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Freeze 2021

Sure hope our grid can handle a bunch of crypto

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the oligarch suing Beto

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston to get federal freeze recovery funds

Good.

Houston is slated to get about $30 million in disaster recovery money to help address lasting needs from the February 2021 winter storm — the largest such grant in Texas, federal officials announced Tuesday.

Marcia L. Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Biden administration, announced about $3 billion in new recovery allocations for disasters in 2020 and 2021 across the country at a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Included are Houston’s $30.3 million grant, $26.4 million for the state of Texas, $24.4 million for Dallas, and $16.6 million for Fort Worth, all relating to the February 2021 freeze that nearly brought down Texas’ electric grid. The storm left more than 240 people across the state dead, cities scrambling to deliver water to customers, and millions of dollars in damages from burst pipes and water mains.

“Today’s HUD announcement ensures that Houston and our vulnerable communities have not been forgotten following the historic 2021 winter freeze,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “After the devastating freeze, we estimated 50,000 homes and 400 apartment complexes had busted water pipes. Several people died from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. Local governments are on the frontlines of disaster response and recovery.”

[…]

In allocating the grants directly to the city, the feds are allowing Houston officials to bypass the approval of state leaders, with whom they often have clashed about recovery money. HUD has done direct allocations in the past with smaller disasters. Typically, the money flows through the state General Land Office.

“Houston is getting, out of this announcement today, the city itself is getting more than $30 million,” Fudge said.

Turner said the direct grant will “speed recovery” by avoiding state delays.

I’m sure you can guess how I feel about that last bit. This isn’t a huge amount of money, and the city still has to develop and get public comment on an action plan to submit to HUD before the funds arrive. But at least they won’t get reallocated to some tiny town in a rural area for no good reason.

Beto responds to oligarch’s lawsuit

Game on.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Some details, for the lawyers:

From that first document:

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

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

And from the second:

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

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

One of Abbott’s billionaire patrons just sued Beto

OMG, this is amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go ahead and blame Greg Abbott for your high electricity bills

They really are his fault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter storm litigation about to get busy

Some test cases will be underway soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s preparations for the next freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year after the freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the grid held up

Basically, this cold front wasn’t anything like last year’s cold front.

Texas’s power grid passed its biggest test since last year’s deadly blackouts, keeping most lights on during a wintry blast. This storm, however, was far less severe than last year’s monstrous one, leaving questions whether the state is really ready for another deep freeze.

While reforms politicians enacted in the past year did help keep power plants running, analysts and power-market experts say the biggest reason things went so smoothly was it simply wasn’t as cold for as long. That meant natural gas kept flowing and wind turbines worked far better, helping the grid meet the increased power demand as millions of Texans cranked up electric heaters.

“The grid held up fine for a couple of reasons: the weather wasn’t as bad as we thought, and wind overperformed,” said Michael Webber, an energy professor at the University of Texas. “The demand wasn’t as high, and the supply wasn’t as low.”

[…]

Gas flowed freely during this week’s storm, but that’s largely because it didn’t get cold enough.

“The state still remains vulnerable because we have not set requirements for winterization of the gas system,” said Webber, who’s also chief technology officer at venture fund Energy Impact Partners. “As such, the reliability of gas production is still flimsy.”

In Dallas, last year’s temperatures fell as low as -2 Fahrenheit (-19 Celsius), and there were 11 straight days with highs below 40 degrees. This year, forecast lows are around 10 degrees, and meteorologists expect just three consecutive days with highs below 40.

In Midland, the hub of the oil- and natural gas-rich Permian Basin, last year saw eight consecutive days when temperatures never rose above freezing, which crippled the flow of gas and starved power plants of fuel. This time, Midland didn’t have back-to-back days when the mercury stayed below 32 degrees.

“The last one was both longer and more extreme,” said Marc Chenard, a meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Prediction Center.

While Ercot didn’t ask consumers to conserve, widespread closures of schools and businesses helped cut down on consumption. Peak demand for electricity was significantly lower and a bit later than anticipated Friday morning, with consumption hitting 69 gigawatts when Ercot previously projected record demand of 75.6 gigawatts. A gigawatt is enough to power about 200,000 Texan homes.

And don’t forget the coin miners. Like Slytherin in the Battle of Hogwarts, the coin miners did their part.

In the short run at least, this is good for Greg Abbott, whose bet paid off. By the same token, though, we’ve spent the last few weeks talking about the freeze, reliving our experiences from it, and expressing a big lack of confidence in the grid, even if it did stay up this time. We still have the actual one-year anniversary of the freeze coming up in about a week, so we’re not done yet with the trauma of it all. That can’t be great for Abbott. He won his bet, which meant he didn’t get absolutely pummeled by circumstances that he had some control over but did nothing to affect, but the payoff was mostly that he broke even. That’s probably good enough for him since he’s leading in the polls, but winter isn’t over yet, and I doubt too many people are feeling better about it. The DMN has more.

The noble sacrifice of the coin miners

You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so maybe there will be some blackouts

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s worried about electricity in Texas?

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

I was lonely.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cities and the freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

We are so screwed if there’s a real cold front

[bangs head on desk].

During Texas’ first strong cold front of the winter this past weekend, natural gas production in the state’s top energy-producing region dropped by about 25%, according to a report from S&P Global. And while the lights largely stayed on across the state, the gas system’s performance during a brief cold snap raised more questions about the grid’s ability to handle extreme winter weather.

A separate Bloomberg report said gas production in the Permian Basin region of West Texas plunged to its lowest levels since last February’s deadly winter storm.

A number of natural gas companies reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that they had to unexpectedly flare off gas last weekend because their equipment froze.

Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, said it didn’t know anything about the sudden drop in gas production. An agency spokesperson said the commission is “currently evaluating available data on natural gas production during the weekend of Jan. 1 and 2.”

Natural gas fuels a majority of power generation in Texas, and some power generators reported disruptions to their gas supply — but they said it was not enough to impact generators’ ability to produce electricity. Gov. Greg Abbott said the state’s main power grid operator was prepared with extra power supply online.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, said there were no significant power outages around the state.

But the disruptions to the natural gas supply during a typical Texas cold front calls into question whether the state’s gas companies are ready for extreme winter weather, a concern energy experts and power company executives have expressed in recent months after lawmakers didn’t require gas companies to immediately prepare their equipment for extreme cold.

“I think it means the gas system’s not ready for another cold snap,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It wasn’t even really cold. It was cold, but nothing close to Winter Storm Uri [in February].”

Who are you gonna believe, Greg Abbott or your lying eyes? At this point, all I can say is it would be best to prepare for winter like you prepare for hurricane season. Assume a disaster is coming, and act accordingly. Abbott doesn’t care if you live or die, so it’s everyone for themselves. Godspeed and good luck.

The final official death toll from the big freeze

It’s undoubtedly an underestimate.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Nobody bullshits like Greg Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate change and freezing weather

A little science for you.

It was the coldest February Texas had seen in more than four decades, and the sustained blast of arctic air knocked out much of the state’s power grid for several days, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Yet 2021 also brought the planet’s 16th-warmest February since records began. On average, winters are getting more mild because climate change has increased temperatures worldwide. How could a warmer world bring such a severe cold snap to Texas?

Scientists say they are still working to understand the relationship between climate change and extreme winter weather patterns. Many factors can influence localized cold snaps, and evidence suggests that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways.

“The way those kinds of events occur involve a lot more complicated atmospheric processes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist and acting deputy director for Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Francis and other scientists said there’s a significant body of research that can help explain why Texas — and other areas of the U.S. — may still experience extreme cold from time to time amid an overall warming of the planet.

“Maybe there was some nuance that was missed when people started talking about winters disappearing and how we’re never going to see snow again,” said Judah Cohen, a leading scholar on winter weather and climate change and the director of seasonal forecasting at the climate analytics company Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “People say, ‘I was told one thing and I’m experiencing something else.’”

Several factors impact the frequency and severity of cold spells in Texas, from the strength of the polar vortex — a seasonal, swirling mass of cold air that circles high above the Arctic — to whether we’re in an El Niño or a La Niña year, which influences whether Texas has a wet or dry winter, to the natural patterns that influence the position and strength of the jet stream, which can determine the path and duration of weather systems.

Here’s what factors scientists say can cause an extreme cold snap to hit Texas — and how such storms may be influenced by climate change.

You should read the rest, because it’s pretty interesting. The science is still being developed, and so there’s disagreement about some of the findings, but the big picture is there. You might familiarize yourself with the concept of a “polar vortex”, because it’s a key factor. Hope for the best and be prepared, whatever happens.

ERCOT and PUC swear there will be no blackouts this winter

Do you believe them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

A brief look at the winter storm litigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

It’s the power grid, stupid

It’s also a campaign theme.

Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Abbott’s bet

What, me worry about blackouts?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Well, “guarantee” is a strong word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

We’re still vulnerable to blackouts

So says ERCOT.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.