How a Winter Storm Tested Texas’ Go-It-Alone Attitude

How a Winter Storm Tested Texas’ Go-It-Alone AttitudeFebruary 19, 2021

EL PASO — More than 4 million people across Texas lost power on Monday in the middle of a deadly winter snowstorm. In Austin, my father-in-law spent hours desperately searching for a place to stay and a way to get there, before making it to the safety of a hotel with the help of a heroic Uber driver. Friends texted me stories about putting on all their clothes and huddling under covers with their kids, braving icy roads to get to a relative’s house where the lights were still on or making use of their formerly decorative fireplaces. They were the lucky ones.

Here, the lights were on, and that was how I learned that my new hometown, El Paso, is not just in a different time zone from the rest of Texas—it’s also on a different power grid. The winter storm hit this border town, too. But even as demand surged, there were sources to help fill the need, and the outages were relatively minor.

El Paso’s power lines are attached to the Western grid, which connects 14 states and parts of Canada and Mexico. The rest of Texas, however, is on its own grid—making it the only state that tries to manage its power independent from the rest of the United States. It was this energy grid that failed so catastrophically as people cranked up their heat while energy sources literally froze. The rest of the country experienced power outages too, but none as long-lasting or severe as in Texas—none that have turned into a humanitarian crisis. According to the operator of the Texas grid, the situation was so dire that the state avoided a months-long blackout by just a minute or two.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott blamed the grid’s managers—an independent nonprofit called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT—calling on Wednesday for the council’s leadership to resign. He and other Republican leaders here also pointed to the state’s frozen wind turbines and condemned the rise of clean energy—going as far as to target the Green New Deal, even though it’s a proposal, not federal law. (While the frozen turbines were a factor, natural gas wells, oil pipelines and coal-burning plants still dominate the Texas grid, and they froze, too.)

But another way to see it is that the problem was the Texas system itself. With a standalone grid, and no access to power plants elsewhere, Texas couldn’t draw power from other states and was forced to switch off power for whole swaths of the state to prevent permanent damage to the grid. The state also could have required energy producers to prepare better for the cold weather, as other states do, but that didn’t happen either.

Texans have long seen this independence as a point of pride. Texas’ independent grid was created a century ago in the image that Texans have of themselves: standalone, free from federal oversight and largely deregulated. But this week’s blackout has come as a rebuke to that idea—or, at least, highlighted the limits of Texas as a brash, go-it-alone state, big enough not to have to rely on the rest of America. For six days, people living in the energy capital of the world have been without electricity in freezing cold temperatures. About 200,000 Texans are still without power, but millions are now without water, too—with lowest-income households hit hardest.

“It’s tougher when you aren’t interconnected and not part of the mix,” says Pat Wood III, CEO of Dallas-based Hunt Energy Network and a former Texas and federal energy regulator. Wood, who was appointed to the Public Utility Commission of Texas by Governor George W. Bush, lost power for 36 straight hours in Houston before rolling blackouts kicked in on Tuesday. “At least you could recharge your stuff and cook dinner,” he says.

“I think a go-it-alone attitude within a republic of states is always a very tricky situation,” adds Carlos Kevin Blanton, head of the history department at Texas A&M University.

As politicians call for investigations and committee hearings—with ERCOT as the focal point—energy experts say the council’s leaders are being used as a scapegoat. ERCOT, which runs as a nonprofit with a board of directors, is overseen by the state Legislature and the state’s Public Utility Commission, whose members the governor appoints; all three of the commission’s current members are Abbott appointees. An investigation might turn up more details, and possibly some serious failures on ERCOT’s part, but it is state executives who ultimately make the decisions about the Texas energy grid.

“I always viewed ERCOT as the air traffic controllers and plumbing contractors for the state’s electric grid, but the policymakers are the legislators and the [public utility commission],” says Ray Sullivan, who served as chief of staff to former Governor Rick Perry and also worked for Bush. Sullivan says he doesn’t recall having a single meeting with ERCOT staff when he was working for Perry.

Texas took control of its grid in the 1930s after the Federal Power Act was passed to regulate interstate electricity sales. ERCOT was created in 1970 and took on more responsibility for managing the Texas grid over the following decades. The current structure of Texas’ energy system has its roots in the mid-1990s, when the state government moved to deregulate the energy market here. ERCOT at that point became the country’s first independent service operator. According to both Sullivan and Wood, Republicans and Democrats agreed back then on restructuring the state’s power industry and breaking up utility monopolies in an effort to make the market more competitive.

“It didn’t get that partisan,” Wood recalls. “Everybody agreed wholesale competition made sense.” A 1995 law required the state to study connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the country, but the resulting report recommended against it so the state could maintain access to cheaper power, according to Wood.

A series of reforms over the next few legislative sessions in the late 1990s and early 2000s—the regular session lasts only 140 days every other year—focused on keeping energy costs low, especially for industrial customers, and bringing in new power companies. The reforms helped to usher in new technology, like wind and solar energy, while helping to meet demand for the state’s burgeoning population—and keeping prices low.

ERCOT’s role was and is essentially as the intermediary, mostly acting as a broker between energy buyers and sellers. It was never tasked with deciding on the state’s overarching approach to energy policy; it just carries it out. While ERCOT does have to make sure the grid is reliable, it can’t force changes such as infrastructure upgrades.

The trade-off that Texas lawmakers and regulators have made over the years, says Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is focusing on cost over reliability. Some states like Georgia require operators to maintain energy reserves almost double what Texas requires. This costs energy companies more money, but it also ensures that a grid is more reliable. Treating turbines, natural gas wells, coal plants and nuclear plants so that they can withstand winter weather also costs money. The state government in Texas, which has no state income tax, has avoided budgeting funds to prepare the grid for winter, knowing that customers would have faced higher bills.

“There is always a balance between just going as far as you can and keeping the market affordable,” says Texas energy lobbyist Michael Jewell.

After a major winter storm knocked out power in Texas almost exactly a decade ago, federal regulators called on the state to fortify its grid against deep freezes. But the federal government had no authority to mandate such measures. Wood says this is typical of Texas’ approach to federal oversight. Even though the federal intervention was “relatively benign,” Texas still didn’t want to deal with it. “I just threw my hands up in the air,” he says.

Even at the height of the crisis this week, Rick Perry said Texans would rather go without power for days than deal with federal energy regulations. Never mind that Texas readily accepts federal help when disaster strikes: So far this week, Abbott has made at least two official requests to the White House for federal aid.

Instead, for decades, Texas has let power operators decide whether and how to prepare for extreme weather. For the most part, they do this. Texas generators focus on summer, planning for peak demand from air conditioning during 108-degree August days, which are all too common in most of the state. These companies plan for minor winter storms, too. ERCOT said last week that it was ready for this week’s storm. Of course, that turned out not to be true.

After the state was plunged into darkness, Abbott on Thursday asked the Legislature to mandate and find funding for the “winterization” of Texas’ power system. But beyond this step, state leaders are unlikely to fundamentally change the Texas energy grid, by subjecting it to more federal oversight or connecting it to the rest of the country. Some Texas Democrats have said the state should consider joining the national grid, and there is a debate about whether it would have made a difference, considering the whole country was struggling with power problems over the course of a frigid week.

But it’s unthinkable to Republicans governing the state, who still sell the idea of Texas’ independence. This is the state, after all, where a Republican state lawmaker recently filed a bill to pave the way for Texas to leave the United States—a long shot, but a powerful symbol.

Texas’ history as an independent country before it joined the United States in 1845 has become a part of its proud identity, says Blanton, the Texas A&M historian. The reality is that Texas was “ailing” with its finances, border security and other issues before it joined the rest of the country: “It was a failing state,” he says. Still, the state’s independent streak continued to cause friction with the federal government, not just over energy policy, but also civil and voting rights legislation.

When I asked Abbott’s office if the governor planned to take any other action after this week, a representative pointed to statements Abbott already had made calling for ERCOT’s leadership to resign and declaring ERCOT reform an “emergency item” in the current legislative session.

To avoid another disaster in a year or two or 10 will require something else as well from state leaders, power companies and ERCOT: a plan for climate change. Abbott’s call for winterization funding can be read as a tacit acknowledgement of climate change and the extreme weather it brings. But he and other Texas Republicans haven’t said so explicitly, and have fought efforts to curb climate change in the past.

“The weather is changing. Look at Harvey,” says Wood, referring to the devastating hurricane that hit the state in 2017. “These things aren’t just freakish things.”

John Hall, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund in Texas, adds that in his eight years working with state lawmakers, almost no leaders have acknowledged the state’s infrastructure vulnerabilities against climate change. “The critical threats to human life and our quality of life require this response,” he says.

This week’s storm hit El Paso before it made its way through the rest of Texas. If the roads aren’t icy, it’s a solid nine-hour drive from here to Austin, and sometimes it feels like El Pasoans are utterly disconnected from whatever is happening in the rest of the state. In this case, that turned out to be a blessing: We were still moored to the rest of the country and its energy, while Texas as a whole was on its own.

On Sunday morning, I peeked out the window to find snow gushing down into our yard. It looked like the white sky had touched down, too—we couldn’t see the Franklin Mountains or anything else in the near distance. The winter weather mesmerized my Texas-born toddlers, who loved staring out the window but couldn’t stand more than a few minutes in the cold. Later that morning, I thought we had briefly lost power when I couldn’t get our toaster oven to work. Turns out the socket just needed to be reset. When we woke up on Monday, snow was still on the ground and the weather was still below freezing, but our heater worked, our pipes hadn’t burst, and there was no need for disaster planning.

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