AUSTIN, Texas – Despite experts who say Texas’ power grid remains vulnerable, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott declared Tuesday that new reforms “fix all of the flaws” that caused February’s deadly winter blackout that left more than 4 million people without power in subfreezing weather.
He was joined by Republicans who defended it as a good deal for consumers, even though they gave no direct financial relief to families who were stuck with high energy bills or lost income as the lights and heat stayed off for days.
Signing into law two sweeping overhauls in response to one of the largest power outages in U.S. history, Abbott asserted that he and the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature had delivered following one of the worst crises in his six years as governor. But even members of his own party say there is work still to be done.
More than 4 million people lost power when temperatures plunged into single digits over Valentine Day's weekend, icing power generators and buckling the state's electric grid. State officials say they have confirmed at least 151 deaths blamed on the freeze and resulting outages, but the real toll is believed to be higher.
“The legislature passed comprehensive reforms to fix all of the flaws that led to the power failure,” Abbott said. He went on to add, “Bottom line is that everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
Energy experts disagree, saying that although lawmakers made significant changes that include mandates to “weatherize” power plants for extreme temperatures and new processes to avert communication failures, the reforms do not go far enough to assure a similar catastrophe won't happen again in one of America's most booming states.
Among the criticisms are Texas leaving enforcement and key decisions over which parts of the state's oil and gas industry must now weatherize — and which don't — to regulators who have long been accused of being too lax with operators. And last week, five former Texas regulators issued a report that said safeguarding the grid requires going beyond the bills signed by Abbott, including acknowledging the realities of climate change — a topic GOP lawmakers didn't dwell on.
The reforms also provide no direct financial relief to consumers. One proposal that called for giving residents a one-time credit of $350 did not make it into the final bill.
Some residents saw huge electric bills as wholesale prices soared during the blackout —- $9,000 per megawatt hour — and others lost income because they couldn't get to their job or their work was shut down due to no power. Asked why there was no direct financial assistance in the reforms, Republican state Rep. Kelly Hancock said there was in the form of sparing residents from high charges to their electric bills to pay off debts by utilities, spreading it over decades instead.
Hancock also said 98% of Texas customers were on fixed-rate plans that didn't see prices go up during the storm and that they could shop for cheaper plans once their contracts are up. But Doug Lewin, an energy consultant in Austin, said there is no guarantee electric rates offered to consumers will be cheaper going forward.
“If I tell you, 'Here's a car for $20,000 but you can spread the payments over six years,' that's not the same as the car dealer saying I'll take $3,000 off the cost," Lewin said.
Other changes include an overhaul of the governing board of Texas' power grid and a new emergency alert system.
Republican state Rep. Chris Paddie, a chief architect of the reforms, said he was confident gas suppliers would comply with new weatherization mandates. He also pushed back on criticism that lawmakers went easy on Texas' powerful oil and gas industry, which he said pushed back on the requirements.
“I wish you would go tell them that,” Paddie said.