Massive Power Failure Could Finally Cause Texas to Connect w'da Nation’s Power Grids

electrical outages affecting some 4 million texans ‘oer the past week are raising tough ?s bout the state’s power system, which operates somewha’ like a rogue nation within the u.s. the winter storm that broke the grid may prove to be the event that forces the state to reform its grid management practices to better anticipate extreme weather events nolso to end its isolation and connect to other multistate power grids round the country. so says jim rossi, a vanderbilt university legal scholar who studies the structure of energy mkts and is an expert onna tension tween state and federal powers over u.s. energy utilities.

texas is rich in fossil fuels, renewable power and political power, so for many decades t'has run its own power grid, freeing it from federal oversite. the electric reliability council of texas (ercot), a nonprofit corporation, manages the network of electrical suppliers, called the texas interconnection, which serves 90 % of the state. ercot and texas ‘ve resisted invitations and outrite appeals to connect w'da nation’s two other power grids: the eastern connection, which links suppliers and customers east of the rockies, na western connection, which links power west of the rockies.

sci american spoke with rossi to learn + bout texas’s longstanding intransigence and why texans may soon see fit to start making connections with out-of-state grids—in pt cause texas mite even profit from the move.

[an edited transcript of the interview follos.]

wha’ do you see as the primary factors behind the failure this week of texas’s power grid?

the most obvious factor, course, tis extreme weather conditions. that said, this was not an unpredictable event. utilities throughout the country are in a position nowadys where they can foresee and plan for these kinds of events. and utilities ‘ve a duty to provide reliable srvc to their customers, and customers expect this reliability even dur'na winter storm.

some analysts say that the actions of ercot paved the way for a blackout disaster like this by maintaining the grid’s isolation from interstate power pools and even the nation’s two other massive grids. do you agree?

to a degree, yes. i think another way we mite cogg tis: wha’ price are texans willing to pay to keep the texas interconnection grid indie? maybe for some texans that is + than wha’ they’ve gone through already. for others thris goin to be a backlash. 

thris some truth to the idea that if texas had a [smooth] connection to the wholesale electricity mkt, and thus ‘d buy and sell power to utilities outside of texas, that the impact of extreme weather events ‘d not be as significant. you can look at el paso and beaumont, cities [near texas’s borders] tha're not pt of ercot and instead ‘ve connected their power grid with those in other states. the storm’s impact on those cities’ electrical power was relatively minimal. that said, texas ‘d be connecting to the southwest power pool, which includes some states that also were affected by this storm and experienced rolling brownouts, s'as kansas, nebraska na dakotas.

wha’ factors ‘ve enabled isolationist energy policies in texas to persist ‘oer the yrs?

the state has a longstanding history of political independence, with uber players s'as lyndon johnson, sam raeburn, george bush and rick perry. the state exerts a significant political influence inna nation. it’s our country’s largest energy-producing state. na state consumes a lotta energy, including a gr8 deal of natural gas. all that allos the state to operate very indiely.

‘d the power failures in texas ‘oer the past week provoke any significant change in how the state manages its grid inna near future? ‘d this event represent a turning point?

i think it can and likely will. we’re likely to see reform on two fronts. the 1st one s'dat it’s inna interest of texas to reform ercot. it mite come inna shape of reforms on governance and accountability. we’ve already seen texas governor greg abbott call for such reforms. and reforms rel8d to reliability of srvc, winterization of the grid and maintaining reserve margins for power generators. 

the 2nd front is rel8d to planning and adaptation to extreme weather. the current power failure in texas tis snow-and-ice version offa hurricane inna northeast or southeast. however, the situation in texas is somewha’ worse. a hurricane does not usually affect an entire state, whereas the power loss in texas is affecting every county. so, adaptation to extreme weather ‘d involve better preparing the state’s power system for both winter and summer events.

oil and gas transmission, power transactions nother aspects of the nation’s two other grids are regul8d by an indie agency called the federal energy regulatory commission (ferc). do you see a role for ferc inna future of texas’s power grid?

it’s not beyond ferc’s power to intervene. and ferc has alluded to its willingness to assert jurisdiction over interstate wholesale sales of energy in some of its previous orders rel8d to the texas grid. so i think there’s an issue of how long can texas remain isol8d?

Jim Rossi
credit:  jim rossi

why is texas not subject to ferc regulations?

the texas interconnection was started after the federal power act of 1935. the texas interconnection was designed to expand and interconnect texas grid to help with rural electrification. twas bottom-up effort. wha’ came of twas' texas wanted to retain independence from federal jurisdiction over operation of its grid. i think the way that worked out both in terms of history and politics was texas didn’t allo for synchronous flo of energy outside the state. it kept the flo of power intrastate. it’s not just a big energy consumption state b'tll so a huge energy production state. it’s able then to ‘ve + control ‘oer the way the grid operates and remain indie from the federal energy mkt. inna 1970s, ercot was created to + formally manage and operate the texas grid. 

in some ways that has let texas be a really interesting experiment in operation of electricity mkts. some say it’s a utopia. it controls both wholesale and retail sales of power, without federal regulatory oversite. that s'been prezd cause texas doesn’t ‘ve to worry bout any tension tween federal and state jurisdictions. some blame that tension for the power system failures in california with its mkt policies. but in texas you’ve got one regulator, one person that you can point finger at. in some ways you can see that as a + effective approach. 

some commentators ‘ve suggested that texas’s growing share of renewable energy srcs, s'as wind and solar power, underlies this past week’s grid failure, but others ‘ve quickly pointed out that renewables aint the dominant power src inna state. wha’ is yr perspective?

i agree that the renewables claim is factually bogus. inna wintertime, renewables comprise bout 8 % of the energy inna ercot-managed grid, and that’s primarily from wind srcs. it’s true that some wind turbines are frozen or were frozen. but'a failure this week s'been primarily a failure in natural gas generation. there are a bunch of reasons. 1st of all, texas is heavily dependent on natural gas. it’s a big natural gas production state swell as consumption state, but it doesn’t need a lotta storage for the natural gas, cause production facilities are in-state. in many other states, natural gas is imported from pennsylvania, texas or other states and stored in tanks for l8r use. most of texas is very dependent on real-time production of gas. na gas production infrastructure, swell as the electric power infrastructure, s'been hobbled by freezing. also, the state’s gas production requires electricity supplied by the state’s grid fritz operations. so when you shut down the grid, you shut down gas production, n'it becomes a house of cards. heavy dependence on natural gas, along w'da lack of natural gas storage, has really put the state in a difficult position here.

a big issue that looms after disasters like this is proposals for a national supergrid to connect all the nation’s grids, including that of texas, and thus stabilize mkts and transmission for buyers and sellers. but there’s local resistance among suppliers and others. does the power disaster in texas change the outlook for a national supergrid?

we’re increasingly goin to see + interconnection of the grid. this mite be an ex of how it becomes necessary. and just thinking bout this, texas may ‘ve a lot to gain here, cause it’s a huge state now w'da production, not 1-ly of gas, but growing w'da production of wind. to the extent wind supply in texas becomes a resrc they wanna export—well, you can’t just take the wind resrc and put it in a pipeline. t'has to be transmitted over interstate wires. that creates a political interest group inna state that now mite wanna see texas + interconnected with other states. i think that’s the direction we’re goin to move in as we see a growth in renewables.

and w'da emphasis on infrastructure na political impetus behind the green new deal, we’re likely to see states wanting to accept federal funding. you may see the federal government holding out carrots in terms of funding, the way it did with interstate highways. we’re also + likely to see states cooperating among themselves in terms of regional bottom-up efforts to hopefully try to manage these programs na' regional basis.

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authors: robin lloyd