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A year after the electric grid failed, Texas focuses on reliability, not climate change

Wind turbines in Central Texas on March 25, 2021. As state leaders push to make the state's power grid more reliable, there hasn't been an equal push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the Texas power sector.
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
Wind turbines in Central Texas on March 25, 2021. As state leaders push to make the state's power grid more reliable, there hasn't been an equal push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the Texas power sector.

Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said he lost power for several days during last February’s winter storm. When he got power back, he lost water for a week.

“I still have a big hole in my drywall where the water blew out,” Lake said. “I have a very acute sense of how important this problem is.”

One year ago, when the state’s electric grid failed under the stress of extended freezing weather, Lake was the chair of the Texas Water Development Board, the state agency charged with securing and planning for the state’s water supplies. Gov. Greg Abbott tapped him to lead the Public Utility Commission in April, after the former chair resigned.

In an interview at the agency’s Austin office, Lake said he wants Texans to know that his agency — which regulates the electricity industry and oversees the state’s grid operator — realizes that the mission is critical. His No. 1 priority? “Reliability,” he said. “The lights are going to stay on.”

While the Texas Legislature and electricity regulators spent the better part of a year writing and implementing new policies in hopes of fortifying the power grid to withstand another winter storm, energy and climate experts say reliability also hinges on the Texas grid’s ability to adapt to and help prevent climate change by cutting carbon emissions in a key segment of the economy. Climate and energy experts agree that to get the nation to what’s known as “net zero” — the point at which no more planet-warming gases are emitted than are taken out of the atmosphere — the nation’s electricity infrastructure must dramatically expand and transition to fuel sources that emit few or zero greenhouse gases.

But the grid in one of the country’s most populous states — and its biggest energy-producing state — is far behind where it needs to be to help the nation reduce those emissions and achieve net zero in the next three decades. According to a November Princeton University study, without any change to current policies, Texas may have only a fifth of the solar capacity that it would need to help meet the nation’s net zero goal by 2050 and little over a third of the necessary wind capacity.

The winter storm put unprecedented public attention on the state’s grid and sparked a flurry of legislation by state lawmakers. But experts on energy politics as well as some Democratic lawmakers say they squandered a unique opportunity to use grid reforms to boost the use of clean energy in Texas.

“Instead of moving in the direction of encouraging and incentivizing renewable, clean energy, we're seeing just the opposite,” said state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin, who supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions and sat on the House environmental regulation committee during the last legislative session. “The emphasis is on anything but renewable energy.”

Many Texas Republicans, meanwhile, have argued that adding too much renewable energy to the grid too fast will make it unreliable or that relying heavily on Texas-produced natural gas is simply better for the state economy. As Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park said on the House floor in early April — while advocating for a failed amendment that would have eliminated wind and solar energy jobs from a veterans jobs program — “Oil and gas is king in Texas.”

That’s an about-face from what happened during the last major reform of the grid in 1999, when Texas lawmakers approved laws that successfully kick-started the state’s wind energy industry. Texas is now the top wind-producing state in the country.

This time, though, the renewable energy industry found itself on the defensive during a heated partisan battle over legislation to prevent another collapse of the power grid. In July, Abbott directed electricity regulators to incentivize companies to build more natural gas, coal and nuclear power generation for the grid.

Jeff Clark, president of the Advanced Power Alliance, an Austin-based lobbying group for the wind, solar and energy storage industries, said that even as some traditional energy companies invest in new technologies to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s clear from the recent political attacks on renewables that state leaders want to stall a transition to cleaner energy sources.

“There are still companies out there — and they are still politically very powerful and politically very generous — that don’t want to change,” Clark said. “They want to do what we’ve always done, make money the way we’ve always made money for as long as possible.”

Lake, the PUC chair, argues that it’s not his agency’s job to determine what types of fuel power the state grid. He said the government should take a neutral approach toward each fuel source and let the free market work. Lake added that renewable energy has continued to gain market share in Texas without further government intervention.

Lake said the governor and the Texas Legislature have charged his agency with ensuring the grid’s reliability.

“That’s what we’re focused on,” Lake said. “They told us to keep the lights on, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Renewable energy enthusiasm dies

When Texas deregulated its electricity grid and transitioned to a market-based system in 1999 — part of a nationwide trend to lower energy costs by moving away from the monopolies that dominated electricity utilities — state leaders included bipartisan renewable energy-friendly policies that kicked off Texas’ wind energy industry.

With a Democrat-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican governor, the Legislature imposed a renewable energy target, requiring the market to provide a certain amount of renewable energy by a set date. Old coal plants were ordered to cut pollution. A few years later, Texas invested billions of dollars in infrastructure to support building more wind farms.

Over the next decade, wind energy grew rapidly in predominantly rural areas of the state. Wind now accounts for more than a quarter of the state’s potential electricity production.

Solar power didn’t get the same enthusiasm from Texas lawmakers at the time — and hasn’t since. Leah Stokes, an associate professor at University of California Santa Barbara who has studied the history of state-level renewable energy policies, said some Texas Republicans turned against renewables as wind energy grew and interest groups representing coal and natural gas power producers began to fight against state support for renewables.

At the same time, Republicans were turning electoral victories into complete control of state government.

“The difference is that Democrats controlled one of the chambers in the ’90s,” Stokes said. “There was a negotiation landscape. It wasn’t all controlled by one party and the oil and gas industry.”

A decade after boosting the wind industry, the Legislature considered more than 50 bills to accelerate solar energy production in 2009, including what would’ve been a $500 million appropriation for solar rebates and new requirements for the state grid to add solar energy, but lawmakers ultimately let those bills die.

Just more than a decade later, efforts to pass bills that aid renewable energy development hardly gain traction. One bill that would have expedited projects that improve the grid’s ability to transmit power from rural areas, where wind and solar are largely produced, to the major cities where it’s consumed didn’t receive a hearing in the Senate last year. And while some Republicans attacked renewables as too unreliable — Abbott initially blamed the grid’s failure on renewables before later backtracking — Democrats largely refrained from talking about carbon reductions on the power grid at all.

“[Democrats] certainly want to encourage wind and solar, but when the message from the governor is that it was wind and solar’s fault that we had the catastrophe that we had, we just know that conversation is not going anywhere,” Goodwin said.

But despite the lack of state support, renewables are still growing in Texas. Power capacity in Texas from small solar systems, such as residential and commercial solar panels, grew by 63% in 2020 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But Stokes said that growth may have more to do with pro-renewable energy policies adopted by states like California that made solar cheaper nationwide. California lawmakers required electricity providers to obtain a third of the power they sell from renewable sources and created several consumer incentives to encourage rooftop solar installations. Construction costs for solar panels have also fallen dramatically in recent years.

“[California] brought down the cost for the rest of the country, including Texas,” Stokes said. “Texas is, in a certain sense, free-riding off the requirements and policies of other states.”

“We just require reliability”

If climate change does not slow, scientists agree that the severe weather that’s already straining the Texas grid is likely to become worse: Climate scientists project increased frequency and severity of droughts, stronger hurricanes and rising overall temperatures, among other effects in Texas.

Emerging science also suggests that climate change may swing cold air much farther south than it might have previously, contributing to severe and long-lasting cold snaps such as last year’s winter storm.

That means the grid will need to simultaneously adapt so it can operate under more extreme weather conditions while also helping to slow climate change. As the nation seeks to cut emissions by electrifying cars, buses, buildings and more, the power grid becomes even more critical.

“The sad tyranny of the world that we built for ourselves is that our tolerance for risk when it comes to the electric grid is extraordinarily low and getting lower every day,” said James Robb, the president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.

Historically, power grids have built in a buffer between the maximum power available and the estimated maximum demand during the hottest and coldest days of the year.

Renewable energy complicates that old way of planning: The wind doesn’t blow constantly, the sun sets or clouds block its rays and there aren’t yet widespread technologies in Texas to store the energy for when it’s most needed. That makes the grid enormously dependent on natural gas-fired power plants, experts said, and requires more diligent and detailed planning by grid operators.

But for some Republicans, that dynamic is evidence of the “dangers” of relying too heavily on renewable energy. “The issue isn’t the existence of renewable energy, but that it has displaced reliable generation,” Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian wrote in a newsletter to supporters last February.

Still, natural gas-fired power plants also struggled to perform during the frigid temperatures of last February’s storm and many didn’t have enough fuel due to supply chain problems. Electricity regulators recently introduced rules to require those plants to better prepare for extreme weather in the future.

Lake, the PUC chair, said the agency has analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each power generation source in order to better balance all of them so the grid doesn’t fail again.

“We just require reliability,” Lake said. “From there, the market chooses the best, most economic technology.”

Yet Stokes, the University of California professor, argues that leaving it to the market won’t solve the bigger problem that’s threatening the grid’s reliability.

“The fundamental problem is climate change,” Stokes said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t adapt, but if we don’t cut carbon pollution, we’re going to keep having the same problem. If anything, it’s going to get worse.”