Gov. Greg Abbott intervened to put a positive spin on Texas’ power grid

The Capitol was shrouded in snow after February's winter storm, which knocked out power to millions of Texans and created political headaches for Gov. Greg Abbott after the state's power grid failed. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

The two most powerful people overseeing Texas’ electric grid sat next to each other in a quickly arranged Austin news conference in early December to try to assure Texans that the state’s electricity supply was prepared for winter.

“The lights are going to stay on this winter,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoing recent public remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Two weeks earlier, Abbott had told Austin’s Fox 7 News that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on.” The press conference that followed from Lake and the chief of the state’s independent grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, came at the governor’s request, according to two state officials and one other person familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was 150% Abbott’s idea,” said one of the people familiar with the communication from Abbott’s team. “The governor wanted a press conference to give people confidence in the grid.”

A source close to Lake said the idea for the press conference was Lake's, and the governor supported it when Lake brought up the idea during a meeting.

Abbott has for months been heavily involved in the public messaging surrounding the power grid’s winter readiness. In addition to the press conference, he has asked a major electric industry trade group to put out a “positive” public statement about the grid and has taken control of public messaging from ERCOT, according to interviews with current and former power grid officials, energy industry trade group representatives and energy company directors and executives.

But the messaging has projected a level of confidence about the grid that isn’t reflected in data released by ERCOT or echoed by some power company executives and energy experts who say they’re worried that another massive winter storm could trigger widespread grid failures like those that left millions of Texans without power in February, when hundreds of people died.

Abbott has also met one-on-one with energy industry CEOs to ask about their winter readiness — but those meetings happened weeks after Abbott made his public guarantee about the grid.

“You’d think he would have asked to meet with us before saying that,” one person involved in the energy company meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said of Abbott’s guarantee.

Ten months after the power grid failures caused hundreds of deaths and became national news, an election year is approaching and Abbott’s two top primary challengers and his top Democratic challenger have already been harshly criticizing the governor over his handling of the power grid.

“It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move,” Peter Cramton, an energy markets expert and former ERCOT board member who resigned after the storm, said of Abbott’s promise. “It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now.”

For many Texas energy officials and experts, the line has blurred between Abbott’s executive leadership on the power grid and his 2022 reelection campaign. By promising the lights will stay on, Abbott has wagered that Texas doesn’t experience widespread extreme weather this winter — and that the grid will work the next time freezing weather hits the state.

“The Governor is deeply engaged with the new commissioners at the PUC and the new leadership at ERCOT as they work to improve the Texas electric grid,” Renae Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “The House and Senate passed substantial reforms this year, and Governor Abbott is working to ensure those reforms are properly implemented so that the grid provides stable and reliable power for the state.”

Lake, who was appointed by Abbott and whose agency oversees ERCOT, said he has met frequently with Abbott since the summer.

“He’s super focused on it and wants to know what’s going on,” Lake said in an interview.

A majority of power companies have spent money since February preparing their equipment for extreme winter weather, but some say the grid won’t be ready if another storm as powerful as February’s strikes this winter because lawmakers didn’t require gas companies — which supply fuel to more than half of the state’s power plants — to be weatherized immediately.

“What I'm uncertain about is the gas supply,” Cramton said. “That’s the big question.”

2022 opponents use grid failures to attack Abbott

While a warming earth has brought milder winters, Abbott’s bet could be complicated by emerging science that suggests extreme cold spells in Texas could also result from climate change messing with complex weather processes.

But even though Abbott’s promise in late November was a gamble on the weather this winter, his guarantee was more likely an effort to boost his reelection campaign in 2022, Texas political communication experts said.

“I don’t think it's a coincidence he's responding with a guarantee about the power grid almost immediately in the aftermath of Beto O'Rourke's entry into the race because that's been O'Rourke's frontline attack,” said Stephanie Martin, a scholar of political communication at Southern Methodist University.

Abbott has faced criticism over the power grid from O’Rourke and both of his best-known Republicans primary opponents, Allen West and Don Huffines.

“​​Greg Abbott said we did everything we needed to do to fix ERCOT,” Huffines, a former state senator, said in November. “Obviously that is not the case. Texans deserve a governor who can keep the lights on.”

“This ‘promise’ is dangerous, potentially deadly,” O’Rourke said. “Experts continue to warn that Texas could face another grid failure the next time we experience an extreme weather event. Abbott and his appointees shouldn’t be betting our lives on the weather.”

The issue has animated voters, too. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of 1,200 registered voters in October, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state’s handling of the reliability of the grid after February’s catastrophe. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, while 60% of voters disapproved. Even state lawmakers have shown frustration that the new laws they passed earlier this year to prepare the grid for extreme weather haven’t led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

When Abbott has been asked in recent months about criticism of the state’s handling of the winter storm crisis, he has responded that he “signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective” and he’s praised regulators for working to implement new rules following guidance from lawmakers and from Abbott.

“In politics, when you’re explaining, you're losing, and to try to talk about what happened last February in a way that doesn't just accept the abysmal failure of the Abbott administration means he has to try to explain something that's almost impossible to explain,” Martin said. “The only way out of that is to not acknowledge it — by promising it will never happen again.”

Dictating the message

When Brad Jones took over as ERCOT’s interim CEO in the spring — after the previous CEO and many board members resigned after the grid catastrophe — he began by promising that ERCOT would be more transparent with the public and state leaders.

“My guarantee to you is that we intend to communicate more clearly than we’ve done in the past,” Jones said during his first public hearing with lawmakers. “To remove industry jargon, to speak to you in ways that all of us can understand.”

In recent months, however, ERCOT has been nearly silent on social media and its leaders have barely spoken publicly. People familiar with ERCOT’s operations say the organization has needed to receive approval from the governor’s office for most of its public communications, a stark contrast to how the grid operator did business in the past.

Every spring and fall, ERCOT releases its report assessing potential scenarios for the grid during more extreme weather. And the organization’s technical experts typically brief reporters on the assessment to help translate complex electricity jargon into plain language that the general public can understand.

This fall, that briefing never happened. Instead, ERCOT simply posted its assessment for this winter to its website on a Friday afternoon in November. The report concluded that the Texas grid is still vulnerable to blackouts during severe winter weather, even with new preparations.

“We just made a mistake on that,” Jones said about not holding the briefing, adding that rather than big press conference calls, he’s been focusing on touring the state, listening to Texans and doing interviews with local media.

“First piece of it is, I need to listen,” Jones said. “I need to hear them tell me what they went through. That’s an important part of the healing process.”

Another biannual report, called the Capacity, Demand and Reserves report, contains a multiyear forecast of peak electricity demand and the expected generation resources available. The assessment is released every May and in early December. The report has not yet been released this month because the governor’s office is still reviewing it, according to people familiar with the delay. A recent ERCOT email said the report is now scheduled to be released on Dec. 29.

It’s not uncommon for elected officials to become much more hands-on in the aftermath of disasters, said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert and advisor who worked in Texas for more than two decades: “There’s an element of ‘the buck stops here.’”

But Myers Jaffe said decision-making at ERCOT, an organization that Abbott immediately blasted after the storm in February, should be left alone by politicians who don’t have electricity expertise.

“An independent, nonprofit technical organization should be making its decisions based on fulfilling its mission, and its communications should be about the actions it’s taking to fulfill that,” said Myers Jaffe, who now runs Tufts University’s Climate Policy Lab. “It shouldn't be politicized.”

But much of the public messaging this year from the grid operator has had to be approved by a governor who’s running for reelection, according to people familiar with the matter.

“I think the challenge is now that it would be very hard for the ERCOT communications office to do something that isn't viewed as political,” Cramton said.

As November turned to December, Abbott’s team asked the Association of Electric Companies of Texas to put out a “positive” statement about the power grid’s readiness for winter, according to four people in the energy industry familiar with the request. AECT, a major industry trade group, was its public face in the aftermath of the storm, testifying before lawmakers and lobbying on behalf of major power companies.

On Dec. 8, the same day as Lake and Jones’ news conference, AECT released its statement. The message stopped short of making definitive claims about the lights staying on this winter but did go into detail about preparations power plants and transmission and distribution facilities have made. It also thanked “Texas leaders and the Legislature for their efforts during the past session to strengthen the resilience of the grid, as well as AECT’s member companies for their efforts to prepare for this winter for the benefit of Texas consumers.”

After public promise, Abbott met with energy CEOs

Nearly three weeks after promising the lights wouldn’t go out this winter — and after Lake echoed him in the December press conference — Abbott’s team arranged for several energy companies to meet with the governor in Austin. Energy companies and executives meeting with the Texas governor is not uncommon, but the timing was curious to some companies involved, as well as to power grid officials and political scientists.

The mid-December meetings included large energy companies Calpine, Kinder Morgan, NRG, Vistra and Energy Transfer Partners — whose CEO, Kelcy Warren, gave $1.1 million to Abbott immediately after this year’s regular legislative session.

The executives and others involved in the meetings told the Tribune that the opportunity to sit down with the governor was important as the energy industry and state leaders try to assure Texans wary of winter that the power will stay on this year.

Abbott asked the energy CEOs detailed questions about their expectations for the coming months, their companies’ readiness for winter and whether the CEOs feel ready for another severe winter storm, according to people in the meetings.

“It was literally, like: ‘If we have another (Winter Storm) Uri, are y’all going to be ready?’” said a person involved in one of the meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Tell me why, what is different?’”

The person added: “He was really in fact-finding mode. He didn't say: ‘You guys better be ready.’ It was: ‘I want to know if your company is ready and, if so, I want to know why.’”

Companies that spoke to the Tribune said they laid out to the governor how they had been preparing their facilities for winter.

Calpine CEO Thad Hill said in a written statement that the governor “was doing his direct due diligence ensuring the grid would be reliable this winter.” NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez welcomed the opportunity “to highlight our companywide winter-readiness efforts to meet the energy needs of our growing state,” NRG said in a statement.

Vistra CEO Curt Morgan, who has criticized the state’s natural gas producers for not adequately preparing for extreme winter weather, told Abbott that Vistra “has invested more than $50 million to further harden its power generation fleet in Texas, focused on learnings from Winter Storm Uri,” Vistra said in a statement.

Still, some wondered why Abbott didn’t gather information from the energy CEOs before promising the lights would stay on during the next winter storm.

“If it were truly about executive leadership and government transparency, then you wouldn't get what almost amounts to a slogan: ‘I guarantee,’” Martin said. “You’d get a meaningful articulation of what's behind the guarantee.”

Disclosure: The Association of Electric Companies of Texas (AECT), Calpine and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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