How the Texas Legislature could reform the state’s power grid this session

FILE - This Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, file photo shows power lines in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
FILE - This Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, file photo shows power lines in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

State lawmakers are close to passing sweeping legislation to overhaul the state’s power grid following the disastrous and deadly winter storm in February that left more than 4.8 million homes and businesses without electricity for days. More than 100 people died.

As time runs out in the legislative session, the Texas House and Senate will need to hammer out differences between the two chambers’ power grid proposals and quickly move the legislation in the coming days. The Tribune will update this post until the session ends.

Weatherizing the grid: Power plants may be required to make upgrades

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

Texas may soon approve a bill to require power generation companies to better prepare their facilities to withstand extreme weather.

The requirement for power generators and transmission lines to “weatherize” has broad support in both the House and Senate for inclusion in Senate Bill 3, a sweeping piece of legislation that attempts to overhaul the state’s power grid laws.

However, lawmakers are still debating whether natural gas facilities and pipelines will also be required to make such upgrades. The House added such requirements, and the measure is headed to a conference committee to iron out the differences unless the Senate accepts the change.

The House also advanced a $2 billion plan to help companies pay for the upgrades, but the bill to create the fund for the low-cost loans and grants stalled in the Senate.

The power grid overhaul may also ultimately leave out reforms to encourage residents and businesses to conserve electricity; a House amendment to require regulators to perform a cost benefit analysis on energy efficiency programs was withdrawn.

The legislation also does not require more weatherization for homes, pipes and other consumer infrastructure — experts called that a significant oversight during hearings on the legislation.

Critical Infrastructure: State could help fund backup power for facilities like dialysis centers

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

Texas could help fund backup power generation for critical water, health care and electric facilities under the House’s current version of Senate Bill 3, a sweeping piece of legislation that overhauls the state’s power grid laws.

During the winter storm, hundreds of public water systems in Texas were disrupted and millions of people lost access to safe drinking water. The loss of electricity at nursing homes and dialysis centers created life-threatening conditions for patients. More than 1,400 people sought care at emergency rooms and urgent care clinics for carbon monoxide poisoning and at least 11 people died.

A House amendment to SB 3 would create a grant program for projects that improve the resiliency of water, electric and health care infrastructure. Texas does not require carbon monoxide alarms in homes, and there is currently no proposal advancing in either body to do so.

Under the House’s version of the bill, natural gas companies would be required to register facilities that supply critical power plants with fuel to register as “critical infrastructure” so that electricity isn’t disconnected during an emergency; many failed to do the registration paperwork and as a result, some power plants couldn’t get the fuel they needed to produce electricity.

The measures are likely headed for a conference committee, where senators and representatives will iron out the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill, unless the Senate accepts the House amendment.

Paying for the storm: Utilities and electric cooperatives could seek billions in ratepayer-backed bonds

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

Most Texans will likely have an extra charge on their power bills for years to come to cover gas utility and electric companies’ financial losses from the storm and prevent customers from having to pay huge one-time bills.

Lawmakers are close to passing bills that would allow companies to seek billions of dollars in state-approved bonds backed by charges on customers’ bills to stabilize the state’s distressed energy market.

After state electricity regulators set power prices at the maximum rate, $9,000 per megawatt-hour, and natural gas fuel prices spiked during the storm, many companies — especially natural gas utilities and rural electric cooperatives — were financially wrecked. Others owe massive debts to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

Lawmakers may soon approve around $4.5 billion in ratepayer-backed bonds for natural gas utilities and another $2 billion in such bonds for electric cooperatives.

The House and Senate are still debating whether to extend such relief to retail electric providers, whose customers that are on variable rate plans — such as schools, commercial real estate companies and small businesses — have received massive bills for power during February. Also, lawmakers are still discussing a proposal to loan ERCOT $800 million from the state’s economic stabilization fund, known as the rainy day fund, to pay for debts owed to the grid operator.

Emergency alerts: Texans could be notified of future power outages

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

In the days leading up to February’s winter storm, Texans were not warned about the prospect of widespread power outages lasting for days in freezing temperatures. At least 4.8 million homes and businesses lost power and didn’t know when it would return.

While power was out, the Texas Division of Emergency Management didn’t provide accessible and life-saving updates on outages and inclement weather.

Now, Texas lawmakers are moving to study and implement an emergency alert system similar to an amber alert — an emergency message sent to people’s cellphones when a law enforcement agency determines that a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger.

While the House and Senate still need to hash out their differences on several components of SB 3, there is broad support among lawmakers to create an emergency alert system for future power outages. It’s unclear when the alert system would be implemented.

Energy regulators: Governing boards to change

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

Lawmakers are close to changing the governance of the state’s main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Senate Bill 2 would require the five experts on the 16-person board of directors for Texas’ main grid operator to be approved by both the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, and by a majority of the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.

Politicians previously have not had such direct involvement in choosing the ERCOT board, whose members are currently selected in a variety of ways; some are chosen by ERCOT’s own nominating committee while others are appointed by companies and consumers participating in the electricity market, with members representing various power sources.

Under the House version of the bill, the governor would appoint the chair of the ERCOT board, who must reside in Texas.

This is a departure from the upper chamber’s version, which would have given the governor the sole authority to appoint the five experts on the ERCOT board — a change energy experts said would do little to improve the power grid.

Lawmakers are also close to increasing the number of seats on the Public Utility Commission under Senate Bill 2154. The two chambers need to hash out their differences in a conference committee, but the latest legislation would increase the number of PUC board members from three to five. The governor would continue to appoint PUC board members and they would need Senate approval.

All three board members of the PUC resigned after the storm.

Renewables under attack: House’s proposal doesn’t target clean energy

May 26, 2021 at 8:20 p.m.

Unlike the Senate’s version of Senate Bill 3, the sweeping legislation to reform the power grid, the Texas House proposal would not require renewable energy companies to cover the costs of purchasing reserve power for the grid.

Renewable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, have been under attack by some Texas Republicans since the storm occurred; many incorrectly said clean energy sources were the primary cause of the widespread power outages.

The amended legislation would require state regulators to review whether there is enough reserve power available and if additional reserves from non-renewable sources are necessary.