final word. If it comes down to a Supreme Court that has a ninth member that was appointed by President Trump, it won’t matter anyway since the EPA will cease enforcing environmental regulations because global warming is a myth. So, you know, no big deal. The Observer and the Chron have more.

Getting the (wind and solar) power to the people

It’s all about the transmission lines.

The Lone Star state is by far the largest state for wind power, with nearly 18,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity already built and another 5,500 megawatts—nearly equal to California’s total installed capacity—planned. The biggest driver of that wind boom was an $8 billion transmission system that was built to bring electricity from the desolate western and northern parts of the state to the big cities of the south and east: Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston.

Completed in 2014, the new wires—known as Competitive Renewable Energy Zones, or CREZ—have the capacity to carry some 18,500 megawatts of wind power across the state. That’s not enough to handle the 21,000 megawatts of capacity Texas expects to reach this year, and it’s creating a situation that’s straining the transmission system and potentially resulting in periods where the turbines go idle.

Now the state’s utilities and transmission companies are faced with spending hundreds of millions more to upgrade the system, demonstrating just how costly and complicated it is to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, even where those sources are abundant.

EDF Renewable Energy, which owns five wind farms in northern Texas, and other operators have proposed adding second lines to existing transmission lines from the panhandle, where much of the new wind-farm construction is happening. Doing so, EDF says, will accommodate nearly 4,000 megawatts of new generation expected in the panhandle over the next several years.

“If some of these projects get developed in the panhandle and they haven’t done the upgrades to the grid, for sure those farms will be curtailed,” says Frank Horak, the CEO of Austin-based energy consultancy Astek Energy.

[…]

Another looming challenge is an expected surge in solar projects in Texas. The state ranks third in terms of total solar capacity, and another 6,000 megawatts of solar projects are planned. That will further strain the grid.

“Last time I looked there were 42 solar projects in far West Texas that were in the interconnection queue waiting for new transmission because there’s a bottleneck there now,” says Horak. Most of those projects will remain on hold until new wires are in place; some may never be built.

Seems to me to be a supply and demand problem, with the supply of transmission not keeping up with the demand of energy production. Texas’ population continues to grow, and the grid is increasingly dependent on wind and solar power to meet usage peaks, so it would be very shortsighted not to keep investing in more transmission capacity. This ought to be a no-brainer.

Full DC Circuit Court to review Clean Power Plan

From ThinkProgress, an update on yet another federal lawsuit involving Texas.

The Clean Power Plan will get its day in court, but in September, not June — and by the full en banc D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, not the court’s normal three-judge panel that was scheduled to hear it in just over two weeks.

West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency is one of the most important environmental cases in almost a decade. The case will decide whether the EPA violated the law when it finalized its carbon rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector under the Clean Air Act.

So Monday evening the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals announced it is bypassing its planned June 2 oral arguments over the Obama administration’s signature climate policy.

“It is ORDERED, on the court’s own motion, that these cases, currently scheduled for oral argument on June 2, 2016, be rescheduled for oral argument before the en banc court on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 9:30 a.m.,” the D.C. Circuit’s announcement read. “It is FURTHER ORDERED that the parties and amici curiae provide 25 additional paper copies of all final briefs and appendices to the court by June 1, 2016. A separate order will issue regarding allocation of oral argument time.”

See here and here for the proximate events that led to this, and here for all prior blogging on the Clean Power Plan. The linked article explains what the court’s order is all about, but the nickel version is that this ought to speed things up a bit, since the full court’s eventual ruling would go next to SCOTUS instead of being a midway point between the three-judge panel and SCOTUS. Since it was a 5-4 SCOTUS ruling that suspended the CPP pending judicial review – the first time that had ever happened – it’s highly likely that today’s diminished SCOTUS would deadlock if this were now on their plate. One presumes the high court will be at full strength by the time this does come their way, but regardless of that, it raises the stakes on the DC court’s eventual ruling. Buckle up, and get ready for a bunch of briefs to be headed the DC court’s way. E&E Publishing and the WaPo have more.

Pity the poor utilities

Sorry, but low electricity prices, especially when they are aided by record amounts of wind power generation, are good news.

ERCOT

Texas’ national lead in cheap wind power, combined with near historically low natural gas prices, mild weather, an abundant power supply and slower growth in electricity demand, can work to the detriment of power companies.

The combination weighed down wholesale power prices last year to their lowest averages since 2002. And the effects are only becoming more dramatic in 2016, even creating bizarre instances when, in the abstract at least, providers are paying to put electricity on the market.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Michael Ferguson, associate director at Standard & Poor’s covering utilities and infrastructure. “It’s a bad situation for gas generators, but for coal generation, it’s even worse.”

Texas’ wholesale power prices averaged $26.77 per megawatt-hour last year, down nearly 35 percent from $40.64 per megawatt-hour in 2014. The cost was more than $70 as recently as 2008.

While now is a good time for consumers to lock in cheaper electricity prices, well more than 25 percent of the state’s power plants are operating at a cash loss, especially the older coal-fired plants, power executives and analysts estimated. That’s before more stringent federal emissions regulations go into effect in coming years

Until coal plants start shutting down or the state tweaks regulations to artificially inflate prices, power companies will struggle, executives said. A new Moody’s Investors Service report concluded that Texas “power prices are unlikely to climb out of their doldrums.”

Already, less than a quarter of Texas’ coal fleet is operating early this spring, as more generators simply take their coal plants offline until the summer heat brings more demand, analysts from Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. noted.

In March, wind added to the grid more than coal power for the first time ever for a full month. Wind contributed 21.4 percent of the grid’s overall power, compared with 12.9 percent from coal, which used to be the dominant source of the state’s electricity generation, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages about 90 percent of the state’s electricity load.

“Ultimately, something is going to have to give here,” said Thad Hill, president and CEO of Calpine Corp., the largest power generator in the Houston region and owner of the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired power plants.

[…]

Texas is home to nearly 20 coal-fired power plants and the near future of at least six of them are considered at risk.

They will require expensive upgrades to meet federal standards, according to a recent ERCOT analysis, and the costs could outweigh the benefits of keeping them open. That’s not even counting the effects of the federal Clean Power Plan, which is pending in court.

“Ultimately, we think the market could be a lot tighter than people think, particularly if people start mothballing or retiring units,” said Hill, whose Calpine would stand to benefit because it doesn’t own any coal plants.

At-risk plants include Luminant’s Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake coal plants in East Texas, half of Luminant’s Sandow plant east of Austin, NRG Energy’s Limestone plant east of Waco, and Engie’s Coleto Creek plant near Victoria that’s being bought by Dynegy.

It’s fine by me if those coal plants go the way of the dodo. It’s long overdue, and their demise will make meeting the Clean Power Plan benchmarks even easier. More investment in solar energy will help mitigate the low-wind periods and ensure demand can be met in the summertime. What’s not to like?

SCOTUS allows mercury regulations to remain in effect

Good.

Martin Lake coal plant

Martin Lake coal plant

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a request from Texas and 19 other states to block a landmark federal rule requiring power plants to slash emissions of mercury, acid gases and other toxic metals — a setback for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a case where he saw earlier success.

Without offering an explanation, Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday denied the states’ request for a stay on the rules, according to media reports.

That decision followed a Supreme Court ruling last June — hailed by Texas Republicans — that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not properly weigh the cost of compliance for coal-fired power plants against the benefits to public health while setting the new standards.

The June ruling sent the Obama Administration back to the drawing board on the regulations, which had already gone into effect. But it did not halt them.

The states, led by Michigan, had asked the justices to block the rules during the revision process. Roberts said no.

See here, here, and here for the background. Any day where Ken Paxton loses a fight to enable pollution is a good day. Think Progress has more.

SCOTUS puts Clean Power Plan on hold

And in doubt.

ERCOT

In a major setback for President Obama’s climate change agenda, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily blocked the administration’s effort to combat global warming by regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The brief order was not the last word on the case, which is most likely to return to the Supreme Court after an appeals court considers an expedited challenge from 29 states and dozens of corporations and industry groups.

But the Supreme Court’s willingness to issue a stay while the case proceeds was an early hint that the program could face a skeptical reception from the justices.

The 5-to-4 vote, with the court’s four liberal members dissenting, was unprecedented — the Supreme Court had never before granted a request to halt a regulation before review by a federal appeals court.

“It’s a stunning development,” Jody Freeman, a Harvard law professor and former environmental legal counsel to the Obama administration, said in an email. She added that “the order certainly indicates a high degree of initial judicial skepticism from five justices on the court,” and that the ruling would raise serious questions from nations that signed on to the landmark Paris climate change pact in December.

In negotiating that deal, which requires every country to enact policies to lower emissions, Mr. Obama pointed to the power plant rule as evidence that the United States would take ambitious action, and that other countries should follow.

The White House said in a statement that it disagreed with the court’s decision and remained confident that it would ultimately prevail. “The administration will continue to take aggressive steps to make forward progress to reduce carbon emissions,” it said.

[…]

The E.P.A., represented by [Solicitor General Donald] Verrilli, called the requests for a stay “extraordinary and unprecedented.” The states challenging the administration’s plan, he said, could point to no case in which the Supreme Court had “granted a stay of a generally applicable regulation pending initial judicial review in the court of appeals.” In a later brief, the states conceded that point.

Mr. Verrilli said judicial review of the plan, including by the Supreme Court, will be complete before the first deadline for emissions reductions in 2022.

“There is no reason to suppose that states’ duties under the rule will be especially onerous,” Mr. Verrilli wrote. “A state can elect not to prepare a plan at all, but instead may allow E.P.A. to develop and implement a federal plan for sources in that state.”

Less than three weeks before this, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied the same request. As with everything the Roberts Court does, it’s hard not to read politics into their unprecedented granting of this request. I hope I’m wrong about that. The DC court will hear arguments on June 2, so one way or the other SCOTUS will be letting us know how they really feel in the near future. The Trib, Think Progress, SCOTUSBlog, Daily Kos, Slate, and the Observer have more.