They called Winter Storm Uri a “green swan” – an extraordinarily rare weather event that has far reaching consequences.
We hope Texas is spared from another green swan event because we are skeptical that the state’s power grid has been sufficiently bolstered to withstand one.
Last February’s arctic blast that gripped Texas for four days certainly earned the green swan distinction. Temperatures plunged below zero and wreaked havoc on the Texas electrical grid, knocking out power to millions for prolonged periods as ERCOT (the state’s grid operator) scrambled to prevent a cataclysmic failure of the state’s entire electrical power system.
Still, the green swan left millions of Texans without power, many for days. The number of storm deaths from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning is estimated at between 100 and 700 people. The Texas Comptroller’s Office pegged the storm’s negative economic impact on Texas at between $80 billion and $130 billion.
In the aftermath, members of ERCOT’s board were sacked or resigned, and a reconstituted ERCOT is now calling the shots. Rightly so, the Legislature took up the issue of grid reliability and produced two bills (SB 2 and SB 3) aimed at preventing future failures. During a signing ceremony in June, Gov. Greg Abbott declared, "The Legislature passed comprehensive reforms to fix all of the flaws that led to the power failure."
The ink on Abbott’s signature was barely dry when industry experts began to weigh in. Yes, the Legislature had come up with some good, common sense measures to address grid reliability. But according to a number of experts, lawmakers failed to address a suite of circumstances that factored into the great winter blackout, chief among them are requirements for natural gas facilities to weatherize their equipment so as to withstand another green swan event.
The Legislature left it to the Texas Railroad Commission – an agency notorious for its cozy relationship with the state’s oil and gas sector – to oversee weatherization of natural gas facilities. Natural gas fuels many of the state’s power plants. Under the new rules, only gas facilities that voluntarily designate themselves as critical infrastructure are required to weatherize for extraordinary cold, and lawmakers failed to establish deadlines for when weatherization must be completed.
The Legislature also established a new 25-member body called the Texas Energy Reliability Council (TERC), whose role is to foster communication and planning to ensure that the state’s energy and electricity needs are met. Membership comprises energy, environmental and electricity regulators as well as five participants from industry, including natural gas and electricity. They were appointed by state regulating agencies, including the Railroad Commission.
We learn from The Texas Tribune that in August, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, an influential advocate for the oil and gas industry, sent to Wei Wang, executive director of the Railroad Commission, a list of people to consider for appointment to the council. Lo and behold, the association’s top four choices were confirmed to TERC by regulators.
Despite this week’s pronouncement from Public Utilities Commission of Texas Chairman Peter Lake that “the lights will stay on this winter,” we remain skeptical that all the flaws in the electrical grid are fixed.
ERCOT itself in November issued a report warning that Texas is still not prepared to handle a weather event similar to Winter Storm Uri. The agency calculates that the power grid remains vulnerable to the same sort of pressures exerted by Uri.
We urge the state’s regulatory bodies and elected leaders to revisit the issue of electric reliability in Texas – and to do so soon. Meanwhile, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that green swans don’t make a return visit.