In February 2021, the whole world stood in shock as they witnessed one of the most important economies unable to cope with a winter storm.
During the time, politicians argued that harsh weather was to blame, as it took a toll on ERCOT’S infrastructure forcing statewide outages. However, none mentioned the many times they had a chance to fix the power grid but simply chose not to.
As part of a three-piece series titled “Failures of Power,” the Houston Chronicle makes a historic recall on three different times politicians willingly turned down the opportunity to solve power failures.
The first blown chance took place during the storm of 2011, when low temperatures froze ERCOT, causing rolling blackouts that impacted more than 4 million Texans throughout the state.
In response, both lawmakers and regulators promised to come up with solutions, especially ones that required energy companies to ensure reliability through weatherizing infrastructure.
At the same time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation stressed the need to implement stricter weatherization standards for power plants and natural gas operators alike.
However, the proposed legislation -based on a free-market power system- never stood a chance to solve the problem, as it made weatherization voluntary.
This minor piece of legislation that lacked authority to penalize incompliance was authored by the current Texas comptroller Glenn Hegar, who 10 years later stated the Legislature should have taken a “much more active role” in 2011.
The second opportunity to fix the grid came nine years ago, as a vicious cycle of power loss involving the oil and gas industry unraveled during the aftermath of the 2011 storm.
When natural gas facilities shot down during the outages unable to feed electricity generation plants, two state agencies in charge of regulating utilities as well as the oil and gas industry advocated for lawmakers to urge gas suppliers and power plants to fix the problem.
Federal officials recommended minimum standards for the weatherization of natural gas wells and processing facilities, in addition to a labeling system with the objective of ensuring uniform guidelines. In this regard, the Railroad Commission issued a letter for operators of gas infrastructure to label them as critical loads, as reliable gas supply is a priority during power outages.
But as oil and gas companies are both big lobbyists and campaign donors, such recommendations were not enforced within Congress and ultimately not followed. Months later, temperatures fell, wells froze, gas production sank and gas operators who were not labeled as critical facilities were left without power.
Even to this day and after this year’s storm, despite an overall consensus on the need to weatherize operations, gas produces continue defending a market-based system, arguing it gives the necessary signals to ensure production flow.
A third opportunity to fix reliability was shot down in 2013 when warnings of the power grid’s reserve margin running extremely low were ignored.
Economists alerted that Texas’ free-market grid was disincentivizing companies to build plants that could eventually provide power in emergencies, an alert that was supposed to be solved through the increase of power rates in order to encourage plant construction and ensure reserves but it was ultimately ignored as well.
The alternative was a shift to a capacity market, where rates benefit both the electricity provision and capacity maintenance during high-demand periods as well. But this recommended solution to prevent an expected disaster was strongly opposed by the big industries including refining and petrochemical companies, who lobbied strongly with then-Governor Rick Perry.
Based on a self-regulating approach with the only constant of stable failure throughout the years, every blown opportunity to fix reliability by betting on profit instead of sound weatherization continues to impact millions of Texans.
“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.
But as we continue losing lives disaster after disaster and as the opportunities to fix the power grid continue being knowingly disregarded, the reason behind unpreparedness is not lack of capacity but the lack of political will.
And while politicians continue lobbying, enlisting their campaign donors, and debating between a market-based system and a capacity-based system, today, the only assurance is that Texans’ wellbeing will remain in the dark.