Texas May Learn Blackout’s Lesson – or Not

April 12, 2021

Will Texas learn the lessons of the deadly Valentine’s Day Blackout?
Above, Michael Webber of U. Texas is somewhat optimistic.
Below, discussion from Houston Chronicle, and part of my interview with Chronicle energy reporter Chris Tomlinson, who is not optimistic.

Houston Chronicle:

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.”

Texas is the only contiguous state with its own grid, a decision prompted by the creation in 1935 of a federal commission to oversee interstate power transactions. Today, the state has just a handful of transmission lines linking to neighboring power supplies.

Though a more integrated grid would probably not have prevented outages in February— surrounding states were also struggling to meet demand — it could have helped shorten them substantially, according to Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. The blackouts left 4.5 million Texans without power and water for days and contributed to at least 197 deaths.

Most importantly, Cohan said, having outside power supplies would strengthen the grid’s reliability during the state’s most frequent natural disasters.

“The vast majority of our crises are more often a summer drought, or a summer hurricane, or a summer flood that hits Texas more strongly than other states, where we would have plenty of power that we could have been importing in,” he said.

Some question, though, whether joining other grids would be worth the cost, especially because building new transmission lines is expensive and obtaining permits can take years. Without a robust build-out, the state would be giving up its autonomy without gaining substantial backup capacity.

Skeptics also point out that the Legislature, which is heavily influenced by the oil and gas sector, is best served going after more immediate, attainable goals. For renewable advocates, that means expanding resources along the Gulf Coast, where weather patterns vary from windy areas in West Texas and can add more in-state reliability.

For some conservatives, it means cutting back on intermittent wind and solar power and encouraging a return of coal and other fossil fuel generation.

“I don’t see that interconnecting to other (regional power entities) makes the resources more reliable or not,” said Michelle Richmond, a lobbyist for the state’s largest power companies. “From our perspective, the ERCOT system has worked well,” she added, referring to the grid’s manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Daniel Cohan of Rice points out that wind and solar are now the cheapest way to put new electrons on the grid.

Either way, if the state did open up, it would be renewables that stand to benefit most. That could translate to a windfall for state and local governments.

“If we hook up to the other grids, 99.9 percent of the time we can export electrons and we would make a lot of money, because Californians would pay a premium for the energy we can sell, which is wind and solar,” said Webber, the UT professor. “It would be a huge moneymaker for us.”

Rice’s Cohan said gas- and coal-fired power plants would likely take a hit because they would no longer be the only options during emergency periods, when prices rise on the power they produce.

“Once you alleviate those bottlenecks, then you will have a handful of the dirty, older power plants that won’t make as much money,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Mordor..

Houston Chronicle:

While President Joe Biden moves to expand the use of renewable energy nationwide, the Texas Legislature is doing the opposite, adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

Among the reforms of the state’s electric grid following last month’s deadly winter storms, Republicans in the Texas Senate have included new fees aimed at solar and wind companies that Democrats warn would damage the state’s standing as a national leader on renewable energy production, particularly wind power.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said while wind and solar have expanded in Texas, those are “unreliable” sources of energy because they cannot be called up at a moment’s notice during an emergency like the freeze in February.

To correct that, Schwertner said his bill will give the state’s grid monitor authority to create fees for solar and wind. As it stands now, he said billions of dollars in federal subsidies to wind and solar companies have “tilted” the market too much to benefit those sources of energy, and he aims to re-balance it.

Yet fossil fuels also receive government subsidies of roughly $20 billion a year, according to some estimates.

Senate Bill 3 passed the Senate on a 31-0 vote on Monday and now heads to the Texas House. Both chambers must pass identical versions of the legislation in order for it to get to Gov. Greg Abbott for his approval before it can become law.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican from Montgomery County, made the bill a priority.

“The work is just beginning,” Patrick said, promising more changes to correct problems that caused the state’s power grid failures. “But this is a great first step.”

For those that need to catch up on the causes of the blackouts, my survey of experts and media reports is here.


3 Responses to “Texas May Learn Blackout’s Lesson – or Not”

  1. jimbills Says:

    What I’ve seen so far is blame shifting. The Texas Senate is requiring the power plants themselves to be winterized, but the real problem was supply of fossil fuels reaching the plants. Winterizing the well heads is very expensive, it faces a lot of pushback from the industry, and it’s unlikely to be enacted.

    The Senate is also penalizing wind and solar inordinately in the bill:

  2. John Oneill Says:

    “..Californians would pay a premium for the energy we can sell, which is wind and solar,”
    Wind maybe, which might well be anti-correlated with California’s own blowy times. For solar, they already have a glut at midday and a dearth in the evening, so Texas’ peak output, even earlier, would sell for peanuts.

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