Will Texas lawmakers finally heed the power grid warnings from 10 years ago?

HOUSTON – During the current legislative session, dozens of bills have been filed regarding the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The crush of proposed legislation follows what many consider to be the numerous failings of our state’s power grid uncovered by February’s winter storm. Those still suffering from the damage caused by the storm hope lawmakers finally get it right.

‘They failed us, miserably’

“I’m under a lot of stress,” said Donna Bossette, Katy area mom of two. “I try not to be. I do a lot of praying because my faith is strong.”

If you ask Bossette, she’ll tell you she believes her family’s suffering is the result of 10 years of missed opportunities and lax oversight. Bossette was without power for two-and-a-half days and several pipes burst, flooding portions of her home. She has insurance, but a lack of available contractors forced her and her children to rip up carpet, tile and knock down sheetrock themselves.

“They failed us, miserably,” Bossette said of state lawmakers. “I think about the people that lost their lives, they failed them.”

Cases like Bossette’s happened across Texas because millions saw their electricity cut as our power grid faltered to the brink of collapse. However, this wasn’t the first time our state faced this type of crisis.

2011

Ten years ago, lawmakers were lamenting how another winter storm knocked out power to millions of Texans. Just as they are now, ERCOT officials face withering criticism for not making sure our grid was better prepared.

“There’s really no excuse, a facility should (not) go out when you know it’s going to freeze a week out,” then State Sen. Glenn Hegar said during a committee hearing on the storm.

What was done

So what did lawmakers do over the last ten years to make sure ERCOT was ready for another winter storm? KPRC 2 Investigates reviewed 96 bills filed since 2011 relating to ERCOT. Roughly, 35% of those bills dealt with the reliability of the grid in some fashion, and only three of those bills actually became law. In 2019, two bills created a council to share security practices and monitor for cyber-attacks. Hegar, who is now the Texas State Comptroller, passed a bill in 2011 requiring power plants to file emergency operation plans with the Public Utility Commission so the plans could be reviewed.

“I think we’re in worse shape now than we were ten years ago,” said Hegar.

“Do you think your bill accomplished what you hoped it would?” asked KPRC 2 investigator Robert Arnold.

“Well, I think the event spoke for itself,” Hegar replied. “When you have that many people without power and, for days on end, no, we didn’t accomplish what we need to.”

It is now well known that implementing weatherization plans is not mandatory, but KPRC 2 Investigates discovered that even basic state oversight of these plans was lax. Officials with the PUC told KPRC 2 it delegated review of these plans to ERCOT, and ERCOT officials reported they can only spot check 80 out of 680 plants to determine if weatherization plans are in place. Even then, ERCOT officials said they have no authority to force power generators to follow through with these plans.

In it’s Dec. 15, 2020, Operations Report and Plan filed with the PUC, ERCOT officials wrote: “ERCOT takes no opinion on whether the measures taken by any particular generator are sufficient to prevent any outage of the unit during certain extreme weather conditions.”

“We found out they were complacent, and complacency will ruin you every time,” said State Sen. John Whitmire (D-District 15).

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also tried to address this problem when he was a state representative by filing a bill to ensure Texas had enough reserve power to prevent blackouts. His bill didn’t even make it to a committee hearing.

“Hopefully this time it won’t be a lot of talk and no action,” Turner said.

‘Missing in action’

As KPRC2 has reported, following the 2011 storm the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation noted winterization procedures at power producers in Texas were “either inadequate or were not adequately followed.”

“The legislature has been missing in action,” said Ed Hirs, University of Houston energy economics lecturer. “They had plenty of recommendations and hearings.”

Hirs said lawmakers mistakenly believed a company’s need for profit was enough incentive to make sure operations were tip-top.

“The fact is they charged $9-thousand a megawatt hour for a heck of a lot less than the service than they usually provide,” Hirs said. “That’s the sign of a busted market.”

Hirs also disagrees with ERCOT handling both grid management and market facilitation.

“These two functions need to be separate,” said Hirs.

Bills this session

During the 2021 session, lawmakers have filed at least 60 bills to address a range of issues involving ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission’s oversight of the organization. You can search those bills below: