Analysis: After statewide power outages, Texas lawmakers reconsider an ounce of prevention

Analysis: After statewide power outages, Texas lawmakers reconsider an ounce of prevention
Analysis: After statewide power outages, Texas lawmakers reconsider an ounce of prevention

Gabriel Martinez shovels debris from burst pipes at an apartment in downtown Dallas. Texans across the state are now working to recover from the winter storm that left many people dealing with repairs and water issues.

Gabriel Martinez shovels debris from burst pipes at an apartment in downtown Dallas during the winter storm in February. Both houses of the Legislature are voting this week on proposed remedies, promising to do better than they did in a similar situation a decade ago.

Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

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Texas lawmakers have been talking tough since February’s statewide freeze and electrical outages, promising voters they’ll do anything possible to see that it doesn’t happen again.

Now we’ve come to the part where words become actions, or laws — the part where we all get a look at what Texas legislators mean when they say “anything possible.” Both houses of the Legislature are voting this week on proposed remedies, promising to do better than they did in a similar situation a decade ago.

In 2011, they left the watered-down “solutions” to the regulators and to industry. What might have been a weatherization requirement for everyone in the chain of industry that puts the spark in the electrical outlet in your wall became a suggestion.

Instead of requiring the electric utilities and the companies that supply them with fuel to protect that infrastructure against cold weather that can knock plants offline, they just recommended it. They left it to the Public Utility Commission and the Texas Railroad Commission, industry-friendly regulators who didn’t require the kinds of preparation that might have kept the lights on in February.

The state blew it. Some weatherized, most didn’t.

The storm that came 10 years later — the one last month — was bigger, covering the whole state, and colder and longer. Later reports confirmed the fears: 111 Texans dead, 70% of the customers in ERCOT’s service area lost power and the financial damage topped that of a major hurricane.

Gov. Greg Abbott added the state response to the outages during the freeze to his list of top priorities. “I assure you this. This legislative session will not end until we fix these problems,” he said the week after the state thawed out.

And he said this, which is worth keeping in mind now that legislators are actually filling out that response: “Many of you are angry — and you have a right to be. I’m angry, too. At a time when essential services were needed the most, the system broke. You deserve answers. You will get those answers.”

Those answers and responses will include an overhaul of the regulatory agencies, like the PUC, the RRC and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. There’s probably going to be a statewide warning system. Lots of Texans get notices for Amber Alerts or when a state trooper is shot and a suspect is on the loose, but most didn’t get a warning or information during the freeze.

Lawmakers will try to make agencies work together better during blackouts and bad weather. They’re talking about the spot markets where energy is traded and where some of the costs of electricity went skyward during that third week of February.

Most of that is about how to respond when Texas freezes and the power goes out. But watch the Legislature on preemptive measures, like getting the system ready for cold weather before everything freezes and having enough electricity on hand when cold weather increases demand.

Some of the working proposals leave the preventive measures in the hands of regulators who are often too close to the industries they regulate. Weatherizing and building extra capacity are expensive and, to cost-focused executives, burdensome.

That’s why we don’t have those things in Texas, and why there was less power available at a time when Texans were so desperate for the power that would keep them safe.

You still need the agencies to coordinate their work during an emergency. You still need a system for letting Texans know what’s going on, what might be threatening, when the coast is clear. Straightening up the regulatory agencies is a good idea — and a routine one, if the government is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

The chain of accountability is important, too. The agencies that fell short during the power outages report, sometimes loosely, to the governor. And the Legislature designed the regulatory system and the rules. They’re the ones who decided, 10 years ago, not to require weather protection or extra generating capacity for times like these.

Those are the kinds of legislative requirements to expect this time — the ones that can prevent another disaster and ease pressure on responding to terrible results with beefed-up warning systems and coordination.

A decade ago, the Legislature settled for window dressing. They have a chance now to do more.

Analysis: After statewide power outages, Texas lawmakers reconsider an ounce of prevention
Source: Texas Tribune