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natural gas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody knows why the grid was short on power

Really inspires confidence, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we headed for a June special session or not?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

Eh, who cares about the grid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott knew the blackouts were coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they didn’t.

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

But they didn’t.

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

But they didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a side note:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

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

The plight of the city-owned gas utilities

It’s rough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

The opening bid on power outage response

Not bad, but there’s a long way to go and not a lot of detail just yet.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the winter weather crisis last month that left millions of Texans without power.

The proposals include overhauling the governance of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; mandating “weatherization” of power facilities and establishing a statewide disaster alert system. There is also legislation to ban variable-rate electricity pricing plans such as were offered by the company Griddy, which was recently effectively shut down in the state after customers were hit with bills in the thousands of dollars.

Phelan’s office called the proposals the “first phase” of the House’s proposed reforms in the wake of the winter storm. Not all the bills have been filed yet, so the specifics of some proposals have not yet been made public.

“We must take accountability, close critical gaps in our system, and prevent these breakdowns from ever happening again,” Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

[…]

House Bill 10, for instance, aims to reform ERCOT by restructuring its board. The legislation would replace the board’s “unaffiliated” members with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. The bill would also mandate that all board members live in Texas. And it would add a new board member to “represent consumer interests,” according to Phelan’s office.

Some other ideas could prove challenging. House Bill 11, for instance, would order the Public Utilities Commission to require power generators to implement measures to avoid service outages during extreme weather events, including winter storms and heat waves. But retroactively equipping power plants and the state’s energy system to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be difficult and costly, energy experts have said. Building energy infrastructure that from the start is designed to perform in winter conditions is easier and cheaper, they have said.

Phelan’s office described another bill, House Bill 14, which hasn’t yet been filed, that would require the Railroad Commission of Texas to require pipeline operators to update their equipment to ensure reliability during extreme weather. It’s unclear how much either bill would cost the state or the power generators. Abbott has indicated in the past that he is interested in funding at least some of the weatherization.

These fall under the emergency items declared by Abbott, so they can be taken up ahead of other legislation. Once they’re written and filed, of course. I don’t have any immediate complaints – the general direction is good, and they seem to have hit the high points – but it’s very early in the process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for shenanigans and just plan resistance, so as always we will have to keep an eye on it. The pushback from the energy industry seems to be that the power outages themselves were the main driver of the natural gas shortage, not the wells and pipes freezing up. There’s probably something to that, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to take their word for it. At least three of the bills will be carried by Democrats – Reps. Richard Raymond, Ana Hernandez, and Joe Deshotel. We’ll see what we get, and we should very much remember that a lot of this is about undoing or at least mitigating the effects of Republican deregulation, but this is a decent start.

The freeze effect on farmers

As you might imagine, single digit temperatures are not good for agriculture.

Well before the sun finally broke through the cloudy and icy haze in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley last week, Dale Murden knew he was in for a bad spell.

After a few days of clearer skies and warmer weather let him assess the damage to his grapefruit orchard in Harlingen more closely, the South Texas citrus grower confirmed his fears.

“As time goes on, it’ll start to look worse,” said Murden, who is also the president of Hidalgo County-based Texas Citrus Mutual.

The winter storm that paralyzed Texas for days last week is going to have lasting effects on Murden and his fellow citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley after the extended freeze killed millions of pounds of citrus. The storm also brought the state’s dairy industry, concentrated in the Panhandle, to a near standstill when widespread power outages halted processing.

Though it’s still too early to put a dollar amount on the losses, industry leaders are urging patience as they try to restock grocery shelves.

“As a grower, I would appeal to consumers to stick with us and, when we do get back on the shelf, please support us,” Murden said.

The 20-year annual average for grapefruit produced in the Rio Grande Valley is about 460 million pounds, Murden said. More than half of this year’s yield will be lost after the storm, and Valencia oranges, which are considered late-season harvests, will be nearly a total loss, he added. The damages will extend into next year because the freeze also damaged citrus blooms that would become fruit for the next season’s harvest.

“This will last well into 2021 and 2022,” he said. “The ability for Texas grapefruit growers to get it to your shelf right now is zero until we start growing a crop.”

The effects on the state’s dairy industry will be shorter, but the duration will depend on how quickly milk and other products can be processed, said Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. Most of Texas’ livestock survived the harsh weather, he said, but a loss of power meant processing and production was at a standstill and will need time to recover.

Turley said Panhandle livestock are used to severe winter weather, “But our natural gas was turned off and so much of our processing relies on that.”

It was reported during the freeze that a lot of milk was being dumped by dairy farmers (who still had to milk the cows because otherwise they stop producing) because there was no power for them to process it. Unlike the citrus growers, their supply should bounce back pretty quickly.

More from the Chron.

The kids in sweaters pix were cute, tho

Constant Ngouala pulled carrots from the ground on his farm, a Plant It Forward site in Southwest Houston, and held up the intact bunch victoriously for his team to see. The vegetable is one of the few that survived the winter freeze in Texas last week. Ngouala lost 80 percent of his crop.

In the raised beds around him, vegetation was wilted to the ground, some slimy and still wet from the snow and freezing rain, others dried and a lifeless shade of brown.

This is a familiar scene on farms across Texas after the historic February storm. The state was plunged into darkness as temperatures dropped in the teens, leaving millions without power, heat or water for days. On farms and ranches, the freeze decimated crops and killed or hurt livestock.

The Plant It Forward team had prepared for the storm, harvesting everything they could the weekend before. Some crops were ready, others weren’t quite but could still be sold. What remained in the ground was protected by frost cloth or mulch for insulation.

Ngouala and his teammate Guy Mouelet lifted a tarp on Saturday to assess damage. It wasn’t long enough to cover the bed’s whole length. Small, just-emerging heads of romaine lettuce were still bright green under the cloth, but browning around the edges outside it. Ngouala thinks the onions, radishes and other root vegetables that were underground during the freeze will be fine, but he has to wait for them to sprout up to confirm.

Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward, said even though the farm lost a lot, she had expected it would be even more dire. The damage is worse than Hurricane Harvey, but the 2017 storm prepared them well for this.

They were in good spirits that day, but there was work to do. Ngouala has to clean his beds and replant with spring crops as soon as possible in order to have cash flow 30, 40, 50 days from now.

[…]

Within the larger food system, shoppers will feel the freeze’s effects at the grocery store in the weeks to come.

“Prices for consumers are going to go up, there’s no question,” said Texas Department of Agriculture communications director Mark Loeffler. “The vast amounts of gaps that have been caused in the food supply chain are pretty amazing.”

Loeffler said significant impacts could last between six to eight weeks, depending on the industry. Some sectors’ long-term recovery could take months or years.

In the same way that this past year has been a great and necessary time to support your local restaurants, this is a great and necessary time to buy your food from local farms as much as possible. Check out the labels, visit a farmers’ market or two, and buy from local growers. We’re all in this together.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could have been worse

Hard to imagine, but this would qualify.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter storm/blackout/boil water situation, Day 439

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

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

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

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

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

TM: How could this have been prevented?

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

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

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

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

So what’s going on with the power supply?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Here’s some cheerful news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

These blackouts don’t roll

How it started.

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

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

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

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

How it’s going:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, in case anyone was wondering:

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

A little national press for the Railroad Commissioner race

Bloomberg News notes that the Texas Railroad Commission could have a significant effect on climate change, if it wanted to.

Booming oil and gas production across the Permian Basin of West Texas has made this little-known regulator, with three voting members, a pivotal decision-maker for the American contribution to climate change. The reason for this comes down to natural-gas flaring. Drillers in Texas, as in other places, are allowed to burn off vast amounts of natural gas that is a by-product of oil production. This is done, in part, because of the expense involved in capturing the gas, putting it into pipelines, and moving it to processing facilities.

And it happens with permission from the Texas Railroad Commission.

Burning off the gas prevents the unchecked release of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that causes as much as 36 times more warming than carbon dioxide in the 100-year period after its release, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But allowing Texas drillers to burn their unwanted gas—something the Railroad Commission almost always does—is a harmful solution: Tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants enter the atmosphere, without yielding any useful energy.

Global gas flaring emits more than 350 million tons of CO2-equivalent each year, according to the World Bank. That’s equal to all the natural gas consumed in Central America and South America each year.

“This is the most important environmental race in the country,” says Chrysta Castañeda, 56, one of four Democratic candidates vying to become the first non-Republican commissioner in more than 25 years and the first Democrat to win statewide office since the 1990s. The commission “is not enforcing the laws” on flaring. “What’s going on in Texas is one of the biggest contributors to the issue worldwide.”

Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton said it’s “patently false” that the agency is not enforcing the rules on flaring. The state flares just 2% of its gas production, much less than most other major producing countries, according to a statement released by his office.

[…]

“It’s not an easy, black-and-white, ‘Well-why-don’t-you-just-tell-them-to-stop?’ kind of problem,” says Bobby Tudor, co-founder of Houston-based investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., which advises oil and gas companies. “But I think in general, a much firmer stand from the Railroad Commission and leadership from the most active companies can make a difference.”

Flaring is central to the campaign to unseat Sitton, and the issue is gaining more attention than ever. The race now includes Castañeda and three additional Democratic challengers: Dallas lawyers Roberto Alonzo and Mark Watson and San Marcos educator Kelly Stone. Watson and Stone both say they, too, want to crack down on flaring. Alonzo didn’t respond to requests for comment and does not appear to have a website.

“The prices paid for shale oil do not accurately reflect the true cost of production,” Watson says. “Flaring natural gas must be reduced very quickly, in a responsible manner.”

Stone takes it a step farther, siding with Democratic presidential candidates such as Warren and Sanders, who have come out in support of a ban on fracking.

“I’m a gal that wants to ban fracking,” says Stone, who taught at Texas State University until her class, Sexuality Across the Life Span, was canceled last year amid a spat with national conservative group Turning Point USA. “I realize that I’m saying that in the state of Texas, where people clutch their pearls when you say something like that.” (A spokesman for the university said it doesn’t comment on personnel matters, and Turning Point USA didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Castañeda says such a move would risk “huge disruption to our current economy and current lifestyle.” She accuses the Republican-dominated commission of failing to enforce the commission’s existing rules by putting limits on waste.

“If we are going to extract fossil fuels from the ground, we ought to use them productively and not wastefully,” says Castañeda.

Sitton frames the issue around preventing the economic waste of leaving oil in the ground. Halting flaring would “cost billions in terms of economic impacts and taxes to the state and Federal government” as well as raising energy costs, his office said in its statement. ​​​​“The energy produced in Texas provides affordable energy for people all around the world and it is produced more cleanly and responsibly than anywhere else in the world.”

Roberto Alonzo, who is a former longtime State Rep, does have a campaign Facebook page, which I was only able to find because he shared a post on his personal Facebook page, which I know how to find. Searching for “Roberto Alonzo” doesn’t get you there – you have to search for “Alonzo for Railroad Commissioner” or “Alonzo for Texas Railroad Commissioner”, neither of which gets auto-filled by Facebook. Once again, I never thought I’d be shilling for the joys of SEO, but here we are. Also, searching for either of those terms brings up Chrysta Castañeda’ campaign Facebook page as the second result. That, my friends, is how you do it.

Be that as it may, I’m glad to see Mark Watson respond to a question from the media with a perfectly reasonable answer, thus offering me some reassurance that maybe there aren’t any goofy candidates on the RRC ballot this year. All four would be a clear improvement over Ryan Sitton.

Pity the poor utilities

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

ERCOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Some power companies like the Clean Power Plan

Not that you’d ever know it.

ERCOT

Thad Hill, in a split with many fellow power company executives, flatly opposes the lawsuits that Texas and 25 others states have filed to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

The plan, which the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled in the summer, seeks to combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions at existing power plants. It would affect coal-fired plants most profoundly, because they emit the most carbon dioxide.

It’s no coincidence that the company Hill heads, Houston’s Calpine Corp., owns exactly zero coal plants.

While it’s intuitive that wind and solar power companies, which don’t emit greenhouse gas in generating power, support the Clean Power Plan, opinion within the traditional electricity generation sector is more nuanced.

Calpine, which operates the nation’s largest fleet of natural gas-fired generators, leads a relatively small group supporting the federal rule.

Most companies that generate power with coal oppose it, including Dallas-based Luminant, the state’s largest power generator. It also operates some gas plants and one of Texas’ two nuclear plants.

[…]

While the EPA has tightened other emissions regulations under President Barack Obama, the Clean Power Plan is the most sweeping overhaul, said Travis Miller, director of utilities research at Morningstar.

The plan is intended to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants 32 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030.

“The Clean Power Plan is going to have ripple effects throughout the entire energy system in the U.S.,” Miller said. “Utilities need a long runway to adapt, but they’re willing to adapt.”

In the lawsuit challenging the rules put forth by the Democratic Obama administration, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton calls the plan a massive power grab by the EPA that would increase Texans’ electric bills significantly and threaten the reliability of the electric grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages 90 percent of the state’s power grid, has estimated the rule could force the closures of some Texas coal plants and increase electricity prices 16 percent by 2030.

Miller agreed that the Clean Power initiative would affect Texas, though he said that Midwestern, Great Plains and Appalachian states most dependent on coal would feel the greatest effects.

Some of the changes in Texas’ power landscape are occurring anyway, because of cheap shale gas and Texas’ ranking as the largest wind power producer in the nation.

“There’s an impressive pipeline of new gas generation and new wind generation in Texas,” Miller said.

That presents market challenges to coal plants, and could move the state toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. “Texas might not have to do all that much,” Miller said.

See here for the background. Miller’s statement is consistent with what ERCOT itself has said, and the Clean Power Plan would help conserve water, too. But this is Texas, and our leadership has to do things the hard way. Just remember, they don’t speak for everyone, not even in the power generation business.

Regulating methane emissions

Get all your gas and fart jokes ready, because they’re just going to be inevitable.

The Obama administration’s plan to slash methane emissions will raise costs for the oil and gas industry, forcing energy companies to invest in new pumps, compressors and equipment to prevent leaks of the potent greenhouse gas.

Although the draft regulations advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday chiefly target new oil and gas wells, processing equipment and storage facilities, the four-pronged proposal lays the groundwork for the government to eventually go after methane leaking from existing infrastructure.

Oil and gas companies already reeling from low commodity prices warn the planned rules will throttle domestic energy development and aren’t needed in light of the industry’s voluntary work to plug leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas.

“The oil and gas industry is leading the charge in reducing methane,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard. “The last thing we need is more duplicative and costly regulation that could increase the cost of energy for Americans.”

The proposed regulations, set to be final next year, will add to President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy and give the administration a concrete action to talk up at international climate negotiations in Paris this December. They also mark another step in the president’s gradual move away from natural gas, a fuel he previously championed as a cleaner alternative to coal.

But the EPA’s draft rules alone won’t fulfill a White House pledge to pare oil and gas industry methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. The proposed regulations along with a 2012 rule targeting new natural gas wells are expected to reduce the sector’s methane emissions by just 20 to 30 percent.

Janet McCabe, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, stressed that the proposal is only one step toward the 2025 benchmark. “As we move forward, additional opportunities will be identified to get to that goal,” she said.

[…]

Industry officials argue they already have a financial incentive to capture leaking natural gas and bring it to market, though the additional costs of some of those changes, such as updated compressors, valves and controllers, may exceed the potential recovery, making them a harder sell amid today’s low oil prices.

Although methane represents only about 9 percent of human-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the substance is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

The industry proudly points to an 11 percent decline in methane emissions from natural gas systems since 2005, but some observers expect numbers to start climbing as a result of the oil drilling boom. Recent research suggests many leaks go undetected, so actual emissions could be much higher.

A study in Environmental Science and Technology on Tuesday suggests gathering equipment and processing facilities are leaking natural gas at rates eight times higher than EPA estimates.

Methane emissions also threaten to undo some of the climate change benefits of generating more electricity from natural gas and new EPA rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.

I’m sure the energy industry is doing what it can to prevent leaks and capture the emissions that come from the leaks that do happen on active wells, but that’s not the main problem.

And there’s another methane-leaking elephant in the room: existing and abandoned oil wells. Most of the regulations target new and modified wells, but the U.S. has somewhere on the order of 3 million abandoned wells, many of which are probably leaking methane. Many existing active wells are leaking, too. A 2014 Environmental Defense Fund study noted that by 2018, upwards of 90 percent of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector could come from wells built before 2012.

Who’s going to be responsible for those? And what does it mean for Texas?

Just as Texas leads the country in overall greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also a particularly large source for this potent warming gas. That’s in part because two major methane-emitting activities — agriculture and oil and gas drilling — are huge here. The state pumps about a third of the country’s oil and a quarter of its natural gas.

Oil and gas industry representatives have pointed to EPA data showing total greenhouse gas emissions in the country have dropped amid a drilling surge to suggest that fracking yields climate benefits — as cleaner burning natural gas replaces coal-fired power.

But measuring nation-wide methane emissions isn’t easy. Several recent peer-reviewed studies suggest that the federal government is vastly underestimating methane emissions, particularly in heavily drilled parts of the country.

In July, a series of studies centered on North Texas, for instance, found that the gas-rich Barnett Shale was leaking 50 percent more of the gas than previously thought. Human error and faulty equipment accounted for most of the emissions, the studies found, with most coming from a small percentage of sites.

Opponents of the rules say emissions still appear to be falling over time, claiming that Obama is unfairly targeting an industry that’s only responsible for a portion of the methane pollution. The agriculture sector — through cow farts and burps, for instance — emits lots of methane too. The EPA has adopted a voluntary program aimed to address that problem.

I mentioned the fart jokes, right? Cows are better organized than you might think. I’m thinking those “voluntary” regs may need to become more enforceable.

One other thing:

According to the EPA, 29 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector. Next is the agriculture sector at 26 percent: livestock emits methane through normal digestive processes. Landfills come in third place with 18 percent of the pie.

Another reason why I want to see landfills get closed, not opened. If that means treating recycling as a utility and subsidizing it as needed, I’m okay with that. Beyond all this, it’s just a matter of getting the rules finalized, then going through the inevitable litigation, because that’s what we do. Consider that another reason why the power of appointing federal judges is a big deal in the Presidential race.

Not everyone wants Texas to sue the EPA again

It won’t mean anything to those that are hell-bent on suing, but it is worth keeping in mind.

President Obama is set to unveil the nitty-gritty of his sweeping, state-by-state plan to fight climate change this week — his most determined effort yet to tackle the effects of global warming by reshaping the nation’s power sector.

When he does, no one doubts that Texas will sue.

Taking the federal government to court over environmental regulations has been a palpable source of pride and political capital for Gov. Greg Abbott, who filed dozens of lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as attorney general. Both he and his successor, Ken Paxton, have promised the same approach with the so-called Clean Power Plan, which seeks to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants.

But some of those who will bear the brunt of complying with the new regulations are calling that knee-jerk reaction shortsighted.

Some Texas electric utilities are joining environmentalists in hoping policymakers — after securing another campaign trail talking point — eventually will craft a strategy to meet the new requirements to avoid being slapped with a mystery plan devised by the EPA and to bolster regulatory certainty.

“I think it’s always better for the state to participate in the plan rather than having the feds do the plan and tell you how it’s going to be,” said John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, referencing a similar situation in 2013 involving greenhouse gas permits. “So I hope when the litigation is concluded that there’s time and willingness to do so.”

[…]

Under a draft proposal outlined last year, Texas — home to about 20 operational coal-fired power plants — would have to slash roughly 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in the next two decades. The state’s ultimate target will become known when the EPA unveils its final rule, expected as early as Monday.

The plan already has drawn one lawsuit from more than a dozen coal-friendly states. But a federal appeals court dismissed the challenge in June, concluding it was premature since the EPA had yet to finalize the rule.

While not part of that early lawsuit, the Texas attorney general’s office has spent $24,000 devising another that it has yet to file, according to information obtained by the Tribune under a public records request.

Initially, states were to submit plans by next summer detailing how they would reach compliance with the new standards by 2020. Word on the street, said Fainter, is that the EPA may give states extra time, responding to concerns from some utilities and states.

An EPA spokeswoman would not confirm or deny that change, but if true Fainter said it would make even less sense for Texas not to come up with a plan. Some utilities agree.

“If, in fact, the states are afforded more time to craft their (implementation plan), it seems logical that they would want to avail themselves of this time to develop a solution which addresses the individual and unique situation of each state,” said Brett Kerr, a spokesman and lobbyist for Calpine, the largest independent power producer in the nation.

Texas doesn’t “necessarily have to stand alone” and could team up with other states to craft a compliance plan if it makes the process smoother, Kerr said. “We believe that the state would be best served by participating in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. It would be nice to think that Texas could participate in the process rather than file another pointless lawsuit, but then it would also be nice to think I could eat pizza and ice cream every day while losing weight. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Texas AGs gotta file lawsuits against the public interest. It’s the way of the world. The plan has now been released, so cry havoc and let slip the lawyers of war. We’ll know in a couple of years if this is going anywhere or not.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.

Don’t be surprised if we have brownouts

That’s the message I take from this.

Temperatures in parts of Texas have started hitting the upper 90s, and they’re likely to stay above normal this summer, according to a forecast by federal climatologists.

That means another difficult summer for the Texas power grid. In a recent report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation projected that the Texas grid will have the lowest percentage of power reserves this summer of any region of the country.

“Sustained extreme weather could be a threat to supply adequacy this summer,” the report stated.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid, also expects summer conditions to be “tight” and will probably ask Texans to conserve power on some hot afternoons when air conditioners put extra strain on the grid. Rotating blackouts are a possibility, ERCOT says, if the summer becomes as hot as 2011, which is not expected.

The Texas grid has struggled to keep up with demand, especially on the hottest days of the year. The problem is fast-growing demand combined with few new power plants being built. According to the reliability corporation, ERCOT’s projected reserve margin this summer — defined as the amount of power available above and beyond the anticipated peak needs of the grid — is 12.88 percent. That’s below ERCOT’s target, which is 13.75 percent. Other parts of the country all show more than an 18 percent reserve margin, according to the reliability corporation report.

And though the say they will have enough reserves for next summer even if no new power plants come online, the future beyond that isn’t looking so good.

Kent Saathoff, an executive adviser to ERCOT, said that the economic growth forecast ERCOT used for its future projections “may well” need to be raised. ERCOT currently uses a “low-growth” economic forecast from Moody’s to make projections 10 years into the future. If higher economic growth occurs than ERCOT has projected, that means power demand will be higher and ERCOT, once again, may not have adequate reserves.

If the grid operator does change its current “low-growth” projections — a question Saathoff said the grid operator is still weighing — a new long-term forecast incorporating those projections would not be issued until the end of the year.

Longer term, ERCOT’s reserve margins are projected to fall still further behind, but Saathoff noted that natural gas-fired power plants can get built “relatively quickly,” in two to three years.

“Just because we don’t show some of those plants for 2015-2016 doesn’t necessarily mean that those plants won’t show up,” he said.

Environmentalists say that ERCOT should move more rapidly to incorporate programs that cut peak-time power demand. For example, home electric systems can be set up to cycle air conditioners or pool pumps on and off, thus reducing power use when the grid is strained.

Texas “lags far behind” other states in such programs, according to Colin Meehan of the Environmental Defense Fund. ERCOT says it has some pilots programs in place, and some large companies already participate in such programs.

As with water, the cheapest and most effective strategy is always going to be conservation. Reduce your peak usage and the rest takes care of itself. Sure would be nice if we paid more attention to that.

Downtown shuttle back in operation

For those of you who missed the old downtown trolley, here’s its successor.

[T]he Greenlink bus service was launched Monday as a free offering for tourists and locals alike. The 18-stop route makes the rounds of eight hotels, the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Central Library, Discovery Green, City Hall, Main Street Square, Houston Pavilions and Macy’s, among others. Buses run weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

[…]

A project seven years in the making, the idea to create Greenlink began when the trolley circulator system was shut down in 2005, and Bob Eury “heard pretty loud and clear from downtown … that there was a real need to be able to circulate without one’s car.”

Eury is the executive director of Houston Downtown Management District, which Eury described as the “program owner of Greenlink.”

The distinction was made from the old-fashioned trolley to the new state-of-the-art buses to suit the “contemporary image” of downtown Houston, said Eury.

See here for some background and here for a route map. Part of the update to these vehicles is that they run on compressed natural gas, for better mileage and less pollution. For the brief time that I worked downtown in the 90s, I generally preferred walking if I was just going a few blocks, but I’m sure plenty of people will like having this as an option. The buses are operated by Metro, which has a four-year interlocal agreement with the Downtown District.

CNG garbage trucks

You won’t hear them coming.

Waste Management [announced on Friday that] it is pushing forward on a nationwide plan to convert all of its 18,342 trucks from loud and smoky diesel engines to quieter and cleaner compressed natural gas-powered machines. The latest destination for the company’s CNG trucks will be the Houston area, starting at a facility in Conroe where 80 trucks will be able to refuel with gas overnight.

The Houston-based refuse collection giant is the latest in a line of major corporations, including UPS and AT&T, to expand their use of natural gas in fleet vehicles – convinced it is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly option to power their daily road operations.

“The economics and payback of natural gas are so strong that it dwarfs any other technology,” said Eric Woods, vice president of fleet and logistics for Waste Management.

The company saves $3 for each gallon-equivalent of CNG it uses instead of diesel, and recent changes in prices of heavy-duty trucks made the vehicles more viable, Woods said.

[…]

At least one resident in The Woodlands has had to chase after a garbage truck because she didn’t realize it was on her block until it already moved on, Waste Mangement driver Servando Rosales said.

“She said, ‘I didn’t even hear you,'” Rosales said of the resident, who had grown used to the noisy reminder of a rumbling diesel engine before moving her garbage outside.

The trucks are decidedly less noisy than their diesel-powered counterparts, quiet enough for Rosales to talk without yelling in the cab of the vehicle, which has monitors and alarms to warn of gas leaks.

Our dog Harry used to go ballistic whenever he heard the garbage truck, or any other vehicle with a rumbly diesel engine. The sound just drove him crazy, and he’d plaster himself up against the door or a window and bark his fool head off at the offending noisemaker. I suspect he wouldn’t be placated by these apparently quieter vehicles, but perhaps the duration of his frenzy would have been reduced.

The noise reduction resulting from this switch is unquestionable. The effect on climate change is less clear to me. Googling around I found this Clean Air Task Force post about whether public transit buses would do better to switch to CNG or newer diesel models. Both are better than the older diesel buses, but CNG buses aren’t clearly better than newer diesel buses. Since I assume Waste Management is replacing older vehicles that this is an overall win for the environment. I just don’t know how to quantify it, and I don’t know if this was the best possible option from that perspective that was available to them. But it is better than doing nothing, so that’s something.

Is everything on the table or not?

Some things are more on the table than others.

Tax breaks that encouraged high-cost natural gas drilling in Texas cost state government $7.4 billion in lost revenue over six years and would cost the state billions more if continued, according to a study authored for legislative leaders.

The study by the Legislative Budget Board, which has not been publicly released, was created for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Speaker Joe Straus, Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts.

It lays out an argument for Texas lawmakers to reconsider the industry’s breaks on its production tax as one way to help close the state’s expected budget shortfall of $27 billion and highlights questions about how the tax breaks are applied. It made no recommendations.

State leaders are looking at bare-bones budget proposals that on average would cut overall spending by about 15 percent and scale back state services, including education, across the board. They are weighing balancing the budget either with cuts or new revenue or a combination.

“Everything is on the table,” Ogden, R-Bryan, said Wednesday about the study. But Dewhurst said he is not inclined to increase taxes on the industry and still hopes to balance the budget without higher taxes.

I don’t know if this particular tax break is good policy or not. The energy industry folks quoted in the story all think it’s super swell, in case you were wondering. But why should we take the merits of this particular piece of policy into account when we haven’t done so for all of the things that are about to be devastated by budget cuts? If we’re going to talk about firing or furloughing teachers, closing nursing homes, making abused children sleep at CPS offices because there’s no other place for them, and putting mentally ill people in jail because we don’t have anything else to do for them, we’d damn well better be willing to talk about whether or not a handful of energy companies get to keep a tax break, and a hell of a lot more than that besides. Otherwise, please spare me the baloney about “everything” being “on the table”.