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Needlessly Reducing Supply Risks Another Power Grid Failure

Austin American-Statesman

After the Great Freeze of 2021, after a full legislative session, three special sessions, resignations from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and leadership turnover at the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the powers that be in Austin have still not learned the right lessons or taken sufficient steps to prevent a repeat of that unnecessary disaster.

As (then) ERCOT CEO Bill Magness testified earlier this year, the state’s power grid was “less than five minutes” away from a total grid failure that would have meant blackouts lasting weeks or months in a historically catastrophic failure. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse.

The Legislature’s solution, Senate Bill 3, requires electric generators, natural gas facilities and pipelines to weatherize their plants to ensure they can handle extreme weather, with a fine of $1 million per day for plants in violation. The bill signing was celebrated.

But several days after Governor Abbott signed SB 3 into law, ERCOT asked Texans to conserve energy due to the combination of several power plants being offline for repairs and a period of extreme heat.

Other than the tragic death of over 200 Texans and enormous property damage, another disheartening feature of the freeze was the rush of politicians to force their preferred narratives onto the disaster. 

Many were quick to blame renewables for dropping the ball. But this rush to spin and score political points was undermined by the embarrassing revelation that a nearly a third of power plant failures were due to an inability of natural gas plants to get fuel.

Attempts to blame renewables also overlooks that ERCOT’s grid forecasts did not heavily rely on renewable energy to meet electricity needs in February. Texas’ policy choices recognize that while wind and solar make sense here, for the near future they cannot support the bulk of Texas’ energy demands. Most of Texas’ electricity comes from so-called thermal plants (coal, natural gas, and nuclear), which is why widespread outages at those plants were so devastating. 

But blaming renewables is both factually wrong and establishes a wrong narrative that leads to wrong or at least incomplete solutions.

Because the Texas grid is largely unconnected to other regional grids, it is doubly important that Texas has an abundant portfolio of energy sources to ensure adequate supply.

And while SB 3 will help in extreme situations, our state needs to focus more directly on ensuring an abundance of electrical generation and increasing that supply to meet growing demand and a growing population. The solution is more of everything—gas, wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, and other new and innovative technologies like mass battery storage.

The good news is that there is new generation in the works, mostly focused on renewables. But we need new gas plants as well in order to have a diversified portfolio of generation to meet seasonal circumstances. Improved management by ERCOT, streamlined permitting processes and reasonable incentives to invest will likely increase generation and improve coordination among generators.

The worst thing we could is reduce supply. The wrong lesson to take from the freeze is that we need fewer renewables, and the wrong solution is to punish renewables. It’s a policy misjudgment to pit one energy source for electrical generation against another. Defending fossil fuels doesn’t require trashing renewables, or vice versa. An “all of the above” strategy for generation and distribution is required. No policy should be designed to take a single megawatt of generating capacity out of the marketplace, regardless of technology.

Our current abundance in fossil fuels was driven by innovation, and policy should encourage continued innovation in all forms of energy generation. We need more of everything to ensure Texas’ continued economic leadership going forward.