The brutal cold snap in Texas that brought days of blackouts and water shortages has exposed the shortcomings of the state’s electricity system, but one expert says that the fix is better winterization measures and improved management—not more federal integration and control of the Lone Star State’s independent power grid.
Jason Isaac, a former state representative and current director of Life: Powered, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told The Epoch Times’ “American Thought Leaders” program that the power crisis—essentially a story of extreme cold causing both a surge in energy demand and reduction in energy production—has laid bare the need for reform.
“There is some winterization that’s needed. And that’ll certainly take place, that will happen,” he said. “Absolutely, when these power plants were tripped offline, and not being utilized, you have parts that aren’t moving, and those parts will freeze up.”
The severe cold snap paralyzed almost every energy source in Texas, from power plants to wind turbines. On Feb. 17, around 46,000 megawatts of power were offline across the state—with a 28,000-megawatt shortfall from natural gas, coal, and nuclear, and 18,000 megawatts from wind and solar.
That might have been avoided if operators had chosen or been required to equip their plants like ones that operate in northern, cold-weather states.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Feb. 18 demanded that lawmakers make winterization of power plants mandatory under state law.
“What happened this week to our fellow Texans is absolutely unacceptable and can never be replicated again,” he said.
Abbott also lashed out at the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), and its chief executive officer, Bill Magness, for what the governor said was a failure to provide an accurate assessment of the state’s generating capacity ahead of the extreme cold spell.
“ERCOT has failed on each of these measures that they said they had undertaken,” Abbott told a media briefing on Feb. 18. “Texans deserve answers.”
But the power crisis has also fueled sweeping calls for greater federal integration of Texas’s energy system and far more regulation.
“There is no doubt that the most effective energy structure for Texans who are at various economic levels, and particularly our impoverished constituents, is to have an integrated system that is subject to federal regulation,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), in remarks to the Houston Chronicle, referring to the state’s independent grid. “And no matter the multiple levels of energy that we can utilize—from wind to nuclear—all of those failed because the agency failed, the leadership failed, and there was no federal regulatory intervention.”
On Feb. 19, Democrats on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Abbott, demanding an explanation “as to why Texas failed to mandate the recommended upgrades” to power plants in the state, referring to federal recommendations from a decade ago meant to prepare the Texas grid for a severe cold snap.
“The response to this ongoing crisis raises significant questions regarding Texas’s grid design, preparation, and whether the state is taking appropriate action to aid citizens in this crisis,” the letter said (pdf).
Both gas-fired plants and wind turbines can be protected against winter weather, which is done routinely in colder states. The issue arose in Texas after a 2011 freeze that also led to power-plant shutdowns and blackouts. A national electric-industry group developed winterization guidelines for operators to follow, but they are strictly voluntary and also require expensive investments in equipment and other necessary measures.
While Isaac acknowledged the need for some specific reforms—such as winterization requirements and mandating backup generating capacity—that would shore up the grid’s preparedness for future events, he said that federal integration of Texas’s power system would be a bad idea.
“We’re an independent state and we like our Texas independence,” he said. “And the last thing we want to do is have our grid controlled by any kind of federal regulatory agency or the federal government.”
One thing Isaac said he fears with greater federal control of Texas’s grid would be “market-distorting policies that pick one type of winner over another type of reliable source of electricity generation,” referring to federal subsidies of renewables, which he said are less reliable than coal, gas, or nuclear.
“We need to eliminate subsidies across the board and completely level the playing field,” he said, adding that he supports “getting rid of all market-distorting subsidies throughout the United States for all forms of energy production.”
“Let’s let the market compete,” he said.
But to guard against extreme events such as the recent cold snap, Isaac suggested policies could be put in place that would require reliable backup generating facilities.
“Basically, dispatchable electricity on demand. So if you’re going to build a wind farm, that’s fine. But you’ve got to put natural gas peaker plants, which are less expensive, smaller, and you can get those built quicker,” he said.
“Put those on the grid so that when the wind stops blowing, if you need to produce electricity for Texans, then you’re going to have to do it in another means—we can’t just have this level of unpredictability,” he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.