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Is Texas Legislature poised to make necessary changes to prevent power crises? Some experts say no.

Madlin Mekelburg
Austin American-Statesman
As Texas lawmakers look toward the end of the legislative session, they're not poised to make the necessary changes to prevent power crises, some energy experts say.

When deadly winter storms ravaged the state in February and power outages plunged more than 4 million people into cold and darkness, Gov. Greg Abbott had already set his priorities for the Legislature and the 140-day legislative session was a month old.

Lawmakers were tackling issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, navigating a budget shortfall and pursuing conservative priorities such as expanding abortion restrictions, limiting transgender athletes and eliminating gun permits.

But after the lights came back on, legislators had a new mission: Make drastic changes to the state’s power supply system and electric grid to prevent crises, while also avoiding the mistakes of legislatures past, which failed to take meaningful action after similar winter weather and blackouts.

News:Did Texas energy regulators fail to mandate winter protections?

Lawmakers made quick work of the energy crisis, holding hearings and passing bills meant to address the outages within six weeks of the storms. The legislation mandates some level of equipment weatherization and improves coordination between state agencies during emergencies.

Energy experts, however, say that the proposals don't go far enough and that if lawmakers don’t start planning for the long term with climate change in mind, they could be setting the state up for crises.

“They take some halfway steps to getting the power and gas regulators talking to each other and working together, but they do nowhere near enough to address the systemic vulnerabilities that the storm exposed,” said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “Unfortunately, even if these bills are enacted, they’re not going to be enough to prevent the breakdown of the gas supply system that we saw in the last storm.”

Weatherization requirement

Senate Bill 3 requires all generation, transmission and natural gas facilities and pipelines in the state to weatherize equipment under threat of a $1 million daily fine for failure to comply.

The bill also would create an emergency alert system to notify residents when the state’s power supply might be unable to meet demand and require state entities to map the natural gas supply chain, in order to identify sources necessary to operate critical infrastructure, among numerous other provisions.

In the House, storm response priorities are divided across seven bills, all of which have been approved by the full chamber. They include House Bill 11, which requires utilities, power plants and transmission services to “maintain service quality and reliability” during extreme weather events and make “reasonable efforts” to prevent interruptions to service.

Legislators also approved HB 12 and HB 13, which look to improve communication and coordination during disasters.

More:Texas Senate approves sweeping bill to address power grid failures

“The requirements to winterize seem like the most serious step in the right direction,” said Michael Webber, an author and professor who specializes in energy and mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.

“The problem after 2011 is that we had voluntary recommendations and that clearly wasn’t enough," he said, referring to the last time a winter storm led to widespread outages. "The idea of having mandates and a punishment if you do not comply with the mandate seems like a more serious set of proposals and was missing from 2011.”

Since the Senate and House proposals differ on that requirement, Webber said he will be watching to see whether lawmakers approve legislation with teeth or default to issuing a “polite, courteous nudge” to encourage power generators and transmitters to prepare their equipment for extreme weather.

“If we do not take action, we’re absolutely setting ourselves up for the risk of failure again, which means people will suffer, people will die,” he said. “The stakes are high.”

News:In wake of Texas power outages, revolving door at Public Utility Commission points to cozy ties with industry

Part of the problem, he said, is that the solutions being discussed at the Capitol do not account for long-range planning: As long as lawmakers continue to respond to events that show weaknesses in infrastructure instead of taking steps to shore up systems in preparation for events, they won't be fully addressing the problem.

“We’re building our systems for the weather of the past instead of the future,” he said. “We refuse to accept the science of climate change and therefore are not planning for the future. That’s a fundamental problem, and we should absolutely fix that.”

Cohan agreed, noting that even the best solutions proposed by lawmakers just scratch the surface. A more affordable option would be for lawmakers to invest in energy efficiency and in making demand more flexible, he said.

“We see the Legislature taking two steps forward for each one step back, but we probably need five or 10 steps to be working on future crises like this,” he said. “I haven’t seen any legislation that really rises to the challenge of addressing this adequately." 

Supply vs. demand

With more than one month left in the session, lawmakers still have time to amend the priority proposals and reach comprises on bills where the chambers diverge. 

But even if a clear resolution presents itself, Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy, an independent energy consultancy firm, said it is unlikely to address the root causes of the outages and prevent crises.

“Even if all the best provisions of the House and Senate were magically put together into one bill, the answer would still be no, because there’s nothing in there that really addresses the demand side,” Lewin said. “There’s two sides of the equation: supply and demand. The legislature is focused entirely on one side of the equation and completely neglecting the other. 

“As long as that stays the way they go, the best they could possibly do is adopt a half solution.”

News:Texas House approves reforms to state power grid in aftermath of February winter storm

The bulk of legislation addressing the crisis focuses on making changes to the state’s power supply system, creating requirements for generators and transmitters, and adding enforcement responsibilities to the regulatory agencies that oversee the energy industry.

There are some bills that seek to address demand, including SB 2109 from Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. That measure would require all electric providers to create programs to reduce the average total residential load in their service area.

During the storm, officials with the state's electric grid ordered utilities to implement rolling blackouts because demand for power was threatening to outstrip supply and the grid was minutes away from catastrophic failure.

SB 3, the omnibus reform measure, includes a requirement for electric utilities to identify critical care customers within their service area and maintain a list of customers that consume large amounts of electricity and would voluntarily participate in load shedding, should the need arise.

The House on Monday approved a bill that would establish a committee tasked with identifying critical infrastructure and priority service needs to ensure they are not shut off during extreme weather events. 

“I don’t think that’s even step one,” Lewin said. “We should have done that already, and we didn’t. I’m glad that’s in the bill, but that is so rudimentary. We should be going much further than that.”

Michael Jewell, an attorney and policy adviser for Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, said focusing on reducing demand and improving energy efficiency is a “no-brainer” that would help the state save money in the long term.

“Fundamentally, we build all the generation resources, we build the transmission resources to serve demand,” he said. “To the extent that there is more focus on reducing demand, that will have a direct cost-effective way of reducing the stress on the grid.”

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