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The Texas electric grid and the improvements that didn’t come

After the deadly and expensive electrical outages during a winter freeze in February, Texas lawmakers set out to make such disasters less likely in the future. And as The Texas Tribune’s Erin Douglas and Mitchell Ferman have reported, they made some progress.

But they also left a lot undone.

Do you want a list? A report authored by six former state and U.S. regulators, including five former Texas public utility commissioners, is a start — and also one way to measure what the Legislature did and didn’t do before going home last month.

For instance, lawmakers would require power plants to weatherize, but were more forgiving to the natural gas providers that fuel many of those plants. In their report — “Never Again: How to Prevent Another Major Texas Electricity Failure” — the former regulators said the state should require weatherization of power plant and natural gas systems, calling that their most important recommendation.

They also said the state should require backup power at critical facilities; clear up the legal definitions of when demand-driven price increases turn into price gouging; raise building and energy efficiency standards and retrofit existing systems; increase funding and staffing at the Public Utility Commission; and improve planning and forecasting at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electric grid that covers most of the state.

The authors — former Texas Public Utility Commissioners Robert Gee, Becky Klein, Brett Perlman, Judy Walsh and Pat Wood, and former PUC adviser Alison Silverstein — said all of the findings from state and federal investigations of the February outage should be made public, and recommend more data about electric and gas production and markets should be collected and also made public. (Their work was funded by grants from the Energy Foundation and by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.)

The report notes the state’s failure to make many of these changes, as recommended at the time by others, after widespread winter electric outages in 2011.

It’s possible to do some of those things they’re recommending without the Legislature. The Public Utility Commission, the Texas Railroad Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas all have some power to get in front of things like demand and supply forecasting, identifying critical and noncritical electric demands, warning the public, and managing prices during crises.

Still, lawmakers left big issues unresolved, leaving Texans vulnerable to widespread outages and leaving themselves open to criticism that they didn’t do enough to protect Texans during a future statewide disaster like the one earlier this year.

It’s not like voters had high expectations. In an April University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, only 17% of Texas voters said they were either “extremely” or “very” confident that lawmakers would “enact effective laws to prevent future disruptions in utility services” like those in February.

But they like some of the proposed fixes, according to that same UT/TT poll: 84% said the state should require energy providers to weatherize facilities, and a slight majority even favored using government funds to pay for it; 81% said the state should require more reserve power for spikes in demand, and 78% said they’d support creating a statewide alert system.

It’s only been four months since the outages, and this new report is probably an early entrant in what is likely to be a large stack of industry, regulatory and market analyses of the grid problems in Texas and what ought to come next — from operational advice to legislative and policy recommendations.

But it also comes at a time when the Legislature has finished its regular session — providing a marker for what lawmakers have done, and for what they might still have ahead. And it’s also landing as Gov. Greg Abbott is promising special legislative sessions ahead this year on issues like redistricting and what to do with $16 billion or more in federal COVID-19 relief money sent to Texas, and for another crack at election and voting legislation Republicans tried and failed to enact over the last five months.

The governor could add to that list, though he’s been publicly noncommittal about his agenda. Lawmakers are already making unsolicited suggestions for what they want him to include, and more debate over the state’s electric grid is possible.

Outside the Texas Legislature, it’s already underway.

This article was originally posted on The Texas electric grid and the improvements that didn’t come

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