Fold weather didn’t have to result in a crisis of this scale
Special to the Dallas Morning News
by Glenn Hegar
Feb. 21, 2021
Like millions of other Texans, my family lost power during last week’s winter storm. We are thankful that our health wasn’t at risk, and that our kids were able to go to a friend’s home that maintained power. Sadly, and sometimes tragically, that wasn’t the case for many of our fellow Texans — and it didn’t have to be that way.
I authored legislation a full decade ago, while serving as a state senator, to institute a better planning process to try to avoid exactly the sort of difficulties that our fellow Texans have endured.
Too many people suffered for too many hours in the dark and the cold in this crisis, with no idea of when they could expect relief. Shivering Texans could see their breath in the air in their living rooms; they watched as the water they left dripping to try to keep their pipes from bursting froze in place; they worried about elderly relatives and friends, and other vulnerable people, stranded alone without power. Even when the immediate crisis passed and their power was restored, they too often were left with damage to their homes, their businesses and even their health.
What bothers me most — and I know my concern is shared by multiple Texas leaders — is that even though this cold weather was incredibly severe, it didn’t have to result in a crisis of this scale. One important reason is that Senate Bill 1133, which I authored after Texas experienced ERCOT-directed rolling outages due to severe weather in February 2011, outlined a planning process for electricity generators. The bill was designed to ensure that Texas power plants, including those in the grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, would report their power generation weatherization preparedness for summer and winter. The intent was to identify the mistakes made in 2011 and to ensure that our power grid, including our generation capacity, was prepared for weather emergencies.
SB 1133 was signed into law to require the Public Utility Commission to prepare a report on electric generation entities’ ability to respond to abnormal weather conditions. The law directed the PUC to analyze and determine the ability of the electric grid to withstand extreme weather events in the upcoming year, to consider the anticipated weather patterns for the upcoming year as predicted by the National Weather Service and to make recommendations on improving emergency operations plans and procedures in order to ensure the continuity of electric service.
In the last decade, our electrical grid has changed in many ways and became more complex, as Texas has moved away from coal plants and added natural gas generation, as well as significant wind and solar generation. That means the challenges of weatherizing the sources of our electricity are different today than they were back then.
It is also true that we must be very careful about overburdening consumers with unreasonable price increases to address the new scenarios challenging our electric grid. But none of these concerns takes away from the fact that we must have the necessary processes and procedures in place to ensure that the burden of such drastic weather events does not risk the health and safety of Texans in the future. Our fast-growing state has a responsibility to its people, and it is always competing for top businesses; the outages represent a failure to meet our duty to Texans, and a black eye that our economy cannot afford.
ERCOT, which handles electric power for about 26 million Texans, or about 90 percent of the state’s electric load, has the distinction of being unique to our state, rather than part of a national power grid. Because Texas operates its own grid, proper planning is that much more critical. We have the benefits of controlling our own grid, but we also have the responsibilities to plan properly for the most extreme circumstances. It is clear that in this instance, we did not.
I am grateful that the Texas House and Senate have scheduled hearings on this matter, and that Gov. Greg Abbott has declared it to be an emergency item for this legislative session. It certainly deserves a hard, comprehensive look. The last few days have raised issues that lawmakers will no doubt take up, and they should not be limited to weatherization.
Do we have the right mix of resources for the state? Are we sending the right market signals to generators? Which providers managed their systems better than others? Should we look at how pricing is determined since Texans have already been asked to conserve and will likely be asked to foot very high bills for the electricity they consumed?
The most immediate issue, of course, should be restoring power to all of the millions of Texans who have experienced prolonged outages threatening their lives and property. Once the grid is fully operational again, however, we must address why — after 10 years have passed — we appear to be in a worse position today than in 2011.
The most pressing issue is to determine what Texas can and must do in the 21st century to ensure that our grid and our citizens do not experience such outages again.