Winter Storm Uri had the right name because it was like something out of a Russian novel.
The question is, could the brutal Siberia-like conditions of Feb. 13-17 return next winter or could a big blackout scuttle the air conditioning this summer?
It’s not just a matter of inconvenience because Uri killed 700 Texans, prompting state lawmakers to pass two bills that they say make a recurrence much less likely.
But State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, says ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) is not out of the woods because the state needs 80,000 megawatts of generating capacity but only has 70,000.
Noting state officials booted several out-of-state ERCOT directors off its board, Seliger said, “They had one from Germany.
“People didn’t understand what ERCOT does,” he said. “They don’t generate electricity, they just put it on the grid and send it to various places. The problem was that the demand was so large and so varied. What ERCOT did wrong was to overcharge people.
“The entire board of the Texas Public Utility Commission quit, which they should have.”
Seliger said the Austin legislature deregulated the state’s power network in the mid-1990s, but now might consider re-regulating it and tying into out-of-state sources like the Northern Panhandle’s connection to the Southwest Power Pool, which extends into Minnesota and cut the Northern Panhandle’s rolling blackout to two hours.
“People might pay a little more if we re-regulated, but they would be happier with that than they were with what happened in February,” he said. “In any case, we can’t have this happen again. We have to get it done.”
Texas’s 92 utility companies are supplied by the nuclear power stations in Matagorda and Somervell counties, 14 coal and lignite plants, 50 natural gas-powered plants, five biomass plants, 12 hydro-electric dams, 77 wind farms and 31 solar farms.
Seliger noted that Berkshire Hathaway, the investment company led by multi-billionaire Warren Buffett of Omaha, has offered to spend $8.3 billion to build 10 natural gas-fired plants, charging Texas residential customers a small monthly fee and operating only when extra power is needed. He said the proposal is being evaluated by state leaders.
Asked if ERCOT narrowly averted another statewide blackout early this summer, he said, “They told us they were afraid there might be one.”
Handling 90 percent of the state’s electric load, ERCOT is a consortium of consumers, cooperatives, generators, power marketers, retail electric providers, investor-owned electric utilities, transmission and distribution providers and municipally owned electric utilities, according to its website.
Ector County Democratic Chairman Hannah Horick said the legislation Gov. Greg Abbott signed June 9 resulted more in massive donations to his 2022 re-election campaign than it did in needed reforms.
Effective next year, the two Texas Senate bills that Abbott signed require power generators to be weatherized and for generators and transmission lines to be upgraded to make them better able to withstand severe conditions with mandatory inspections and fines of up to $1 million for non-compliance, among other measures. An emergency alert system will be installed to alert citizens of impending bad weather and power outages.
“We’d hoped for something substantial, but that wasn’t the case,” Horick said. “The governor accepted big donations from energy executives after the passage of the bills and if they’re happy, that’s not a great sign for the consumers because these are the folks who lead the infrastructure that created the system.
“There were plenty of measures from both sides of the aisle that didn’t make it through this past session, so it doesn’t seem to me like bipartisan results. We need to connect to power sources from other parts of the country and we need people in organizations like ERCOT to protect the state and not the folks who appointed them.”
The Texas Tribune reported Aug. 4 that Abbott got $4.6 million from the energy industry just after the regular legislative session ended May 31.
State Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, said Senate Bills 2 and 3 “took important and necessary steps to prevent another frozen Texas energy grid.
“No more grid failures are expected in 2021 because supply is projected to sufficiently outpace demand as more generators return online after being down for maintenance,” Landgraf said. “We must continue to look ahead toward what the grid is and what its related infrastructure will look like five years from now and 50 years from now.
“The legislature is taking a deep dive between now and the 2023 session to see what else can be done to ensure that the Texas grid remains reliable and affordable in the long-term future.”
The bills were sponsored by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, and Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.
Republican Congressman August Pfluger of San Angelo told the Odessa American from Washington that Abbott and state legislators “moved swiftly to pass initiatives this session that address the issues from the winter storm and improve grid reliability during catastrophic events.
“I’m eager to see how these changes get implemented and I stand ready to ensure that Texas has the resources it needs to avoid a repeat of February,” Pfluger said.
An ERCOT spokesman in Austin said the group “continues to operate the grid aggressively to ensure there is enough generation to serve Texans.
“We’re doing this by bringing more generation online sooner if needed and by purchasing more reserve power,” the spokesman said.
The PUC said ERCOT and it “are taking steps to improve grid reliability in the hottest days of summer.
“As summer heats up and we work to make the most out of existing resources, we’ve directed ERCOT to take aggressive action to increase the amount of reserve power available,” new PUC Chairman Peter Lake said. “While our policy efforts are sharply focused on the long-term goals set by Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature, these operational changes will increase the grid’s margin of safety in the near-term.”
Lake said the PUC had told ERCOT to increase significantly its amount of power on standby for the afternoon hours when summer demand is at its highest and that ERCOT was doing so by buying more reserve power from generators whose plants could respond relatively quickly.