Energy experts say power companies need to be forced, not asked, to harden their systems against increasingly powerful storms.
(CN) — “Seconds and minutes.”
That’s how close the Texas electric grid came to a complete collapse.
The startling detail from a historic winter storm was revealed last week as hundreds of thousands of Texans were still suffering from a lack of power and heat amid bitterly cold temperatures.
As the state’s electric grid managers rushed to get the lights back on, they also defended their handling of the crisis, insisting that if they had not initiated a series of purposeful power outages at the height of the storm, the entire grid could have spiraled into a monthslong “catastrophic” blackout.
Still, the resulting dayslong power outages amounted to a seemingly unfathomable tragedy in the nation’s top energy-producing state, where millions of barrels of fossil fuels are pulled from the ground every day and sprawling fields of wind turbines point the way to the world’s green energy future.
At least 30 people in Texas died from the storm and the so-called rolling blackouts, including an 11-year-old boy, who allegedly succumbed to hypothermia as his family huddled together in their powerless Houston-area mobile home.
While some politicians and state leaders quickly and inaccurately pinned the blame solely on frozen wind farms, experts who have actually studied energy issues for years say the problems the storm revealed can’t be solved by picking your favorite energy source and will require mandates – not requests – for a stronger electric grid.
“The solutions aren’t that difficult,” said Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Drive a little further north and these kinds of problems don’t happen.”
As Texas lawmakers gear up for hearings Thursday on what could be done to prevent a similar disaster, the experts say leaders have to avoid repeating their response to a 2011 winter storm that also left people shivering in the dark.
“There needs to be something that mandates reliability,” said Krane. “Whatever actions anybody took after 2011 didn’t work.”
Joshua Rhodes, a Texas electric grid researcher at the Webber Energy Group, echoed that idea, saying this month’s storm was the “predictable result” of the state’s response a decade ago, which centered mostly on voluntarily infrastructure upgrades and tweaks to procedures within the power sector.
This time around, Rhodes said, leaders should require companies to make changes rather than just asking for them. They should also take a much broader look at how prepared the state is for the storms of the future, he said.
“What I wish we would do, what I’d hope we would do, is have that hard conversation, like, okay, climate change is going to increase variability of weather,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t just mean hotter, drier summers. We need to make sure that our infrastructure is set up for that.”
Rhodes pointed to one specific way to bring about that change: officials could reconfigure natural gas market rules, where companies would be contractually obligated to upgrade their systems.
“You can say, ‘thou shall do this if you want to participate in our market,’” he said.
Even the state’s Republican Governor Greg Abbott, traditionally no big fan of telling companies what to do, has called for legislation that would mandate winterization improvements.
“The big question is, do those who invest capital in Texas believe that this is going to happen again?” Rhodes said. “Do you believe that this event is enough to incentivize that, or is the event too much of a black swan that investment won’t make it, so we need to just force the market to be ready?”
Dan Patrick, the state’s staunchly conservative lieutenant governor, has said he’s on board with some kind of reforms from lawmakers.
“We’re going to learn, and we’re going to craft a bill that addresses this problem,” Patrick told reporters in Lubbock on Monday. The lieutenant governor specifically mentioned that lawmakers could move to “revamp” the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that oversees most of the state’s electric grid.
Krane, the Rice University researcher, said that while it might sound counterintuitive, lawmakers could consider expanding ERCOT’s regulatory power to require things like winterizing power plants.
“ERCOT knows where the points of failure are,” Krane said. “It’s in the best position to understand the weak points and where the changes need to be made.”
Such a change is almost impossible to imagine at the moment though, as state leaders echo the public’s widespread anger toward the grid operator. Abbott has called for an investigation into ERCOT, and on Tuesday praised the resignation of four board members who live outside the state.
More broadly, Krane said Texas should move to connect its independent electric grid to the rest of the U.S., which would make it easier to import backup power supplies during a future crisis, while also opening up new markets for the state’s renewable energy sources.
“Given that we’re in the midst of an energy transition that’s just getting started, that would be something that would give the state an economic boom,” he said. “Rather than exporting fossil fuels, we start exporting wind power outside Texas. We’d start diversifying our economy while we harden up the grid.”
At least one top federal regulator has appeared favorable to that idea. Richard Glick, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said last week that Texas should rethink its “go it alone approach,” according to a report from Utility Drive, a news outlet focused on the nation’s power sector.
Charles Ritz, a retired attorney in Indiana who once represented rural electric cooperatives, watched firsthand through his career as Texas built its own grid to avoid federal regulations. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ritz worked on the opposite approach – helping other regional grids across the nation become more connected.
“If there was a cold snap in part of the electric grid, there would be other power available to be transmitted into that area from someplace else,” he said. “But the problem with that being the solution for Texas was that Texans were being Texans. They didn’t want to be relying on anybody else.”
The Texas grid is set up to import limited amounts of power when needed, and some experts caution that dumping the system to join the rest of the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily solve everything. The recent winter storm hammered Oklahoma and Louisiana as well, for example, so even with a more connected grid, Texas’ neighbors might not have had much power to spare.
“I’m a fan of connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the U.S., but it’s either go big or go home,” said Rhodes, the Webber Energy Group researcher. “If we need to pull power from other regions, we’re talking about pulling it from the east and west coasts during this event.”
Rhodes pointed to an even simpler, though much less sexy, way to address the grid’s problems: better building codes for homes and businesses.
“Even if your power went out, maybe your temperature wouldn’t drop into the 40s,” he said.
Experts acknowledge that any solutions, reforms or new mandates are likely to come with costs, but those costs will be measured against the estimated $45 to $50 billion in damage from this month’s storm.
“How much more are people willing to pay in order to stave off or mitigate events like these?” Rhodes said. “It always comes down to that.”
As lawmakers try to answer that question, it’s expected that at least some in the power sector will push back against new mandates, as they have before.
“The companies are all going to come crying with their hats in their hands to the legislature, to the governor, and they’re going to say, ‘we can’t afford this, Texans aren’t going to afford it, their power rates are going to go up,’” said Krane.
Still, he remains hopeful that the sheer scope of the Texas disaster will push lawmakers into action.
“It’s hard to conceive of the political class just totally ignoring that millions and millions of people were suffering for a few days, and they have the power to change that so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Laney Griffo contributed to this story.