This comment is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion to explore ideas and guidelines for strengthening electrical reliability. The complete series can be found here: Leave the light on.
The blackout in the winter of 2021 cost lives, caused hardship and strained Texas’s resources. We are now in a summer that has already produced record heat in the Pacific Northwest. Texans could expect a summer power outage after the winter blackout.
New laws have just been passed to avoid failure again. But is the problem solved? Not yet.
As both grid technology and weather change, today’s fixes are fine for today, but more are needed.
The legislature has taken a good first step. Legislators ignored experts who filled the airwaves with theories of serious flaws. They focused on the problem that emerged by mandating improved weathering to reduce outages in extreme weather conditions.
Now we must turn our attention to the Texas Public Utility Commission. We rely on it to do the day-to-day education of the system.
The fear of electricity shortages in June shows the importance of the Commission. It can get to the cause so that the problem can be fixed.
We have to fix things ourselves because those who don’t pay the bills can always suggest more expenses. For example, in June the US Energy Information Administration forecast the nation’s lowest summer electricity consumption since 2009. Last summer, Texas had a 12.9% buffer of electricity generating capacity and no serious problems. This year this cushion has increased to 15.3%. But the Energy Information Administration has classified Texas as an increased risk as the summer heat could be much worse than expected. But it didn’t suggest what a good cushion could be – it comments but doesn’t help.
Experts argue for even bigger changes. Market restructuring and more electrical connections to neighboring countries are among the most common.
Years ago, the Texas legislature created a market structure to implement the state’s regulatory goals. It worked. But the record cold showed some shortcomings. Continuous improvement is therefore more appropriate than restructuring. The PUC should encourage further analysis and suggest additional incremental improvements.
For many, Texas’s independent web means vulnerability. The Texas power grid worked well because, firstly, Texas is the largest producer and consumer of energy in the United States. Second, the combination of the five largest cities in Texas has more than 35 states. So the geographic size, population, and energy production of Texas make it the most likely state to be successful with its own network.
Ever less expensive small generators can provide power to a home, neighborhood, or a critical load like a hospital or fire station. Cities can decide whether it is more cost-effective to supply critical buildings with emergency power than to strengthen the entire network.
If all critical loads had had their own backups during the winter storm in February, short-term rolling blackouts could still have occurred. But for those with backup, the short-term blackouts would have been insignificant.
As we electrify more vehicles, more of us will have convenient backup power in our driveways. These changes require a comprehensive view of the changing technical environment from the PUC, which means the Commission must develop computer-based planning models of the Texas network to predict the pros and cons of emerging technologies and use the results to optimize the structure of the Texas market So you get reliable electricity at a lower cost.
Texas doesn’t have to guess what if it uses a well-designed model to avoid trouble.
As voters, we must continue to help shape the political system. Our politically structured electricity system can adapt to changing electricity grid technology and the weather. Success requires that access to affordable, reliable energy remains a political priority. And that’s up to us.
Robert Hebner is director of the Center for Electromechanics at the University of Texas at Austin.
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