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Other voices: Texas knew for years power grid was at risk but did little about it

19February 2021

Once again, Texans are suffering because of a failure of disaster planning and investment to prepare for the worst.

First, it was the pandemic. Texas’ public health infrastructure has been shown for a year to be lacking, at both local and state levels. Leaders tried to craft a plan in 2015 to prepare for the inevitable, but it was stopped over political issues.

This time, it’s an unprecedented — but, importantly, not unpredictable — stretch of cold weather and storms blanketing the entire state. Public and private sector leaders may try to say there’s no way they could have been prepared for this. That’s a line of bull that no Texan should accept.

After 2011’s epic winter storm — known around here as the one that ruined the Super Bowl in Arlington — agencies at all levels offered recommendations to address the very problems that contributed to this outage, too.

There must be accountability. People must be fired. Companies must be fined and required to do better. Winterization of power plants must be a priority.

The immediate focus, of course, is on getting power back up as quickly as possible. Lives are at stake.

Power companies and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, as every Texan now knows, compounded the problem with miserably poor communication and broken promises. The promise of rotating outages flopped, and no one can explain why in plain English.

Once the crisis is over, laws must change. A thorough investigation of both the public and private actors is necessary. Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration that ERCOT reform is an emergency priority for the Legislature is a start, but only that. Generators must be required to do a better job of winter preparation, even if the state or consumers must ultimately help pay the bill.

The failures here are spectacular and obvious. In November, ERCOT proudly announced that the state had sufficient energy supply for the winter. The excuse will likely be that no one could have predicted this storm. But it’s been evident for more than a week that a brutal cold was coming, and ERCOT officials were saying as late as Thursday that the system was ready. How can they have been so stupefyingly wrong?

But these cold snaps are not that rare. After the 2011 debacle, a thorough federal review found that parts of the Southwest have suffered these events at least every five years.

Texas is an energy giant. This shouldn’t happen here. We have a large and diverse energy supply. The culprit here is a clear failure of preparation, period.

The blame game is already falling into predictable narratives. On the right, the problem is too much reliance on renewable energy. On the left, it’s privatization, Republican leadership and a failure to anticipate the effects of climate change. There’s some truth in most of it, but the focus needs to be on specific actions that were not taken, who’s responsible for them and how to prevent that from happening again. Solve specific problems rather than railing at huge ones.

It seems apparent that power generators haven’t done enough to winterize their plants, so shutdowns and failures kicked in just when the power was needed most. That extends to renewables, too, as wind turbines froze over. Natural gas transmission has been a problem as well.

These are big, but fixable, problems. The Legislature must dig in to identify the specifics and then act accordingly.

It’ll be all too easy to forget this dreadful week when spring arrives. But it’s not just the occasional winter storm. Every summer, our power supply and grid are stressed by the extensive heat. We haven’t seen this level of failure yet during a summer, but it’s coming.

— The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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