As last week’s statewide power and water outages come under scrutiny, let’s hope elected officials in Texas set aside partisan politics and legislate stricter standards and regulations for protecting the state’s energy grid against extreme weather events.
There’s something about leaving people to freeze in their homes without running water for days on end that transcends political party affiliation.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) makes for an obvious target, as it should, but a closer look should put plenty of blame on the governor’s office, the Texas Legislature, and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. Elected officials and their agency appointees and hires hold oversight and regulatory power and decide where the state invests tax dollars.
Deregulation has been a mantra in the Republican Party for decades, extending unwisely to critical infrastructure and services. Now members of the same party that ignored previous efforts to safeguard the state’s power plants and delivery systems against extreme winter weather are calling for investigations and legislative action to fund the winterization of energy assets.
Let’s hope the clamor and commitment do not melt away again with warmer temperatures. Extreme weather events in 1989 and 2011 led to similar calls, but the culture of deregulation proved stronger than lessons learned from those storms.
People here are angry with local leaders at CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System, with many in the city this Sunday morning still waiting for a resumption in water and sewer service. How CPS Energy initiated and managed rolling blackouts that at times did not seem so rolling merits serious scrutiny, as does its decision to cut off power to SAWs pumping stations. Was it done equitably, and how will utility officials do it differently next time? Did SAWS officials resist the pumping station shutdowns, or even know about the decision in advance? These reviews should be exercises in open government.
A key takeaway for me is that those who oppose the eventual closure of coal plants and those demanding a Green New Deal now represent two unrealistic positions. In that regard, retired USAA executive and CPS Energy trustee Ed Kelley deserves an “I told you so” moment this week, though he politely refrained in an interview from playing that card.
Activists see Kelley as a cranky octogenarian, the board member most resistant to calls for accelerated closure of CPS Energy’s coal and gas plants. The failed petition drive to turn CPS Energy, the country’s largest municipal utility, into a department of City government, would have “decapitated” CPS leadership, in the word of one of the petition drive organizers, and ousted Kelley and his fellow trustees.
I’ve known Kelley for several decades now and see him as a trusted elder statesman, someone worth a closer listen. We’ve had our policy disagreements over the years, always civil, but I have never doubted his leadership or commitment to public service.
Like Kelley, I saw little value in the activists’ arbitrary closure date of 2030 for CPS Energy coal plants when no one yet knows how quickly San Antonio and the rest of the world can achieve carbon neutrality. Yes, we need to wean ourselves from coal and reduce gas consumption, but we also need to power the world’s biggest economy, avoid future calamities like the one that struck Texas last week, and acknowledge the many good jobs that exist in the energy sector.
The 2015 Paris Agreement, which the Biden administration officially rejoined Friday, sets a 2050 date for nations to achieve carbon neutrality. What data is there to suggest CPS Energy can close coal plants two full decades ahead of that date and maintain a high level of reliability in all weather conditions?
“This was a perfect storm,” Kelley said in an interview last week. “I am not going to use the situation to bash my friends in the environmental groups, but this kind of extreme weather occurrence is exactly why we need a reliable mix of energy sources just like we have at CPS Energy. People who want to shut down coal, do away with natural gas, get rid of nuclear, and rely just on solar and wind, we’d be freezing to death right now.
“CPS Energy is San Antonio’s crown jewel,” Kelley added. “I consider myself a rational environmentalist. I have children and grandchildren, so I care very much about the world we leave them. I am all for moving to renewable sources of energy, and that is exactly what CEO Paula Gold-Williams and her excellent leadership team at CPS Energy are doing in a rational, well-planned manner. … People who keep hammering us at every meeting, demanding we speed things up, are not being realistic, and they are doing a disservice by attacking the leadership.”
CPS Energy faces operational, financial, and public relations challenges in the wake of the power outages, but it would be wrong to place principal blame on the utility. The real fault lies with ERCOT, governed by a board of directors heavy on energy-producing insiders and light on independent oversight, and those charged with its oversight.
Had there been more responsible state regulation of ERCOT, the nuclear, natural gas, and wind generators that stopped working in subzero temperatures would have been properly weatherized and continued to operate just as they do in colder climates around the world. Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged as much last week, as he made energy grid reform an emergency item for legislative consideration.
For those who constantly look for reasons to attack solar and wind energy development, let’s be clear: nuclear, gas, and wind power all failed at some level. Contrary to what Abbott told Sean Hannity on his Fox News program, the failure of solar and wind turbines was not the reason for the grid’s failure. The fact he would even appear on a program so unapologetically dedicated to such baseless claims was a disservice to all Texans.
Had the state’s energy infrastructure been the target of greater investment, CPS Energy would not have been required to redirect so much of its energy generation away from its ratepayers to the state grid. San Antonio and Bexar County arguably would have weathered the storm last week with far fewer power outages and without SAWS pumping stations shutting down due to a lack of power.
“ERCOT is going to have to be held accountable,” Kelley said. “They are underinvested, and now people are paying the price. I do not blame CPS Energy for last week. I blame ERCOT.”
Gold-Williams and her leadership team at CPS Energy, and SAWS CEO Robert Puente and his team, need to find ways to better connect with the public in the kind of challenging environment where so many were cut off from broadcast outlets and the internet. Public confidence was seriously undermined in San Antonio last week. Like the power and water, it needs to be restored.
Scientists say extreme weather is probably here to stay. We can fare better the next time, but only if politics do not triumph over common sense yet again.