Editor’s Note: Suzanne Russo is CEO of Pecan Street Inc., a non-profit data and research organization in Austin, Texas that works on electricity, transportation and other climate-related challenges. It has received funding from number of public and private sources, including the US Department of Energy to undertake research and development of innovative clean energy and water conservation technologies and the state of Texas for creation of a water conservation research testbed. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Texans don’t like outsiders telling us what to do. So alone among the lower 48 states, we have our own independent electric grid, covering about 75% of the state, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a non-profit corporation that is regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature The rest of the contiguous United States’ power grids are part of either the Western Interconnect grid or the Eastern Interconnect, putting them under control of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
Texas’ grid independence is being called into question after ERCOT failed to meet unprecedented electricity demand and millions of Texans went without power for days in sub-freezing temperatures. To put it mildly, people are mad. But despite a lot of political finger-pointing, I’ve seen few people pointing in the right direction.
It is not Texas’ independent grid design that caused this electricity crisis. Nor is it deregulation, which is simply a market structure that gives customers more choice in electricity plans, similarly to how you pick a cell phone service provider. For more than 20 years, Texas’ deregulated market has kept energy prices low, and sparked incredible growth in wind energy.
Our system’s power failure wasn’t caused by frozen windmills, as our governor falsely claimed on Fox News, or Texas’ inability to pull electricity from other states – so-called interconnectivity. Texas wind is indeed a remarkable success story – it provides about 40% of our total energy capacity and is a direct result of our deregulated market. But we don’t rely heavily on Texas wind this time of year.
The overwhelming majority of last week’s generation failures were due to failures in natural gas power plants. Though it is tempting to blame Texas’ disconnection from other grids, being connected to others would not have accomplished much, as the entire South and Midwest suffered from similar situations.
The Southwest Power Pool (SPP), our grid to the west, went into conservation operations on February 9 and declared an Energy Emergency Alert on February 15, asking customers to conserve energy. By February 16, SPP no longer had enough power to meet demand and began implementing rolling blackouts. Conditions in that region have slowly improved on a similar timeline with Texas as the worst of the winter storm passed. (The SPP ended its conservation status last Saturday and resumed normal operations.)
Texas’ other neighboring grid, the Midcontinent Independent System Operator experienced the same condition of power demand due to surpassing the amount of available electricity, and it similarly implemented rolling blackouts this past week.
It’s true that some areas in Texas that are not part of ERCOT have faced fewer outages, but that’s because grid operators there better prepared their generation assets for freezing temperatures, not because they were interconnected to other regions.
In fact, Texas’ lack of interconnection has been a historic strength. Because our grid does not interconnect, we are not regulated by FERC, which oversees interstate power sales. As such, Texas is able to build out new power generation and transmission capacity much faster than other parts of the country and experiment with new market structures, such as launching the nation’s first deregulated energy market and creating the nation’s first Renewable Energy Zone. Other regions, meanwhile, have been stymied by inter-regional power planning processes that were recently described in a study by research and consulting firm ScottMadden as “at best, stalled, and at worst, ineffective.”
In normal times, Texas generates more electricity than any other state and is rapidly decarbonizing. Since 2016, nearly half of the state’s coal-fired power plants have been retired and replaced with more cost-efficient wind energy and natural gas power plants. Last year, wind power supplied nearly a quarter of our state’s energy needs.
If Texas were its own country, we would be the world’s sixth-largest wind energy producer. Though California is thought to be the leader in renewable energy in the US, Texas has more installed solar and wind capacity. With more solar and wind power projects planned to come online in the next five years than in any other state, our solar power market is about to be Texas-sized as well.
The ability for ERCOT and the Texas State Legislature to make independent decisions about our power supply, combined with the state’s pioneering approach to funding and building out transmission lines that bring wind power from West and North Texas to the rest of the state, has sparked innovation and progress while keeping our electric rates affordable for most residents. My organization, for example, conducts globally renowned research on clean energy, thanks in large part to the relative ease in getting permission from ERCOT and our local utility Austin Energy on what power sources are allowed to connect into the grid and in testing out new technologies, services and rates.
So, what went wrong, and how do we prevent it from happening again when scientists tell us unusual weather like this will become more common?
The biggest problem here was infrastructure failure due to a lack of investment in modernizing and stabilizing the grid and its supporting infrastructure.
To fix this problem, Texas should leverage the strength of our ERCOT structure to rapidly implement the recommendations that have been floating around for nearly a decade on better preparing our grid for cold temperatures.
We also need to establish a capacity market – which means setting heavy fines for power generators that are not available during critical times and paying power generators, including households with their own solar power systems, to have back-up power that can be rapidly made available to the grid during times of extreme need.
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Finally, Texas should continue investing in the proactive transmission systems and renewable power generation, like wind and solar, that have produced major economic and environmental benefits for our state so far.
This isn’t the first winter energy crisis Texas has faced, and it won’t be the last. Our politicians need to stop making baseless accusations against renewable energy and start getting serious about a changing climate. That means making the commonsense investments in infrastructure and power generation that can withstand extreme weather events.
An earlier version of this article indicated that the Southern Power Poll remained in a state of conservation operations; it has been updated to reflect that the SPP has resumed normal operations.