Shared from the 4/20/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Texas power grid talk takes a hard look at state’s energy status

Four leaders and energy experts shared insights into the past, present and future of the Texas power grid during a recent panel discussion at the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce.

Discussions included what happened during February 2021’s massive winter storm that resulted in widespread extended power outages, what is currently being done to fix the situation and where Texas’ energy climate is heading.

The winter storm occurred toward the end of the bill filing period for the 87th Texas Legislature, which met from January 2021 to May 2021. Texas Rep. Jacey Jetton (R-Sugar Land) said committees were quickly formed to make changes and pass some legislation to improve the power grid.

He said he is proud of the Legislature’s efforts to reform ER-COT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) and the Public Utility Commission and to improve winterization and weatherization of energy systems so that the power grid can produce well in the hot summer months and be prepared for winter storms.

“We’re having a hot summer, no matter what, every year,” Jet-ton said. “How do we make sure that they’re able to be efficient during those time periods but also prepared for winter storms when they hit?”

He hopes the 88th Texas Legislature set to begin in January 2023 will focus on improving infrastructure because he said 1,000 people move to Texas each day: improving roads and water and making sure the power grid can withstand the state’s extreme weather months.

Edward Hirs, energy fellow at the University of Houston and co-founder of Zero Carbon Cycle LLC, said he predicted the failure of the Texas power grid in 2013. Eight years later, the state was within 5 minutes of the entire grid collapsing and staying down likely for months.

The nation, Hirs said, should worry less about a nuclear weapon coming from Russia than electrical facilities going down and leaving 26 million people without power.

“This is devastating,” he said.

Hirs said blackouts in 2011 should have led to changes that would have helped to prevent the failure in 2021. He added that the Texas energy market has been open to manipulation since its beginning.

“We predicted how this would come out,” Hirs said. “It’s not a free and competitive market. It’s got restricted entry, restricted information, which the representative was just talking about. Pricing is controlled by ERCOT.”

He said the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found 75 percent of voters support reforming the energy landscape, both Republicans and Democrats. How the changes will be funded is the real question.

Bill Barnes is the senior director of regulatory affairs for NRG Energy, ERCOT’s largest market participant. He said while there were indicators during the winter storm that there would be some failures, numerous issues combined for a much larger impact on the grid.

The main problems, Barnes explained, were natural gas availability and delivery, frequency issues with wind energy and weatherization issues.

“We now all have a much deeper appreciation of what a reliable grid is. And we should have always had that, I think,” Barnes said. “But this was a pretty stark reminder of how important electricity is, how important a resilient grid is.”

Mark Flathouse, Fort Bend County emergency management coordinator, said while the county is experienced at dealing with hurricanes and flooding, the winter storm heavily impacted the Office of Emergency Management.

“But what it did was open up our eyes in emergency management statewide, all the way from the governor down to Texas Department of Emergency Management, TDEM; all the way down to ours and even local cities and businesses,” Flathouse said.

He emphasized the need for the county’s coming emergency operations center. Officials hope to open the 24,000-square-feet facility in Richmond before hurricane season starts.

When people lose power for long periods of time during extreme weather events, Flathouse said 60 percent of the population can get by. Others cannot. Hospitals usually have generators, but small assisted living facilities often do not and lose the ability to give oxygen to their residents. So emergency management is working on those kinds of protocols.

Flathouse added that many Municipal Utility Districts lack generators and had to send out boil-water notices to residents. If cell phone towers go down, getting those notices out proves difficult.

County emergency management has been trying something new by partnering with nonprofits like Attack Poverty to address sheltering issues by providing warming centers during winter weather events and cooling centers during summer events. Flathouse said it has gone well.

The Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management is also working with MUDs, levy improvement districts, Sugar Land and other larger cities, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent cyberattacks.

Flathouse said, “But because of the connections that we have developed since last year’s event, we are sitting at the table talking about what happens if the power grid or cyber or anything like that impacts, what are we doing with all of our infrastructures within Fort Bend County? … The bottom line here is communicate.”

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