By Loren Steffy
February 21, 2021
As early as this Thursday, the Legislature will begin hearings on the rolling blackouts that crippled much of the state during last week’s record cold snap. Lawmakers can save themselves the trouble. We already know what happened — and we have known for a decade.
The only thing more biting than the bone-chilling cold is the knowledge that the misery was preventable. Texas’ electricity grid has struggled with reliability during times of peak demand since at least 2011, and yet the fundamental issues remain unchanged. There are plenty of things that could be done, but they require two things sorely lacking in Austin: political will and leadership.
Last week was, of course, unprecedented. Everything froze — power plants, transmission lines, natural gas wells, generators, wind turbines in West Texas, compressors and water pumps. And before the ice had even melted, the search for scapegoats had begun. Gov. Greg Abbott quickly pointed a finger at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid.
After the 2011 outage, in which frigid temperatures forced rolling outages and left some 3 million Texans without power (sound familiar?), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission outlined steps that Texas power producers could take to prevent a repeat such as installing heating elements around pipes and increasing power reserves ahead of storms. FERC also noted it had made many of the same recommendations in response to a similar outage in 1989.
But those recommendations were never mandated, and so they never happened. Years later, we almost had a repeat of the problem in 2014, not to mention similar scares of electricity shortages heading into the summers of 2011 and 2018.
“There has to be responsibility,” said Marcie Zlotnik, former CEO of Houston-based StarTex Power, who’s spent years working in the power industry in Texas. “It’s the political world that has the ability to mandate, and there should be bipartisan support for this life-threatening issue.”
A mandate, though, has to come from either the Legislature or the Public Utility Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. We Texans love the free market, of course, but in this case, the market doesn’t create any incentives for reliability.
Texas has an electric-only market, meaning generators are paid only for the electricity they sell. Winterizing plants and setting aside reserve power are big expenses that are rarely needed, so most generators aren’t going to spend the money unless someone makes them.
Policymakers could approach the problem a number of ways. They could, for example, require generators to meet reliability standards, meaning that before they can be licensed to operate, they must commit to winterizing plants and keeping a certain amount of generating capacity in reserve for crises.
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