When the 87e The Texas legislative session began in January, it was predicted that the session would be radically different from any other session in Texas history. Due to the Capitol Hill pandemic response, there were many opinions on how the pandemic restricted session would unfold. Some have even said the legislature could meet briefly to fulfill their only constitutional requirement – passing a balanced budget – and then adjourn.
Texas experienced extremely cold temperatures at the start of the New Year, which raised concerns about potential power outages. Then, an unprecedented winter weather event hit Texas and affected all 254 counties. Inadequate communications between electricity providers and local elected officials have started, warning our communities to prepare for the rapidly approaching cold. As a state, most people seemed to accept the concept of progressive blackouts and why we had to run homes for the benefit of the grid system. However, many in House District 60 have not experienced continuous outages as promised, but full outages for up to 72 hours.
Many have wondered how Texas can come to this. The answer is complicated. The flow of Texas power supply is managed by the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and ERCOT is overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas. When the electricity is produced, it is then placed into the grid where electricity providers, such as cooperatives, must remove it for use. Think of the grid as a bucket where all of our generators pour water, then the transmission and distribution utilities – wires and poles – take what they need from the bucket and distribute to customers. Supply must exceed demand for the network to function properly. Unfortunately, under conditions where large sources of energy are used, the technology has not advanced enough to have an efficient storage capacity for electricity.
In February, with the strong demand for electricity, “load shedding” was necessary to maintain the critical balance between demand and supply and avoid a total grid failure. When the grid “bucket” is low, energy is conserved by reducing the number of “cups” requiring water. During the storm, power plants went offline – due to mechanical failure or other reasons. This led ERCOT to ask electricity suppliers to load more. This is where Texans who expected to experience progressive blackouts were left cold and helpless.
After the lights were turned back on, there was a shift in focus and priorities within the Texas Legislature. A tremendous amount of time and energy has been spent addressing the identified gaps in the ERCOT and the network. My office tabled legislation in response to winter storm Uri, including bills that would prevent hospitals, water supply and broadcasting facilities from experiencing power outages, as well as the creation of a statewide requirement for our production capacity to be at least 50% natural gas. The governor has signed several bills that will help our state move forward in creating grid stability and reliability.
Texas has benefited from lower utility prices due to deregulation passed in 1999. A market-based system of private producers, transportation companies, and energy retailers was created. While this deregulated system has served Texas well, relatively few safeguards and a lack of enforced rules put our network at risk. The market system left little room for financial incentives for weather protection and maintenance.
Until June 14e, ERCOT asked customers to save electricity after a “significant number of forced production shutdowns” reduced the amount of energy available to meet demand. Persistent questions persist as to why conservation measures were unexpectedly needed during this period. This was due to an unexpected failure of thermal generation equipment and underperformance of the wind.
The work of 87e The legislature so far, while productive and useful, is not over and more work is needed to “fix the network”. There is an urgent need for a “reliability incentive” to reward more reliable energy sources, such as natural gas. Encouraging unreliable energy sources while creating disincentives for thermal sources (natural gas, coal and nuclear) seems a recipe for increasing production stoppages. We need to expand the “reserve margin” to protect Texans from catastrophic power loss in severe weather. It is HOT in Texas, and that can be crippling too, if we don’t take steps to make sure our grid is stable and our generators can produce. Stakeholders will continue to argue about achieving a balance between market and capacity components for real solutions to maintain a reliable network structure in Texas.
The Texas legislature will need to take an active role in following up on the positive changes made in the 87e session and be prepared to take quick action for any unknown issues that may arise in the future.