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Freeze 2021

Greg Abbott’s bet

What, me worry about blackouts?

Gov. Greg Abbott promised that the state’s electric grid would be able to withstand pressures caused by any potential winter storm that occurs this year in a television interview Friday.

“Listen, very confident about the grid. And I can tell you why, for one: I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective,” Abbott said. “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.”

After the winter storm in February that left millions across the state without power, the Legislature passed a number of bills requiring additional “weatherization” measures for companies that maintain the state’s electric grid.

But experts have expressed concerns that loopholes have allowed some natural gas providers to exempt themselves from the weatherization requirements, potentially leaving the system still vulnerable.

“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June when he signed two of the bills.

[…]

“You’re going to have another winter and another summer that’s going to strain the electric grid,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston. “If there’s any kind of problem for people, there’s a direct connection to how Democrats can use that to their political advantage against Republicans.”

Well, “guarantee” is a strong word.

After last winter’s freeze hamstrung power giant Vistra Corp.’s ability to keep electricity flowing for its millions of customers, CEO Curt Morgan said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry.

During the peak days of the storm, Vistra, Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told lawmakers shortly after the storm.

But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died.

Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.

No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.

That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.

Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm.

“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”

If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview.

[…]

Texas has done “next to nothing” to weatherize its natural gas supply, said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant.

“We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry accountable. That is the problem,” Lewin said. “It’s not a technology or engineering problem. It’s a regulatory problem.”

And maybe that doesn’t matter, at least for this year. I’m sure Greg Abbott can afford to have a meteorologist on his political staff, and I’m sure that person will have advised him that another freeze like the one we saw this year is unlikely. Even a freeze that isn’t quite as bad probably won’t happen. Given that Abbott isn’t going to lift a finger to improve the grid’s reliability, why not bet big on the more probable outcome, even if the downside is so massive. At this point he’s made his bed anyway, and if we make it through next summer without anything bad happening he gets to claim the credit for it. I’m too risk averse to want to make that bet, but here we are. As they say, it’s a bold move and we’ll see if it pays off for him.

We’re still vulnerable to blackouts

So says ERCOT.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

FERC report on the freeze

It was lack of weatherization all along.

A shortage of natural gas during the winter storm that swept Texas and other states in the south central United States in February was primarily caused by the oil and gas industry’s failure to weatherize its systems, resulting in more than 58 percent of generation outages occurring at natural gas-fired power plants, the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency reported Tuesday.

Over a more than 300-page report, federal officials catalogued how one of the largest blackouts in the nation’s history came to pass, leaving millions of people in Texas without power for days on end. And while all parts of the region’s energy industry shouldered some of the blame, federal officials reported natural gas operators’ equipment freezing up was responsible for more than twice as much of the gas supply shortages as were rolling blackouts and downed power lines.

“The (report) highlights the need for substantially better coordination between the natural gas system and the electric system to ensure a reliable supply that nearly 400 million people across North America depend upon to support their way of life,” Jim Robb, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, said in a statement.

[…]

In September, FERC and NERC issued a preliminary report recommending power plants and natural gas producers be required to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, as well as providing compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs – similar to recommendations made following a similar but less severe power outage in Texas in 2011.

The agencies reiterated those recommendations Tuesday but also included more detail on what in went wrong in February.

Among their findings were:

– Eighty-one percent of freeze-related generating unit outages occurred at temperatures above the units’ stated ambient design temperature.

– Eighty-seven percent of unplanned generation outages due to fuel issues were related to natural gas, predominantly related to production and processing issues, while 13 percent involved issues with other fuels such as coal or fuel oil.

– Natural gas fuel supply shortages were caused by natural gas production declines. Some 43 percent of natural gas production declines were caused by freezing temperatures and weather, and 21.5 percent caused by midstream, wellhead or gathering facility power losses, which could be attributed either to rolling blackouts or weather-related outages such as downed power lines.

See here for the September preliminary report, and here for the FERC news release, which includes a link to the full report. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – you know, going back to 2011 and 1989 – but there it is again. Maybe someone in a position of power will read it this time.

On a related and timely note, we now have a new expression for the higher gas and electricity prices we’re now paying because of this malfeasance:

I’m thinking you’ll probably hear that a few more times over the next 12 months or so. Chris Tomlinson, who has harsh words for the Railroad Commission and their false claim that a “paperwork snafu” was at fault, has more.

Those pesky high utility rates

Still a problem.

Those of us who lived through Winter Storm Uri have hardly forgotten the experience, of course. But we’ll have a little reminder of it on our gas bills. Every month. For the next decade. At least.

And should we face a similar winter weather disaster soon, as we may, well, that’s all right — any costs incurred then can simply be added to the tab, too.

“There’s a huge moral hazard here,” says Doug Lewin, an energy consultant based in Austin who, like many Texans, sustained serious property damage in February, thanks to a busted pipe.

The Railroad Commission of Texas on Wednesday approved a plan under which the Texas Public Finance Authority will issue $3.4 billion in state-backed bonds to pay back the natural gas suppliers that remained in operation during the February storm.

The move has been in the works for a while. During the crisis, as you no doubt recall, the price of gas soared to historic heights, as utilities scrambled over limited supplies. A Bloomberg analysis found that gas producers reaped $11 billion in profits as a result.

Those costs would have been passed on to consumers directly, but legislators this year passed a measure, House Bill 1520, allowing for the bill to be spread out via the securitization process. As ratepayers, we’re still on the hook for the $3.4 billion, but we’ll pay it back in smaller increments, over a longer period of time; utilities expect the costs for each customer to be roughly $5 a month.

The House Research Organization, in its bill analysis, summarized the argument from supporters: “State policies have been cited as contributing factors that led to the widespread power outages experienced by millions of Texans. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the state to play a role in minimizing the impact of the storm to ratepayers and utilities, including through securitization of certain costs.”

[…]

Industry executives and trade associations have suggested that stronger state action is not necessary because power producers themselves have an incentive to winterize. If they weren’t able to produce during Uri, they missed out on an unusually profitable week. During the course of the storm, natural gas spot prices soared across the country. And the Electric Reliability Council of Texas set prices at $9,000 per megawatt-hour — the highest allowable rate and several hundred times higher than the typical rate — in a desperate effort to get more power on the grid.

But that logic doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. If every producer had adequately winterized, none of them would have been able to make hay over the situation. From a coldly calculating perspective — if we’re just looking at the heartless logic of economic incentives — the optimal move would be to partially weatherize; that way, in the event of another storm, you would have less product to sell, but at comically higher prices.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks the oil and gas industry is evil or something like that, but they need a clear, strong regulatory signal of what they need to do,” said Lewin. “They are for-profit businesses. If they don’t have a clear regulatory signal, they will follow price signals — and the price signal tells them these kind of events are great for the bottom line.”

“What industry doesn’t like making 11 billion in one week?” he added.

Executives themselves seem content with the current regime. In June, for example, oilman Kelcy Warren donated $1 million to Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection campaign. His company, Energy Transfer Partners, had its best quarter ever during the storm, raking in an additional $2.4 billion as a result.

We’ve discussed this before. Author Erica Greider notes that this will be an issue in the race for Railroad Commissioner. I hope she’s right, and that it’s more than just in that race. The more we talk about it, the better those chances are.

And it’s not just your heating bills.

Have you looked at retail electricity prices lately?

On the suggestion of readers, I pulled up the state-sponsored marketing site — PowerToChoose.org (beware of imitators) — and it was like I stuck my finger in a wall socket. I was shocked.

For as long as The Watchdog can remember, the opening pages usually highlighted kilowatt hour rates of around 6 to 9 cents.

Now the opening pages show double-digit pricing of 10 cents or more.

Prices of the two dominant players in the market — TXU Energy and Reliant Energy — offer an added jolt.

TXU shows one-year plans for 1,000 kWh around 12 cents. Another listed plan offers a 15.9 cents rate.

On the TXU website, I saw different plans that varied from those presented on the state website. A reminder that with all companies, always remember to check both PowerToChoose and that company’s website.

Reliant shows plans on the state site from 13.4 cents to 15.2 cents for various kWh usage.

[…]

What do Texas experts say about these price jumps?

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, says the banning of Griddy, which sold power at wholesale prices, removed a major incentive for retailers to keep their prices down to compete.

He says the increase in natural gas prices we’re seeing is another cause because many Texas power plants run on gas. He blames hurricanes which struck the Gulf of Mexico.

He also blames the Texas government’s bailout allowing companies to recoup billions of lost dollars during the horrific February freezeout through the purchase of $6.5 billion in bonds. Those costs will be passed on to consumers.

When the Texas Legislature sided with companies over consumers, he said, “You know the game is fixed.”

Beth Garza, who served until 2019 as the independent monitor of grid operator ERCOT, said companies selling one-year contracts must anticipate higher prices expected to increase during the length of those contracts.

James Boyle, who once led Texas’ Office of Public Utility Counsel, said: “We all know that what happened in the legislative session is that everybody was taken care of except the home folks. And the consumer pays for everybody else’s mistakes. I think that’s reflected in those prices.”

Kelso King, who runs King Energy Consulting and monitors all Public Utility Commission meetings, warns that still to come is the pass-through to consumers of the multi-billion-dollar bailout for energy companies. That was the solution approved by lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott.

King added, “For decades, policymakers kept saying that the great thing about a competitive market was that all of the risks would be borne by generators instead of ratepayers. But when it came down to it, unsurprisingly, end use customers were left holding the bag.”

More fruit of the same tree. I agree that the original appeal to our “free market” in electricity was that providers would bear the risk of price fluctuations, but other than the late and not-really-lamented Griddy that hasn’t been the case. Of course, given the massive effect that big donors have on the system, how can you even call it a free market?

Ten years after the Bastrop fire

The headline on this story asks whether Texas is ready for the next big fire. I think we know the answer to that.

Photo by Chase A. Fountain/TPWD

Ten years ago, Texas experienced it’s worst wildfire disaster in the state’s history. Over 31 thousand fires burned more than 4 million acres of land in the state. This unprecedented fire season included the most destructive fire ever in Texas.

The Bastrop complex fire in September of 2011 was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. Over thirty two thousand acres of forest burnt, 6500 homes destroyed, thousands evacuated. Several factors came together to cause the massive blaze, including the worst drought in Texas on record since the 1950s Dust Bowl era and high winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

[…]

Brad Smith is a meteorologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. He says unlike other areas of the country, Texas has wildfire seasons almost year-round.

“We can be in a fire season any time that we see three to four weeks of extended drying” said Smith.

Smith stops short of admitting climate change will drive more wildfires in the future. But Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said increased drought will definitely have an effect.

“We’re definitely going to have hotter droughts when they occur, which means things dry out faster and that by itself increases the risk of wildfire,” said Nielson-Gammon

The Texas State Climatologist’s Office recently released its report on future trends and extreme weather in Texas. The report says that the eastern area of Texas will be prone to more drought and wildfire, and the change could come on quickly as the climate gets drier from west to east.

“The way that plays out is trees die and they don’t get replaced, and the way large expanses of the trees get wiped out is through wildfire”, he said. “So that overall landscape transition that we expect to see happening over the next hundred years isn’t going to be the gradual transition. We might hope it will probably take place through wildfires from which the ecosystem doesn’t recover in the same way that it would have when the climate was cooler and wetter,” he added.

Back at Camp Swift, Kari Hines is worried that Texas residents may not be ready for the next major fire event in Texas.

“We have so many other disasters, whether it’s floods or ice storms or hurricanes that that get our interest, just getting people to realize that wildfires are something that happen and that they absolutely can do something to prepare for to decrease their chances of their home being lost or losing their lives. It worries me. I talk to a lot of people who don’t think wildfire is an issue,” said Hines.

See here and here for some background. The irony is that we had a wildfire protection plan in place, but it was a victim of the budget cuts from the previous legislative session, because that’s how we roll in this state. We did pass a constitutional amendment in 2013 to fund a water infrastructure fund as a drought mitigation effort. That was good and necessary (and I’d really like to see some reporting about how that is going), but it’s not about wildfires.

I think it’s fair to say that the professionals whose job it is to deal with wildfires are as ready as they can be, but our state leadership cannot bother their pretty little heads about it, and that’s even after taking concern about climate change out of the picture. We’ve obviously had our hands full dealing with flooding, and there was that little ol’ freeze last year that exposed all kinds of problems with our power grid. Why would be any better prepared for wildfires? The bottom line is that we’re lousy at investing in our infrastructure. The rest follows from there.

Luke Warford announces for Railroad Commissioner

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

Luke Warford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe there won’t be another freeze this winter

Views differ.

Love it or hate it — winter looks especially warm in Texas this year.

Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center said last week that much of the country is likely to see warmer than average conditions this winter, including Texas, thanks to La Niña.

It’s the second winter in a row that La Niña climate conditions — a natural cooling of sea water in the tropical Pacific Ocean — have emerged. The climate pattern affects the position of the jet stream and thus the weather across all of North America.

The outlook, which extends from December 2021 through February 2022, leans toward above normal temperatures for Texas.

Keith White, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, told the Express-News that Texas should expect similar temperatures to last year before Winter Storm Uri brought plummeting temperatures and snowfall.

A Farmer’s Almanac forecast released in August predicted frigid temperatures and another winter storm.

“We’re still anticipating some cooler and wetter-than-normal weather,” White said. “But something like the storm we saw last year would be unlikely.”

See here for the opposing prediction. Sure, another freeze like last year is unlikely – we’ve only had a couple like it in the last 30 years. But climate change is real, and our grid remains rickety, so better safe than sorry. Be prepared, and hope for the best.

Now is the autumn of our discontent

Nobody likes anything right now.

Texas voters have a net disapproval for how state leaders have handled the reliability of the electricity grid, abortion and property taxes, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

In an October poll of 1,200 registered voters, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state’s handling of the reliability of the main power grid after statewide power outages in February left millions of Texans without power for days. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, and 60% of voters disapproved. Even lawmakers themselves have expressed frustration that the laws they wrote to prepare the power grid for extreme weather haven’t led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

“The lurking uncertainty and doubts about the electricity grid [are] a mine waiting to go off,” said Jim Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “If there’s another even moderate infrastructure problem in the state in the grid or service delivery writ large that can be connected with the February outages and the failure of the Legislature to respond in a way that people expect it to be effective, it’s a real political problem for incumbents.”

[…]

According to the poll, 39% of voters approved of how state leaders have handled abortion policy while 46% disapproved. Lawmakers this year passed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, barring the procedure before many people know they are pregnant.

Only 20% of voters said they approved of the Legislature’s handling of property taxes, while 46% said they disapproved. The Legislature has tried for years to cut increasing property taxes for homeowners across the state, but voters see only minor reductions in their bills.

Voter disapproval for the state’s handling of the issue increased from June, when pollsters at the University of Texas last asked about the issue after the Legislature’s regularly scheduled five-month special session.

[…]

A plurality of 47% of voters opposed banning abortions after about six weeks, as the state’s new law does, and 45% approve. Fifty-seven percent of voters oppose the law’s provision allowing private citizens to sue people they believe helped someone obtain an abortion, including 35% of Republicans. Only 30% of voters said they approved of that portion of the law. If the plaintiff wins such a lawsuit, the law allows that person to be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs and attorney fees.

“The idea of bounties and the problems with having private enforcement of public laws of what are seen currently as constitutional rights strikes at least more people as problematic than the actual law itself,” Blank said.

Overall, the polls showed an uptick in approval of how the state has handled abortion policy since the last time voters were polled on the subject in June. Then, 32% of voters approved and 42% disapproved. Blank said that was marked by an increase in approval from Republicans as more voters learned of the state’s new abortion law, which was passed in May.

Polls remained consistent on exceptions to abortion restrictions. More than 80% of voters said abortions should be allowed if a woman’s health was at risk, and nearly three quarters said they should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. Nearly 60% said they should be allowed if there was a strong chance of a serious defect to the baby, but support for other exceptions dropped substantially from there.

This is from the same poll we discussed last week. For the most part there are clear partisan splits, which makes these results less interesting to me overall, but as you can see there are some places where the consensus is greater. That should present an opportunity for Democrats in their messaging, which always sounds easier to do than to actually do it. Independents are particularly negative about everything, including Greg Abbott’s favorite anti-immigration toys, which may just be because these things come with partisan squabbles that independents always react negatively to, or maybe just because they’re grumpy about the state of the world, or maybe they really do represent some electoral danger for Republicans. I do agree that another weather-induced blackout would be bad news for the ruling party. I wouldn’t draw any broader conclusions than that.

Exempt yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Our latest wake-up call about our power grid

Same song, next verse.

Federal energy officials vowed to ensure that Texas improves its electricity grid and natural gas system after widespread blackouts during the February freeze led to more than 200 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Reliability Corp. on Thursday presented their preliminary findings from the winter storm and outlined a series of familiar recommendations to prevent another catastrophic power failure as climate change brings about more severe weather that threatens the nation’s power grids.

These recommendations, similar to the ones FERC issued in the aftermath of the 2011 Texas blackouts, would require power plants and natural gas producers to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, to update power generators that experience freeze-related outages and provide compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs.

“This is a wake-up call for all of us,” FERC Chairman Rich Glick said. “We must take these recommendations seriously, and act decisively, to ensure the bulk power system doesn’t fail the next time extreme weather hits. I cannot, and will not, allow this to become yet another report that serves no purpose other than to gather dust on the shelf.”

Glick said he was “extremely frustrated” that Texas energy regulators and the state’s grid manager ERCOT failed to heed FERC’s recommendations after a February 2011 winter storm left more than 3 million Texans without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas.

You and me both, buddy. You and me both.

Had Texas followed FERC’s guidance a decade ago, the state could have avoided February’s deadly and devastating blackouts, he said.

“In this day and age, we have people that froze to death because of power outages. That’s beyond unacceptable,” Glick said. “The worst part about this, one of the points that frustrates me the most, is that some of it was avoidable.”

[…]

In a 31-page report published Thursday, FERC said the February winter storm caused the largest forced power outages in the nation’s history, and was the third largest blackout after the Northeast blackout in 2003 and the West Coast blackout in 1996. The February freeze was the fourth severe winter event over the past decade, knocking out 61,800 megawatts of power across the Midwest and South, including Texas and Louisiana.

The Texas power grid managed by ERCOT received the harshest effects of the freeze. The storm knocked out an average of 34,000 megawatts of power on ERCOT’s grid, nearly half of its record winter demand load of 69,871 megawatts.

FERC said the biggest factors contributing to power plants failing were the lack of weatherization of critical equipment and natural gas supply issues at power plants. Nearly 58 percent of the power generators that went offline during the storm were natural gas plants.

You can find the FERC report here and their press release here. If you want to find any plan that Greg Abbott has to take action on this report, you’re going to have to look a lot harder.

There will probably be another freeze this winter

Hopefully not as bad, but, well, you know.

Savor the rest of the summer and all of fall because this winter in Texas is going to be “frigid and flaky” similar to February’s deadly storm, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.

The Almanac, which has been predicting the weather outlook for farmers and gardeners for over 200 years, says to expect a “frosty flip-flop winter” for the United States. For most of the country, there will be near-normal amounts of snow with some notable month-to-month variations, the Alamanc says.

In late January, Texas and Oklahoma may be in for icy weather “like you experienced last winter,” according to the Almanac’s report.

The Farmers’ Almanac previously predicted Texas’ winter storm Uri in which heavy snowfall, ice storms and bitter temperatures brought an enormous strain on the state’s power grid, leaving millions without electricity. Over 200 people died.

[…]

Before Texans start booking resort days in Cancun, the almanac is hoping the conditions will not be as bad as Uri.

“Hopefully, it won’t be as robust, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” the Almanac said.

We can talk about Greg Abbott’s approval ratings right now all we want. If we have another freeze that’s anything like this past February, especially if people lose power like they did this year, forget it. After all his claims about how everything was fixed now, he better damn well hope so.

Now we look to see what happens with Greg Abbott’s approval ratings

The first data point is bad for him. Which means it’s good for the rest of us.

Gov. Greg Abbott had the lowest approval rating since February 2016 and his highest disapproval numbers during his tenure as governor, The Texas Politics Project’s August polling found.

The poll queried 1,200 registered voters in Texas, finding that 50 percent disapproved of Abbott’s job performance and 41 percent approved. Nine percent didn’t know or did not have an opinion, the lowest such number of Abbott’s time in office. The margin of error was 2.83 percent, and the poll was conducted from Aug. 20 through Monday, Aug. 30.

The Texas Politics Project, which is housed at the University of Texas-Austin, has been conducting surveys since 2008, and has measured Abbott’s approval since November of 2015. Abbott’s previous high for disapproval was April 2021, at 45 percent.

The poll also found that 52 percent of respondents said Texas was “headed in the wrong direction,” the highest such number it has posted. A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Everywhere you look in the poll there’s just signs that the mood here is very dour. And when you have one party that owns the policy environment, that’s not good news,” said James Henson, director of the poll. “The Republicans have had a pretty easy ride for the two-decades-plus they’ve been in power in the state. And there’s now a convergence of factors that’s really going to test their ability to govern. And we’ve seen a very clear approach to that in this last legislative session, and it doesn’t seem to going over very well.”

[…]

The poll also asked whether respondents approved of Abbott’s handling of COVID-19 specifically, and the findings closely mirrored his overall approval numbers: 53 percent disapproved, 39 percent approved and the rest didn’t know or had no opinion.

“The election isn’t tomorrow, it’s not until next year, but it’s been a long time since there was a widespread sense in the state that things aren’t going well, and I think we’re seeing more indications of that,” Henson said.

The usual caveat about this being one data point applies. It’s also important to remember, as we have seen in UT/Trib polls (among others) that Abbott’s numbers tend to be the best among the officials whose ratings are being checked, with President Biden being the closest competition. This poll only tracks Abbott, so we lack that context. Given the dip in Biden’s poll numbers (which I think will be at least somewhat transitory, but I am an optimist), it’s reasonable to think that he may still compare well to others. We won’t know until we see more data.

Just looking at these numbers, the two things that stand out are just how far Abbott has fallen from his early COVID peak, and how the number of “don’t know/no answer” respondents have fallen. He was still in solidly positive territory as recently as February, and was at even levels in June, when we were still thinking we’d get a hot vax summer and everyone was feeling good. It’s not unreasonable to think that the right wing legislative onslaught has eroded his numbers a bit – remember, as we have discussed before, he used to poll decently for a Republican among Democrats – and my guess that the numbers now reflect his intransigence on COVID mitigations. Moreover, with more people having an opinion on him now, it’s likely the case that the fence-sitters have been making up their minds, and what they have decided is they don’t like him.

Again, this is one poll, and as Prof. Henson says, we’re a long way out from next November. Abbott also doesn’t have a Democratic opponent yet, and as we know that matters a lot. Intensity of feeling matters as well, especially in an off year election when turnout is critical. Abbott has been focusing exclusively on the hardcore base, mostly because he wants to win his primary but also because he wants to have a lot of “victories” to crow about to keep them engaged. Maybe this means Abbott’s stature will suffer. There’s plenty of reasons why that should be the case. It’s still too soon to tell for sure, that’s all I’m saying.

Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s your special session agenda

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody knows why the grid was short on power

Really inspires confidence, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

There’s still a lot of investment in renewables in Texas

Good to know.

Four months after the failure of the Texas electric grid sparked a backlash against clean power, investors and developers have decided just what the state needs: more renewable energy. Much more.

Texas is on pace to have as much green-power development in coming years as the next three states combined, according to the American Clean Power Association, a Washington-based trade group. Projects totaling 15 gigawatts — equal to the total electrical capacity of Finland in 2019 — are under construction or in advanced development, more than double three years ago. That’s according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or Ercot, the state’s grid operator.

All told, the forthcoming wind, solar and battery-storage projects are worth an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion, the American Clean Power Association said.

[…]

The amount of renewable energy in the Ercot queue in May was much higher than the same month in any of the past three years. That massive growth is driven by jumps in solar farms and battery storage that outweigh a drop in the amount of wind power in the queue.

New utility-scale solar installations in Texas totaled 3.3 gigawatts last year, nearly matching the 3.5 gigawatts of new wind, according to BloombergNEF. The research group projects more than double the amount of new utility-scale solar and 4.2 gigawatts of new wind there this year.

Republicans bashed renewable energy during and after the storm, even as the state’s grid operator said that frozen instruments at gas, coal and even nuclear plants were the main reason for the blackouts. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Texas governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity on Fox News in the midst of the freeze. He went on to blame wind and solar power and said fossil fuel plants are necessary for baseline power.

Several renewable developers said new laws that targeted clean power projects would force them to rethink building in Texas. A group including big power companies, Amazon.com Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sent letters to Abbott and lawmakers in April, writing that proposed new laws would chill investment in the state.

Perhaps that letter had an effect, for as the story notes we managed to make it through this session without any explicitly anti-renewables bills passing. (Not that the Republicans didn’t try, mind you.) There are still issues with the grid’s capacity to handle more output from renewables, but maybe the investors are assuming some of those problems will work themselves out. I note in the story’s graphic that the amount being invested in battery storage is way higher than it used to be, so maybe that has an effect as well. In any event, we are still investing in renewable energy here. Let’s hope we don’t screw it up.

We go to the next freeze with the power grid reform we have, not the power grid reform we wanted

It is what it is, and what it is isn’t much.

Texas lawmakers on Sunday passed a final proposal to shore up the state’s power grid in response to this year’s deadly outage crisis, agreeing on a raft of reforms that experts welcomed but also fear won’t go far enough.

The legislation, Senate Bill 3, would require power plants and some natural gas suppliers to prepare their operations for extreme cold, a step that state regulators and many companies have avoided for decades despite repeated blackouts and promises that market incentives would ensure reliability.

It would also create a statewide emergency alert system, force industry participants to communicate more often and mandate that key gas facilities be registered as critical so their power isn’t unintentionally shut off during shortages. Hundreds of gas facilities reportedly lost power during the winter storm, pinching off fuel supplies to power plants.

[…]

The proposals address several longstanding weaknesses, though still amount to a gamble in the wake of one of the state’s deadliest natural disasters, leaving its already isolated power grid vulnerable to similar disruptions for the coming winter, before key weatherization requirements would take effect.

Energy experts have warned that without quick structural improvements to power plants, gas wells and the supply chain that connects them, millions of Texas homes could again be without power in dangerously frigid conditions. February’s storm knocked out power to an estimated 4.5 million homes and killed at least 200 people — and likely many more.

Critics also caution that the final provisions leave broad discretion to gas suppliers, who provide most of the fuel for the electricity grid. The legislation allows for minimal fines against those that don’t comply and leaves oversight of infrastructure updates to the Texas Railroad Commission, whose members receive funding from the industry and have long opposed weather requirements.

The state’s gas production fell more than 20 percent over five days during the storm.

This month, Republicans in the House rejected amendments from Democrats that would have increased penalties for gas suppliers that don’t winterize and would have required progress on winterization within six months of the measure becoming law. Democrats still praised the reforms that made it into the final draft.

“I voted for this bill because there is a lot of good in it,” Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and engineer in the oil and gas industry, tweeted shortly after the vote. “But make no mistake – this bill is not enough to ensure that we won’t have another massive blackout. It leaves much discretion to RRC/PUC/ERCOT and the guardrails aren’t nearly tight enough.”

See here, here and here for some background. We may go to a special session for the Republicans’ failure to muscle through the voter suppression bill and some of Dan Patrick’s pet priorities, but taking substantial action on the power grid will not be on the agenda. It’s always hard to say what issues will and won’t be relevant and germane to voters in the next election because you never know what else may come up, but to the extent that this issue will be debated it will be in the terms of what Abbott et al thought was important enough to bring legislators back to finish off and what was not. Whether what was actually done will make a difference or not likely won’t be known until the next big freeze, at which point we’ll see if we can add 2021 to the years we look back on as squandered opportunities to take meaningful action. Better hope it’s not next year if you’re a Republican.

Another upward revision of the freeze death count

Buzzfeed News takes a deep dive.

The true number of people killed by the disastrous winter storm and power outages that devastated Texas in February is likely four or five times what the state has acknowledged so far. A BuzzFeed News data analysis reveals the hidden scale of a catastrophe that trapped millions of people in freezing darkness, cut off access to running water, and overwhelmed emergency services for days.

The state’s tally currently stands at 151 deaths. But by looking at how many more people died during and immediately after the storm than would have been expected — an established method that has been used to count the full toll of other disasters — we estimate that 700 people were killed by the storm during the week with the worst power outages. This astonishing toll exposes the full consequence of officials’ neglect in preventing the power grid’s collapse despite repeated warnings of its vulnerability to cold weather, as well as the state’s failure to reckon with the magnitude of the crisis that followed.

Many of the uncounted victims of the storm and power outages were already medically vulnerable — with chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and kidney problems. But without the intense cold and stress they experienced during the crisis, many of these people could still be alive today.

[…]

The BuzzFeed News analysis of deaths during the storm is based on mortality data from the CDC. It relies on a method called “excess deaths” analysis, recently used to estimate the full toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our analysis, reviewed by three independent experts, suggests that between 426 and 978 more people than expected died in Texas in the week ending February 20 alone. Our best estimate is that 702 people were killed by the storm that week. Even the lowest end of the range is almost three times the number officials have acknowledged. Neighboring states that were hit hard by the winter storm but did not experience the widespread power outages seen in Texas did not show a spike in deaths.

BuzzFeed News reached out to relatives of people who died during the power outages, identified from dozens of wrongful death lawsuits as well as death reports obtained from public records requests to medical examiners in eight of the biggest counties in Texas. Interviews revealed stories of anguish and confusion, as families struggled to find out exactly how their relatives died.

This confusion also poses real economic challenges for survivors. For Mary Gonzales, the delay in obtaining a cause of death for her husband meant she was unable to claim an income from his pension for almost three months. And without an official acknowledgment tying their loved ones’ deaths to the storm, families will be unable to claim federal assistance for funeral costs.

The high death toll adds pressure on state legislators, energy regulators, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to harden the state’s infrastructure to avert another deadly disaster.

Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, did not respond to questions about the significantly higher death toll or whether the state would investigate further, but said Abbott was “working collaboratively with the House and Senate to find meaningful and lasting solutions to ensure these tragic events are never repeated.”

“The Governor joins all Texans in mourning every single life lost during the winter storm, and we pray for the families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one,” she said.

But with the state’s legislative session ending on May 31, lawmakers only have a week left to finalize a proposal to address some of the vulnerabilities that made the February storm so horrific.

“As it stands, nothing has happened,” said Michael Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering focused on energy infrastructure at the University of Texas at Austin.

As of the end of March, the official death count was at 111, and a Houston Chronicle analysis in early April estimated it at 194. As this story among others notes, there are only so many medical examiners in the state, and only so many deaths result in an autopsy. As was the case with COVID, some deaths are attributed to chronic conditions like heart disease despite the obvious external cause. Similar statistical methods that estimate “excess deaths” have been used for COVID as well, and you can read how they arrived at these figures in the story. We’ll never know an exact number, but we do know that the official number will always be too low. Daily Kos has more.

Are we headed for a June special session or not?

Too soon to tell. Right now this is just the usual end-of-session venting and frustration.

With the future of the power grid and voting laws in Texas hanging in the balance, tensions among the top political leaders in the Legislature are fueling a round of political gamesmanship that has even the future of the Texas Holocaust & Genocide Commission caught in the crossfire, one of many pawns in a larger battle over GOP priorities.

There are just four days left in the legislative session, which must end by midnight Monday. Yet with so much still unresolved, top Republican leaders in the Texas House and Senate are publicly accusing one another of torpedoing important legislation.

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the Republican infighting during a news conference in Fort Worth on Thursday.

“If the leaders in the Legislature will stop fighting with each other and start working together, we can get all of this across the finish line,” Abbott said.

End-of-session drama is almost a given in Texas, where top leaders often clash in the closing days. But this year it is different as the Senate appears ready to take important political hostages in an attempt to force Abbott to call a special session in June, whether he wants to or not.

Just past midnight Thursday morning, the Senate appeared to try to force Abbott’s hand by refusing to take up House Bill 1600, which, if passed, would have assured the continued operation of 18 state agencies — including the Holocaust & Genocide Commission, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the Racing Commission. There are other bills to keep those agencies operating, but HB 1600 is considered a backup to make sure those agencies are not placed in jeopardy unintentionally.

In Fort Worth, Abbott sent a public message back to Austin that he will not be pushed around.

“Not only am I the only one with the authority to call a special session, I get to decide when, and I get to decide what will be on that special session,” Abbott said. “And here’s what I would do if, if anybody tries to force this: It’s not going to be like it has been in the past, where we’ll have 40 items on a special session.”

Abbott said that if there is a special session, “the only thing that we’ll be putting on there are things that I want to see passed.”

Patrick, a Republican from Montgomery County, went on Spectrum News 1 on Thursday afternoon to deny he’s threatening state agencies to pressure Abbott or the House.

“I’m not holding anything hostage,” Patrick told host Karina Kling.

Instead, Patrick says the special session is necessary after the House refused to advance a bill to ban transgender girls from playing on girls scholastic sports teams.

Patrick has a long history of fighting for measures to restrict or regulate transgender Texans. In 2017, a similar bill to stop transgender children from using the bathrooms they are most comfortable with also triggered calls for a special session after the House refused to take it up. Abbott did call a special session, and the so-called bathroom bill still didn’t pass.

Patrick on social media listed other failed bills — a ban on taxpayer-funded lobbyists by city governments and legislation to stop social media companies from “censorship” — as important measures the House has blocked.

See here for the background. As the Trib notes, Abbott supports the things that Patrick is whining about, so this may be just a little show of dominance, or it may be Abbott’s usual fecklessness, or it may be that he had indigestion after ordering the burrito supreme platter for lunch on Thursday. As I said, he’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and he may telegraph it or he may not. He’s the guy with the power, and he wants to make sure we know that.

One more thing:

All of this is happening as lawmakers still have not reached a final deal on a plan to require electricity grid suppliers and operators to winterize their facilities to prevent a repeat of the mass power outages that left millions of Texas freezing in the dark in February.

The House and Senate passed different bills, but despite that legislation being listed as a priority of nearly every elected official, lawmakers still have not announced a compromise on it.

Eh, who cares about the grid.

The Republican leaders and majorities in both chambers, though, did exactly what I feared they would do. None of the bills heading for Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature address core problems, such as the wholesale market design or the $9,000 price cap. Nothing they did will prevent another blackout of equal scale.

They did agree on more than $9 billion in bailouts for the electric utility industry that Texans will pay off over the next 20 or 30 years through mandatory charges on their utility bills. The goal is to spread the cost of the disaster to all Texans and make the monthly fee so low we do not complain.

This will bail out electricity providers who guarantee customers a set monthly rate, even though electricity is sold on a wholesale market where the price changes every 15 minutes between free and $9,000 a megawatt-hour.

When the February freeze hit and prices maxed out, many retail providers went bankrupt and left behind $2.5 billion in unpaid bills. House Bill 4492 allows the state to issue bonds to pay off those bills and charge customers a monthly fee to repay them.

Electricity co-ops also ran up huge bills for electricity used to power critical facilities. Senate Bill 1580 allows them to issue bonds estimated to total $2 billion. Again, the co-op’s customers will repay those bonds through their monthly bills.

Winter Storm Uri also triggered a 700 percent spike in natural gas prices, creating all kinds of financial pain for another sector that typically guarantees a set price. To help natural gas utilities, the Legislature authorized them to issue $4.5 billion in bonds. We will repay these on our gas bills.

“Considering the extraordinary costs incurred in the recent winter storm, customers could see a dramatic increase in their monthly bills,” Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, wrote as his intent for the bond authorizations. “This financing mechanism will provide rate relief to customers by extending the time frame over which the extraordinary costs are recovered.”

Magic of the free market, baby. Socialize that debt, and focus on the important things. It’s what they do. Reform Austin and the Trib have more.

Abbott knew the blackouts were coming

Good morning. Take a deep, cleansing breath, have a seat, and then read this.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office knew of looming natural gas shortages on February 10, days before a deep freeze plunged much of the state into blackouts, according to documents obtained by E&E News and reviewed by Ars.

Abbott’s office first learned of the likely shortfall in a phone call from then-chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas DeAnne Walker. In the days leading up to the power outages that began on February 15, Walker and the governor’s office spoke 31 more times.

Walker also spoke with regulators, politicians, and utilities dozens of times about the gas curtailments that threatened the state’s electrical grid. The PUC chair’s diary for the days before the outage shows her schedule dominated by concerns over gas curtailments and the impact they would have on electricity generation. Before and during the disaster, she was on more than 100 phone calls with various agencies and utilities regarding gas shortages.

After the blackouts began, Abbott appeared on Fox News to falsely assert that wind turbines were the driving force behind the outages.

Wind turbines were a factor, but only a small one. Wind in Texas doesn’t produce as much power in the winter, and regulators don’t typically rely on wind turbines to provide significant amounts of power. Instead, regulators anticipated that natural gas and coal power plants would meet demand.

In public, Bill Magness, then-CEO of ERCOT, the state’s electric grid regulator, didn’t seem concerned about the approaching weather. In a virtual meeting on February 9, Magness said, “As those of you in Texas know, we do have a cold front coming this way… Operations has issued an operating condition notice just to make sure everyone is up to speed with their winterization and we’re ready for the several days of pretty frigid temperatures to come our way.” During the two-and-a-half-hour public portion of the meeting, Magness devoted just 40 seconds to the unusual weather.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to think that Greg Abbott isn’t very good at this “being Governor” thing. Maybe we should consider electing someone else. Just a thought.

How many times will we fail to fix our power grid?

By “we”, I mean our Legislature, and the PUC, and the Governor, and the Railroad Commission, and pretty much everyone else in charge of this state.

Ten years ago, Texas power plants froze during a fast-moving winter storm, causing rolling electricity blackouts across the state. Outraged Texas regulators and lawmakers, vowing to crack down, debated requiring energy companies to protect their equipment against extreme weather to ensure reliability.

But they didn’t.

Nine years ago, two state agencies that regulate utilities and the oil and gas industry warned that natural gas facilities that lost power during outages couldn’t feed electricity generation plants, creating a spiral of power loss. The agencies jointly recommended that lawmakers compel gas suppliers and power plants to fix the problem.

But they didn’t.

Eight years ago, economists warned that the state’s free-market grid left companies with little incentive to build enough plants to provide backup power during emergencies. With the support of then-Gov. Rick Perry, legislators and regulators considered increasing power rates to encourage the construction of more power plants, so that Texas, like other states, would have sufficient reserves.

But they didn’t.

In the wake of each power failure, or near-failure, over the past decade, Texas lawmakers have repeatedly stood at a fork in the road. In one direction lay government-mandated solutions that experts said would strengthen the state’s power system by making it less fragile under stress. The other direction continued Texas’ hands-off regulatory approach, leaving it to the for-profit energy companies to decide how to protect the power grid.

In each instance, lawmakers left the state’s lightly regulated energy markets alone, choosing cheap electricity over a more stable system. As a result, experts say, the power grid that Texans depend on to heat and cool their homes and run their businesses has become less and less reliable — and more susceptible to weather-related emergencies.

“Everyone has been in denial,” said Alison Silverstein, a consultant who works with the U.S. Department of Energy and formerly served as a senior adviser at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “They treat each individual extreme event as a one-off, a high-impact, low-frequency event, which means, ‘I hope it doesn’t happen again.’”

With each passing year, the grid has steadily become less reliable. In 1989, Texas suffered a cold snap considered worse if not equal to the winter storm earlier this year yet managed to keep the grid functioning, with only a few hours of rotating outages.

By comparison, February’s Winter Storm Uri brought the Texas power grid to within five minutes of complete collapse, officials acknowledged. Millions of residents were left without power for days in subfreezing temperatures; nearly 200 died.

“Our system now is more vulnerable than it was 30 years ago,” said Woody Rickerson, vice president of grid planning and operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “With the generation mix we have now, the weather has the ability to affect wind and solar and (the gas supply). Those are things we can’t anticipate.”

It’s the first of a three-part series, and it’s a long read that will make you mad. The simple fact is that the system we have now works very well for some wealthy interests, and they are very good at defending their turf. Throw in an unwavering belief in the invisible hand of the free market and the general incentive towards doing nothing, and voila. Even the incremental steps forward have turned out to be meaningless:

As a result, the only legislation to come out of the 2011 storm was a minor bill from then-state Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, which required power companies to file weatherization plans with the PUC each year.

Two months after that bill was signed into law, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation put out a report of more than 350 pages, urging Texas to enact stricter weatherization standards for power plants and natural gas operators.

And they did to a degree, with ERCOT putting out best practices, conducting annual workshops and inspecting plants every three to four years.

But there were two problems. First, despite FERC’s recommendation, the state Legislature never gave the PUC authority to penalize power plants that did not comply, making weatherization voluntary. While progress was made, some companies opted not to bring their plants up to code, said Rickerson, the ERCOT vice president.

“Ultimately those were financial decisions that had to be made,” he said. “How much is someone willing to invest in a power plant that’s 50 years old and going to retire in a few years?”

More significantly, the best practices ERCOT was sharing were designed for a cold snap like that seen in 2011. While cold, with temperatures in Dallas dropping as low as 14 degrees, it was nothing compared to the 1989 winter storm, when temperatures dropped to 7 degrees in Houston and minus-7 in Abilene, let alone 1899, when the state’s all-time low temperature of minus-23 degrees was set in the Panhandle town of Tulia.

So when temperatures dipped into the single digits for days on end this February, most Texas power plants were simply not prepared. Exterior control equipment and fuel lines froze, not to mention coal piles and wind turbine blades.

“One power plant under freezing for 200-plus hours. That’s not a thing, right?” said Chris Moser, executive vice president of operations for NRG Energy, of expectations going into the winter. “If you look at the math ERCOT did prior to the seasonal assessment, it looked like (there was plenty of power). But then you have 80 to 85 plants not showing up. It was a failure of imagination.”

As for Hegar’s legislation, it has proved even more toothless than it appeared at the time.

According to a recent report from ERCOT, the agency was never given authority to judge the weatherization plans but only to check that they were being implemented. And a requirement in Hegar’s bill that the PUC produce a one-time Weather Emergency Preparedness Report, which was quietly published in 2012 and found that many power companies were still doing a poor job implementing reforms, drew little attention from state officials.

“When you’re on the commission, you’re dealing with what’s immediately in front of you,” said Ken Anderson, a former public utility commissioner. “I’m not sure how much follow-up occurred.”

Seems like this is a pretty good campaign issue for next year, especially given what is being prioritized over making the grid more robust. I’m just saying.

How hot will summer be?

Depends on how dependable the electricity providers are.

ERCOT sought to reassure worried Texans that the state’s electricity grid will have enough power to meet record-breaking demand this summer, less than three months after a catastrophic power failure left millions in freezing darkness.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Thursday released its final seasonal forecast for this summer, predicting record peak power demand of 77,144 megawatts. The summer record as set on August 12, 2019, when demand hit 74,820 megawatts.

The grid manager said it expects to have enough generation to meet the record demand, forecasting generation capacity of 86,862 megawatts. ERCOT, however, didn’t rule out the possibility for “tight grid conditions” on the hottest summer days when demand for air conditioning is at its highest. Electricity supply is often stretched during Texas’ blazing summers.

“If we get into a combination of (high demand) and low wind or low solar output or a high number of generators that have been unavailable because they’ve been running so hard, then we may need to go into emergency operations,” said Woody Rickerson, ERCOT’s vice president of planning and operations.

Emergency operations allow ERCOT to tap into additional power resources, including 2,300 additional megawatts of generation, enough to power nearly half a million homes on a hot summer day.

[…]

In light of the catastrophic power failure in the winter, ERCOT on Thursday said it took into account three additional extreme weather scenarios to create its summer electricity forecast, considering scenarios of high heat and low wind or forced power plant outages that have less than a 1 percent chance of occurring. For comparison, ERCOT said the February winter storm was a 1 in 100 event.

“I think the consumers in Texas can be very confident that these are extremely unlikely scenarios,” said Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s senior director of system planning. “We recognize that we failed to appropriately communicate what the potential risks were going into the winter season. These additional extreme scenarios are our initial attempt to proactively try to not only communicate what those extreme risks are, but try to restore the trust of the consumers in Texas.”

For the first time, ERCOT said, it will visit a select group of power plants to evaluate their summer weatherization plans, reviewing plans for cooling critical equipment and stocking fuel supplies. The grid manager also said it will coordinate with power utilities, such as CenterPoint Energy, to limit planned outages to maintain transmission and power lines during the summer months and request power plants to contact natural gas suppliers to ensure availability of the fuel through pipelines.

If power demand exceeds supply, ERCOT said it is prepared to call for emergency operations, including ordering power utilities to turn off power to customers to preserve the integrity of the grid.

I think I speak for all of us when I say “Do better than you did in February”. No one has any faith in the concept of “rolling blackouts” at this point.

The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

Texas’ deep freeze didn’t just disrupt natural gas supplies throughout Lone Star country—its effects rippled across the country, extending as far north as Minnesota. There, gas utilities had to pay $800 million more than they anticipated during the event, and Minnesota regulators are furious.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The gas and electric markets in Texas are lightly regulated and highly competitive, which has pushed companies to deliver energy at the lowest possible cost. But it also means that many companies were ill-prepared when the mercury dropped. To save money, they had skimped on winterizing their equipment. As a result, gas lines across the state—which has about 23 percent of the country’s reserves—quite literally froze. The spot price of natural gas soared to 70-times what it would normally be in Minnesota, and gas utilities paid a hefty premium when they used the daily market to match demand.

In a twist, the biggest gas utility in Minnesota is CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based company that also supplies a large swath of Southeastern Texas. The company said it spent an additional $500 million on gas that week in February, and it has asked Minnesota’s utility commission for permission to add a surcharge to customers’ bills. The surcharge not only seeks to recoup the additional money CenterPoint spent on natural gas, it also includes 8.75 percent interest. The company expects that each customer would shoulder a burden of $300 to $400.

Crazy, huh? I heard about this from friends on a recent Zoom call. CenterPoint is not only pushing to bill their Minnesota customers more to make up for the price differential, they’re asking to begin doing that in May instead of in September when price adjustments are normally made. They’re doing this because they say they’re in a cash bind, while at the same time their CEO is assuring investors that their cash position is just fine. They sure know how to make friends, don’t they?

The WaPo story has more details. This bit at the end caught my interest:

The state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former Democratic member of Congress, has filed a strongly critical response to CenterPoint’s plan.

It notes that over the two-year payout schedule, the interest charged to customers would amount to $60 million, “at a time when many of them are already behind on their bills.”

CenterPoint argues that the interest charge reflects its own capital borrowing costs and that it is an appropriate item to add to its bills.

“The company has already had to pay most of the natural gas costs from February, but these costs will only be recovered over an extended period of time,” [CenterPoint spokesperson Ross] Corson wrote. “Until recovered, CenterPoint Energy must finance these costs through a combination of debt and equity. Given the unprecedented magnitude of this financial commitment, it is appropriate to include finance charges.”

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of a nonprofit called the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, asked in an interview why CenterPoint didn’t appeal for voluntary reductions in gas use when it saw prices spike.

She said the utilities should demonstrate why they had to rely so heavily on the spot market. But, she added, “there’s no getting around it — these are big costs that someone is going to have to incur.”

Natural gas, though, is an “essential good,” she said, adding that ordinary Minnesotans, collateral damage in the Texas disaster, are blameless.

“You know, somebody made a lot of money off people needing to heat their homes,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

There’s talk that Minnesota AG Ellison may file a lawsuit against CenterPoint over this. I can already hear the caterwauling from certain local politicians if that happens.

On a side note:

An updated analysis of February’s Texas power crisis by experts at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows that lost wind power generation was a small component of the huge losses in electric generation that plunged much of the state into darkness during the severe cold weather.

While Texas Republicans were quick to blame renewable energy during the storm — and have continued to target renewable energy for reform during this year’s legislative session — a recently updated report on the causes of generator outages during the week of Feb. 14 show that the most significant cause of the low power supply to the grid came from natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather, equipment failures and natural gas shortages.

In ERCOT’s first preliminary report on the causes of the power crisis, released in early April, the grid operator included a chart that appeared to show power generation losses from wind as just slightly smaller than natural gas generation losses that week. But that analysis used the capacity of the state’s wind turbines to generate electricity, not what wind turbines would have actually generated if not for the outages.

Wind power feeds into the grid depending on weather conditions, and renewable energy sources typically have much higher potential to generate electricity than what is actually produced on a day-to-day basis; sometimes renewable power generates a lot and at other times none or very little. ERCOT uses detailed weather forecasts to estimate how much wind and solar power will be available to the grid.

In the updated analysis included in a Wednesday ERCOT meeting, the grid operator calculated that for the week of Feb. 14, natural gas power losses were several times that of wind generation.

[…]

The analysis also provided a more detailed picture of the reasons for natural gas outages, showing that disruptions in natural gas supply to the plants were a bigger share of the outages than initially estimated. Still, weather-related problems and equipment problems remained the biggest reasons for natural gas plant outages.

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

Sure would be nice if the Legislature spent less time attacking transgender kids and renewable energy, and more time working to make the grid more reliable and less likely to produce another big freeze, wouldn’t it?

Beto and Julian rally against voter suppression

Good to see after a couple of brutal weeks.

Beto O’Rourke

Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro joined forces at the Texas Capitol on Saturday to rally against election reform bills that they called blatant attempts to suppress voters in Black and Hispanic communities.

As statewide elections near, Castro said Republicans in the Texas Legislature are responding with numerous bills aimed at suppressing minority voters.

“We are here today to say ‘No, we will not stand for that,’” the former San Antonio mayor told hundreds of activists who gathered on the south steps of the Capitol less than 24 hours after the Texas House approved an election reform that Democrats have vocally opposed.

O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who is weighing a potential run for governor, said Republicans are focusing on restricting voting when there are much bigger issues facing the state.

“These jokers can’t even keep the lights on, or the heat on, or the water running when the temperature drops in Texas, now they want to take over our elections,” O’Rourke said in reference to the deadly February storms that left millions without electricity.

First of all, that’s a good line. Could use a little tightening up, but it can be applied to a lot of things as we go forward. Maybe if we all make a commitment to starting sentences with “They couldn’t keep the heat/lights on, but they still [did whatever]”, we might get some rhetorical advantage. You have to start somewhere.

Second, I note that the article that is linked to in that penultimate paragraph is one of the stories that ran where the initial headlines were that Beto was not going to run for Governor. Usually since then, the accepted journalistic usage has been something like “has not announced any plans”, or some other variation that suggests Beto is just living his life. This formulation is different, and it leans more in the direction that Beto is actively thinking about maybe running for Governor. Is that based on anything – background chatter, idle speculation from other pundits/reporters, the need for Something To Happen – or is it just a random variation that means nothing? I have no idea. It was just a think I noticed, and it made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

For what it’s worth, and I realize this may become a Freezing Cold Take down the line, I’m inclined to think Beto will in fact run for Governor. I think the fact that he has been extremely tight-lipped about it to this point is a strategic choice meant to keep the focus on what the Legislature has been doing on them and on the Republican leadership. In a world where he was already an announced, or even seriously rumored candidate, he’d be a foil for Abbott and the rest to play off of. Is this a sure thing? No, it’s second-rate tea leaf reading by someone who can easily shrug his shoulders if this turns out to be incorrect. Does this mean Julian Castro is a no go for Governor? No, it just means that I think the (subtle and possibly ephemeral) signs point more towards Beto. They’re not both running for Governor, I’m confident of that. I’ve been Team Julian all along, and if it turns out that he’s taking the plunge this time while Beto warms up for a Ted Cruz rematch (or open seat) in 2024, I’ll happily admit my error.

That’s what I think. Any wagers you place based on this are entirely your responsibility.

So we bail out the electricity providers

I guess I don’t know enough about our weird electricity market to suggest a viable alternative to this, but it sure doesn’t speak well of our system.

An approximately $2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.

The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.

House lawmakers sent House Bill 4492 to the Senate on Thursday after a 129-15 vote. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate.

Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.

Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.

Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.

“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.

“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.

Hard to say how much this will increase the average monthly electric bill, but I’m sure someone will study that. Having a bunch of bankruptcies would be bad for a variety of reasons, so this is what we’re doing, but let’s take a moment to review the bidding on our deregulated electricity market. Massive statewide blackouts (and water failures) during the freeze because there was no requirement to weatherize the systems (even though we had experienced similar, though smaller scale, blackouts before, in recent memory), which led to a huge financial crisis in the industry that is now requiring a state bailout as well as a large state investment in weatherization, because otherwise that was never going to happen. All this, and we have higher consumer prices than other states. Is this a great system or what?

Meanwhile, in other ERCOT news:

During February’s deadly winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott and many state lawmakers quickly criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because several members of its large governing board reside outside Texas.

Many of the out-of-state board members are experts in the electricity field, but resigned following criticism of the agency’s oversight of the state’s main power grid during the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in freezing temperatures.

State lawmakers are now trying to change the way ERCOT is governed by requiring members to live in Texas and giving more board seats to political appointees — changes that experts say may do little to improve the power grid.

One former board member who resigned after the storm, Peter Cramton, criticized legislation for politicizing the grid operator’s board.

“These people would be political types without electricity expertise,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Texas House has already approved House Bill 10, which would remove independent outside voices on the ERCOT board and replace them with five political appointees. The governor would appoint three of those people, while the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint one. None of the appointees would be required to be electricity experts. The only requirement is that appointees live in Texas.

Senate Bill 2, which has cleared the upper chamber, would give the governor five ERCOT board member appointments.

[…]

The political appointees replace what are now called “unaffiliated members,” who mostly served as outside expert voices. The other board members currently represent regions across the state that make up the ERCOT grid, as well as non-voting members such as the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Some power grid experts have said in legislative testimony, at industry events and in interviews that they don’t see how giving more power to the political class — and making minor tweaks like requiring all board members reside in Texas — could improve the grid operator.

“From the consumer standpoint, we really depend on those unaffiliated directors to make decisions that are in customers’ interest and in the interest of the overall health of the ERCOT market,” Katie Coleman, who represents Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, said at a recent industry conference.

Seriously, WTF are we even doing here?

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

The plight of the city-owned gas utilities

It’s rough.

In the wake of last month’s winter disaster, which nearly crashed the state’s power grid and killed more than 100 people, state lawmakers convened hearings to probe how a weeklong winter storm had crippled the state. They have proposed laws to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

Meanwhile, staggeringly high bills for the storm are coming due.

Most Texas residents receive their natural gas from large private utilities such as CenterPoint Energy, Atmos Energy and Texas Gas Service, which collectively incurred billions of dollars in extra costs buying natural gas at the height of the crisis. In public filings and statements, they said they would pay their suppliers with cash reserves and by borrowing money.

Yet about 80 Texas communities operate their own natural gas utilities, many artifacts from an earlier time that municipalities have held on to in an effort to keep rates low. Most are small cities that don’t have the same resources or bargaining power to cover the massive bills they owe to companies that delivered the gas. They have fewer customers among whom they can spread unexpected costs.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to investigate the storm’s sky-high gas prices. Unlike the state’s electricity market, where the Electric Reliability Council of Texas pays an independent market monitor to ensure companies follow the rules, the gas industry has no equivalent watchdog position.

Deals between municipalities and gas delivery companies are considered arrangements outside most regulation, said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, whose district includes several city gas utilities facing astronomical February bills. “These are signed contracts between a city and a gas supplier without state oversight,” she said, “which is why Texans must take a hard look at the issue of potential market manipulation and regulatory failures that have created this ridiculous ripoff.”

Officials in hard-hit cities have pledged not to pass on the bloated costs to customers all at once, saying they will break up any money owed into small increases billed to residents over as long as a decade or more. For now, however, the giant bills municipal utilities owe to distributors loom.

In Bellville, whose municipal gas utility serves a population of 4,097, February’s gas bill came to about $2 million — “a sixth of our entire annual budget,” said Mayor James Harrison. He said finding the money to pay for what was essentially one week’s worth of gas could set back the city’s development for years.

“We have plans to retop streets, take out a bond to build a new police station,” he said. “We’re not trying to get out of the bill. We’re just looking for answers right now, and we don’t have any.”

“We don’t have that kind of money,” added Bay City Mayor Robert Nelson. “Our customers don’t have it. How can we pay it?”

It’s not clear to me that this isn’t just how the market is set up to work, but there could be something there to investigate. I think Sen. Kolkhorst has identified the problem, so it’s mostly a matter of what if anything the Legislature wants to do about it. My guess is that this isn’t a high enough priority for them, but it is in their power. I wish the people of Bellville and Bay City and wherever else good luck in sorting this out.

How our water systems failed during the freeze

Good analysis of something that has received far less attention than the blackouts that resulted during the freeze. Which is interesting because the blackouts were the main cause of the water outages and resulting boil notices. And the fix here is relatively simple.

There generally are two sources of drinking water in Texas: underground wells and surface water, drawn from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Both require pumps to move the water to storage tanks, purification plants and out to customers. And pumps require power.

In Houston, most drinking water is pulled from lakes Houston, Conroe and Livingston. The city’s issues during the freeze began at the Northeast Water Purification Plant, one of its three primary treatment facilities, where some of its generators did not turn on as designed that Monday, Feb. 15, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Internal reports, emails and texts obtained through public information requests by the Chronicle illuminate the problems. The emergency generator failures reduced the plant to about 20 or 30 percent of its normal capacity, according to situational reports from the Office of Emergency Management. This started a drop in pressure that workers struggled to halt.

NRG, which operates the generators, was supposed to be able to start them remotely. The generators were providing power to the grid when it collapsed, which caused them to trip offline, the company said. NRG employees taught Public Works officials how to reset them by phone. The city also had left two breakers in the wrong position prior to the storm, complicating the efforts to switch to back-up power, according to Houston Public Works. The power was restored three hours after it went out.

“Nearly lost the water system,” [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock texted another city official later that afternoon, “but recovered it sort of.”

Meanwhile, eight of 40 city-operated generators failed at wells that pull water from underground. Though workers tested the generators monthly, checking their oil and fuel, Haddock told state lawmakers earlier this month the machines “were not prepared for starting in 12 degrees.”

One froze and was not functional again until temperatures rose. Another at the Katy Addicks well started initially before its supercharger failed. Others had mechanical issues related to the cold.

City staff chased outages with portable generators, recalled Phillip Goodwin, Houston Public Works’ regulatory compliance director. As power came on in one place, it would go out somewhere else in the system.

Water pressure in the city dropped, and by late Tuesday Houston officials saw a few readings below the state-mandated levels.

Haddock texted Turner at 8:13 p.m.: “I can tell you we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Some 13 hours later, Turner announced a boil water advisory was in effect, per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements when water pressure drops too low.

It would be four days before the water was declared safe to drink. Dallas never needed a boil notice; the advisories in San Antonio and Austin lasted longer than Houston’s.

Turner said the bottom line is that the generators did not work as intended. He has instructed his departments to review what went wrong and build more “resiliency and redundancy” into the system.

“When you have power outages of that magnitude, it’s going to impact your systems across the board,” Turner said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position to prevent it from reoccurring, or at least at that magnitude.”

[…]

At the peak Friday, more than 1,800 of some 7,000 public water systems were under boil water advisories. Hurricane Harvey, by comparison, prompted some 200 systems to issue boil advisories, said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. Houston was not one of them.

The TCEQ, which monitors boil notices and provides emergency assistance, plans to survey and hold roundtables with local providers to figure out what went wrong. They are forming a group to look at helping water systems get listed as critical infrastructure with electricity providers, among other issues.

Public Utility Commission rules say water facilities may be defined as “critical load” like hospitals, but the water utility must notify its electricity provider and be deemed eligible.

I certainly would have thought that water systems would be considered critical infrastructure. It would have saved a lot of trouble if the water treatment plants around the state had not lost power during the freeze. That might have caused more homes to lose power, perhaps, but if we’re forcing the power plants to weatherize then maybe that will be less of an issue. Requiring backup generators and a regular schedule for testing and maintaining them would also help. HB2275 would create a grant fund for infrastructure fixes – there may of course be some federal money coming as well, but we can’t count on that just yet – and I guess it’s up to the TCEQ to decide if water systems are “critical infrastructure” or not.

I mean, look, most of us were able to get by for a couple of days with the boil notices and maybe using melted snow as flush water. We won’t have the latter during a summer power-and-water outage, but never mind that for now. All I’m saying is that for a state that loves to brag about luring businesses here, this is some bad advertising for us. We have plenty of other challenges right now, many of them being perpetuated by the Lege. We should try not to add to them.