The reliability of the Texas grid is hot news this summer after calls for conservation in May sparked worries. Adding heat, the grid is now an issue in the gubernatorial race.
There is reason for concern. Maintaining an affordable grid that meets Texas’ needs requires common sense, and Texans pride themselves in their common sense.
No one knows whether we will have blackouts this summer, but a process is in place to avoid them. We need to think of the prediction of blackouts like we think of a prediction that the Dallas Cowboys will make the playoffs this year. Some will gain notoriety by saying yes, others by saying no. But there are too many variables to accurately predict. The Public Utility Commission (PUC) coaches the utilities on how much grid preparation is prudent.
The culture of the PUC and the utilities puts major focus on maintaining electric service. But no one knows what will fail in the grid next month or what parts of the grid storms will destroy. So, staying dependable in a changing environment, like house cleaning, is a continuing process, not a single action.
After the big winter storm in 2021, many criticized Texas for not implementing federal suggestions from 11 years earlier. This is like asking why your 21-year-old daughter does not dress in the same style that her grandmother thought she should when she was 10. The short answer is things change.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is not responsible for the grid problems we have had.
The NFL analogy works here too. The elected officials and PUC are the league managers and rules committee, ERCOT is the officials, and the utilities are the teams that play the game. It’s always tempting, but nearly never correct, to blame the officials for a loss.
For the grid, the weather and technology are changing faster than ever before. This means elected officials, the PUC, ERCOT and the utilities must all up their game.
Preparing for things that will never happen needlessly raises electricity rates. Insufficient preparation leads to low rates but blackouts. The public’s input is voting for politicians they trust to staff the PUC with the technical, business, legal and political knowledge needed for success.
But Texas should be part of larger electricity interconnections only when it makes technical and economic sense.
Texas is the largest state in the lower 48, is the second-largest by population, and is the largest in the production of electricity and natural gas. Interconnections allow smaller states to operate with the benefits of being larger. So, Texas gets less obvious benefits from interconnection. In addition, connection by power lines can be much more expensive that connecting via natural gas or hydrogen pipelines.
Other issues such as changes in the importance of electricity, changes in grid technology, and increasingly extreme weather mean the market must be continually improved.
Texas uses its market structure to communicate the desired performance level to the utilities. Generally, changes are handled adequately by the market with continuous improvement. Major restructuring becomes an option only when it is obviously the best path to improved cost or reliability.
The worry from Texans about outages is understandable but not a new normal. We all must understand that it is prohibitively expensive to make the grid 100% reliable for 100% of the population 100% of the time. So, technology is emerging to permit the grid to have glitches that are only a minor inconvenience. There are backup generators, and advertisements show that increasingly the vehicle in your driveway will be able to power your home for hours. Our future promises to be different from our past.
There are many extreme views that are provided as steppingstones to progress. When it comes to the Texas grid, let’s apply some commonsense.
Robert Hebner is the director of the Center for Electromechanics in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.