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Are Texas electricity regulators prepared for extreme weather?

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith October 20th, 2021
For business

Texas regulators are trying to prepare for extreme weather events in the future.

All eyes were on Texas in February this year when a winter storm left millions of residents without power for several days. The extremely cold temperatures proved that the electricity system was unprepared for extreme weather conditions. Gas power plants went offline, transmission lines failed, and more than 4 million Texans were left without heat as temperatures plummeted.

Since then, electricity regulators and politicians have introduced reforms to make sure the power crisis doesn’t happen again. But some scientists worry that policymakers are not paying enough attention to climate change and the increase of extreme weather events as they put these reforms into practice. These critics explain that regulators are relying too much on past weather patterns when planning their responses to future emergencies.

What is extreme weather?

One key question regulators and scientists are debating is how to define extreme weather. Regulators working with the Texas Public Utility Commission plan to use historical weather data to reach a decision. “We’re left trying to define what a weather emergency is,” commented Barksdale English, a director of compliance and enforcement for the PUC. “The best we’ve come up with is to think about all the historical weather data that exists in the state.”

Climate scientists warn that regulators need to take the impact of warmer temperatures on weather patterns into account. “Any reasonable standards would account for the additional warming that can be expected,” says Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann.

The group Climate Central estimates that power outages due to climate change are up 67 percent since 2000. This trend is expected to continue.

Jason Fortado, a climate scientist at the University of Oklahoma, adds that scientists can predict the impact of carbon dioxide on temperatures. For example, they can estimate how many days per year the temperature will rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “In my opinion, this is what needs to be done if you’re planning on investing in something for the next 20, 30 or 50 years,” he explained.

Why does the debate matter?

The discussion is important for power consumers because it will determine how strict Texas’ new energy regulations are. Following the winter storm, legislators passed Senate Bill 3 to force energy providers to weatherize power plants. But the politicians left it to regulators to define “extreme weather” for themselves.

The PUC’s draft rules say that power plants must remain operational in 95 out of every 100 extreme weather events. Large power generators will have to upgrade their facilities to comply with this rule by the winter of 2022. Mid-sized and small generators have slightly more time, with deadlines in 2023 and 2024 respectively.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will carry out a weather study to define what counts as “extreme” weather. The current debate between scientists and regulators is about which data sets should be used in this study.

Senate Bill 3 orders ERCOT and the Railroad Commission to inspect plants and transmission lines to ensure they meet the necessary upgrades. Operators who fail to conduct upgrades can face fines of up to $1 million.

What does this mean for Texans?

The new regulations could have a big impact on the reliability of your electricity supply in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott and other politicians who backed Senate Bill 3 believe it will reduce the risk of blackouts during future storms.

Even if you don’t live in Texas, the PUC’s decision on what it considers “extreme” weather could impact you. Experts say that electricity grids across the country are in need of upgrades. Several regions of concern include California, the Pacific Northwest, and New Orleans. California has experienced unprecedented heat waves in recent summers, resulting in energy blackouts. New Orleans and other low-lying areas face increased threats from rainfall and storms, as shown by hurricane Ida.

“The bottom line is that we are seeing more stress on the grid, whether it’s from stronger hurricanes, more rainfall, or more extended heat waves… especially on older aspects of the grid that are operating beyond the assumptions that they were built with,” explains Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

Regulators in other parts of the country may take note of the Texas grid as an example. As energy consultant Alison Silverstein explained, “We planned this grid for‚ ‘Ozzy and Harriet’ weather and we are now facing ‘Mad Max’. Everybody has always designed these systems looking in the rear-view mirror.”

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Jordan Smith is a writer and researcher with expertise in renewable energy and deregulated energy markets. Jordan has written extensively on the deregulated energy market in Texas and the challenges confronted in the clean energy transition, and conducted research projects within the energy industry. Further articles by Jordan can be found at SaveOnEnergy.com.

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