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

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

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

But they didn’t.

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

But they didn’t.

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

But they didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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