OP-ED: We can do better than this Texas
Snow blanketed millions of rooftops across the nation’s most prolific energy producing state. Inside nearly 5 million of those homes, unwitting Texans shivered in the dark for days without power, with no indication of when it would be restored. Told to expect rolling blackouts, some Texans’ power was rolled off not for a few minutes or hours, but for days. Texas rarely gets the kind of weather we experienced last week, but that is no excuse for our failure to deliver electricity – a most basic government function – to our citizens. This is not an issue of convenience, but of health and safety. What happened last week in Texas is shameful.
We are still assessing damage and learning the full extent of the causes and effects of the power failures during last week’s storm, but what we do know for certain is that Texas should have been prepared.
In February of 2011, a winter storm sharply increased demand for power in a few parts of the state. Because power generation was not keeping up with the demand, rolling blackouts were instituted. After it was over, the legislature interrogated ERCOT and the PUC. They promised to do better. We moved along. A decade later, we are in the same position.
To ensure this never happens again, we must take a multi-pronged approach. First, the Legislature must act to ensure better leadership with regard to power supply and electric reliability. Then, we need to revisit the structure of our power market and prioritize winterization of all generation sources. To deal with massive utility bills created by this storm, the Legislature must help customers pay for exorbitant energy costs assessed during the extreme weather. This can be accomplished by using the state’s rainy day fund to offset costs and working with the power industry to negotiate a settlement that covers costs while avoiding an adverse impact on ratepayers.
There is no question that we in state government are responsible for this colossal failure. The legislature can fix this by placing ERCOT and the PUC under immediate Sunset review for a forensic audit. The Governor, who holds the power of appointment, should purge PUC and ERCOT leadership and replace them with engineers, accountants, power generation experts, and customers who reside in Texas. Finally, the legislature should pass a bill to shift the PUC from an appointed board to an elected one to ensure its commissioners are directly accountable to voters.
Currently, the Texas power market operates as “energy-only,” which encourages scarcity because generators are paid only when they provide power. A capacity market encourages reliability and incentivizes building capacity needed to address extreme weather events. We need to evolve into a market that provides both reliable and affordable power, like a capacity market. Texas has used inexpensive power to attract businesses from all over the world, but after last week’s debacle, businesses will remain unwilling to locate here until we shore up reliability. Reliability can be assured by requiring a defined reserve capacity for each generator. Undoubtedly, reliability would have saved lives and hardship during the storm.
While Texas rarely experiences cold weather like we did last week, the infrequency of such weather does not excuse us from allowing all power generators, from natural gas to nuclear to wind, to fail. ERCOT indicated that sustained low temperatures caused power generators of every source to freeze, with tens of thousands of megawatts falling offline simply because we failed to weatherize our power generation capacity. Weatherization will require a significant financial investment, but it will ensure Texans have heat and water during the inevitable next winter storm.
Local utilities and electric co-ops should be required to bear this burden as well. We will request local utilities‘ leadership to use part of their earnings to offset the cost of customers’ bills. Local utilities must use this experience to learn how to improve their service delivery. Local utilities’ emergency protocols should be refined to ensure that if they are needed, rolling blackouts are conducted equitably across our community. Some ratepayers experienced elongated outages, for more than 3 days straight, while others experienced no interruption in power. There must be a better way to distribute outages if they are absolutely required. Part of the improved protocol should prohibit electric utilities from cutting power from water utilities’ pump stations. Backup generators at pump stations need to be part of a contingency plan to avoid the complete loss of water supply to citizens. Finally, improved communication to customers who were stuck in freezing homes is imperative. Ratepayers should have been told how long to expect power outages and when restoration would occur.
A lot of blame is being cast in every direction. It is time for all of us in the legislature to accept the responsibility for millions of Texans going without power. We must make these structural changes to protect our citizens and our economic development efforts. Now that the snow has melted from Texas rooftops, it’s time to go to work. We can do better than this Texas.