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Officials In Charge Of Texas' Power Grid Try To Reassure Lawmakers They're Fixing Problems

The silhouettes of two people can be seen against a backdrop of large monitors showing graphs, maps, and various data about the Texas power grid.
Julia Robinson
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) command center in Taylor. ERCOT's interim president appeared before a Senate committee on Tuesday to discuss efforts to improve the state's electrical grid.

Lawmakers cannot pass laws to improve Texas’ power grid during the special legislative session. They’re discussing it anyway.

Gov. Greg Abbott did not include improving Texas’ main power grid in his 11-item agenda for the special legislative session that began earlier this month, so lawmakers cannot pass new grid-related laws.

That didn’t stop a Senate committee from calling the state’s top electricity and utility regulators to the Capitol Tuesday morning to discuss the state of the power grid following unexpected power plant outages in June, lingering issues with the state’s energy infrastructure from February’s deadly winter storm and plans to implement legislation that lawmakers approved in the spring during the regular legislative session.

Tuesday’s hearing was more of a status update on the power grid, but it was the first public opportunity for lawmakers to question the grid operator’s interim president, Brad Jones, and the three-member board of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees Jones and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. All four regulators replaced officials ousted after the winter storm that crippled the grid for days during subfreezing weather.

“It’s a shame the public doesn’t have confidence in the system,” state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, told Jones.

Other senators questioned why in June, two weeks after the regular legislative session ended, some Texas power plants unexpectedly went offline, spurring ERCOT to ask Texans to set thermostats higher during a heat wave to conserve energy.

Jones said the June power crunch was caused by issues stemming from the February freeze.
“We’re seeing those problems show themselves today,” Jones said. He did not elaborate.

Energy experts have raised concerns about the state’s aging energy infrastructure following the February storm, and state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, questioned the grid officials about those concerns. Jones acknowledged the problem, adding that the state hasn’t “invested enough in part of our generation fleet.”

On Tuesday, Jones released a 60-point plan aimed at building lawmakers’ and the public’s confidence in the power grid’s reliability.

Some key points in the plan include requiring CEOs of energy companies to sign a letter that their equipment is prepared to withstand inclement weather, incentivizing power plant operators to store reserve fuel onsite in case of emergencies and re-writing ERCOT’s external communications materials to better inform the public about the state of Texas’ power supply.

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

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said some of the fault lies with state lawmakers, who have failed over the last decade to implement meaningful grid-related improvements following a severe winter storm in 2011 that highlighted that power companies and natural gas producers hadn’t properly prepared their facilities for cold weather.

“There are many things that are on us,” Creighton said.

Creighton added that it may take the PUC and ERCOT months or years to implement some of the changes lawmakers approved in the spring, such as requiring power plants to protect critical infrastructure from extreme weather.

When lawmakers reconvene for another special session in the fall, some are hoping grid-related issues will be on the agenda.

“It should be included in the next special session,” said Tom Smith, longtime former director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.