Analysis: Texas’ electric grid is half-ready for another winter freeze

A man walks home with groceries in McKinney on Feb. 15, 2021, the winter storms second day of snow and freezing temperatures throughout Texas. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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You never hear politicians promise that hurricanes and tornadoes won’t hurt you, that you won’t get wet (or flooded) when it rains, that protracted heat waves won’t endanger anyone or that urban fires are no threat during droughts.

That would be nuts.

But after the storm that left Texans across the state freezing in the dark last February, the state’s leaders are promising now that the winter just ahead of us won’t cause any electric blackouts.

The odds are probably in their favor. Freezes like the one this year are rare, and freezes that cover the entire state are rarer still.

But making a promise that nobody is going to have a power failure is a big bet, and an unnecessary one. It would probably be enough to say, for political purposes, that they’ve taken steps to protect the state’s electric grid if the weather repeats itself.

While Texas Democrats aren’t openly hoping for a freeze or a power failure, that sort of disaster would be helpful to their political chances in a year when circumstances favor the Republicans. Democrats still want to turn Texas blue — their 2020 election slogan — but turning Texans blue to get there could be a smidge too literal for the liberals.

The guarantee that the lights will stay on started with Gov. Greg Abbott, and has now filtered down to the regulators he installed after the last freeze.

“I can guarantee the lights will stay on,” Abbott told Austin’s Fox 7 News last month. He said he was confident because of the laws put in place in response to the February freeze. This week, Peter Lake, the chair of the state’s Public Utility Commission, echoed his patron.

“The ERCOT grid is stronger and more reliable than ever,” said Lake, who was appointed to the PUC — the state’s electric utilities regulator — in April. “We are going into the winter knowing that the lights will stay on.”

One difference between now and this time last year is that state regulators and the main players in the electric grid — the companies that generate, transmit and distribute electricity and the companies that supply electric plants with fuel — know just how wrong things can go.

So do the state’s politicians, who set up the current regulatory framework and whose standing with voters could hinge on whether the state’s homes are lighted and heated when it gets cold outside.

New laws and rules require electric generators to prepare their facilities for the cold, taking a precaution that was recommended but not heeded after winter blackouts in 2011.

The natural gas companies that provide most of the fuel for those plants during winter months aren’t yet being held to the same standard. The Texas Railroad Commission regulates them, and state lawmakers didn’t require winterization of those suppliers. They and the electric generators are powerful and influential, but the electrics suffered most of the blame for the blackouts, and the Texas Legislature was more lenient with the gas suppliers. They have another year before they have to worry about winterization requirements, and then only after a new committee makes recommendations.

That’s on the other side of the coming winter. Natural gas lobbyists say the best protection against winter weather is keeping their electricity on. That’s half of what is supposed to be a kind of virtuous cycle, where electric companies heat the gas providers who supply the electric companies. Last February, it was often a vicious cycle: Gas companies that weren’t identified as essential customers lost power, froze up and stopped sending the needed fuel to the electric companies.

Texas blacked out. Nearly everyone was miserable, and hundreds of Texans died.

The long-range weather forecasts this year are better than they were 12 months ago. Meteorologists — who, unlike politicians, don’t make promises about what’s going to happen two or three months from now — say a storm like the last one is less likely this winter.

Texas legislators did put some new safeguards in place this year, mostly aimed at the electric companies. Before Abbott and the regulators were promising a warm and well-lighted winter, lawmakers gave gas providers more time, gambling that Texas wouldn’t get another storm like the last one — at least, not right away.

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