Governor Abbott signs power grid bills. Will they protect Texas against blackouts?

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed two bills responding to the massive freeze in February that left millions without power, but some energy professionals and Texas Democrats believe the legislation doesn’t go far enough to protect Texans.

“A top priority that we had this legislative session was to fix the power grid to prevent any other power grid failures in the future,” Abbott said. “The legislature passed comprehensive reforms to fix all of the flaws that led to the power failure. There is now greater accountability to the system than ever before.”

The bills signed by Abbott, Senate Bill 2 and Senate Bill 3, where two of the Texas Legislature’s vehicles for response to the Texas winter storm.

Senate Bill 2 deals with reforms to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ board of directors. The nonprofit oversees oversees the state’s power grid and is regulated by the the Public Utility Commission. The bill authored by Sen. Kelly Hancock requires that ERCOT board members be from Texas. The legislation comes after the board was criticized following the winter storm for having several members who did not live in Texas.

It also cuts the number of board members from 16 to 11 and and creates a ERCOT Board Selection Committee made up of members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker. The selection committee will use an outside consulting firm to help select members of the board.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, a North Richland Hills Republican, said the bill is a “total reform of ERCOT.”

“There can be confidence now in the system that we have in the great state of Texas,” he said.

Abbott after the storm called for improved winterization of the state’s power system to ensure facilities can stand up to freezing temperatures. Senate Bill 3, signed by Abbott Tuesday, requires Texas natural gas facilities deemed critical to take steps to operate during a weather emergency. Electricity generators and transmitters will also be required to prepare for extreme weather.

The bill creates a power outage alert system to alert Texans when the state’s power supply may be inadequate to meet demand and establishes a Texas Energy Reliability Council. The council is tasked with fostering communication between the state’s energy and electric industries and making sure Texas’ “high priority human needs are met and critical infrastructure needs are addressed.”

Abbott and Sen. Charles Schwertner, who joined him at the bill signing, were confident that the bills would allow for weatherization against both cold and hot weather.

Doug Lewin, an energy and climate consultant, said he doesn’t think Senate Bill 3 does enough ahead of the coming winter to prevent outages like those seen in February. While the effects of such a storm may be less severe with the new law, he raised concerns with the process designating which natural gas providers must weatherize. The process includes being deemed critical and included on an electricity supply chain map created in the bill.

He called the process “very cumbersome and bureaucratic.”

“There were simpler options on the table, namely requiring weatherization of all new oil and gas wells, which is where the bulk of oil and gas production comes from anyway, but they chose to go this more complex route, and I think that that does leave a lot of exposure as far as for the winter,” Lewin said.

Lewin said the portions of the bill dealing with an alert system for power outages and the establishment look of the Texas Energy Reliability Council are positive steps.

The House Democratic Caucus said the legislation offered some needed changes to the weatherization process and oversight of the state’s electric grid, but the caucus expressed disappointment that other proposals offered by Democrats as amendments and as separate bills didn’t pass.

“Time and again this session, Republican leaders in the legislature prioritized industry over everyday Texans, advancing legislation for energy producers while allowing bills that would protect consumers to fall by the wayside,” Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said in a statement. “These bills make some positive changes to our system, but do not go nearly far enough to ensure Texans will be safe and protected should anything like this ever happen again.”

The bill imposes fines of up to $1 million for entities that don’t comply with weatherization.

Commission Shift, which advocates for changes that the Railroad Commission of Texas, called for measures it supports to be added to a special session agenda. The organization would like to see the legislature set firm deadlines for winterization and penalties for failure to do so that “would exceed the cost of winterization measures.”

“Texans are watching to see if lawmakers adopt reforms that prevent tragedies like the winter blackouts from happening again,” the group’s executive director Virginia Palacios said in a statement.

Lawmakers at the singing maintained they did enough to make sure power providers go through with preparing for extreme weather.

Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who authored Senate Bill 3, said the up to $1 million fee per violation is a “pronounced enhancement over the current penalty structure.”

“There is a mandate on the part of the legislature onto the PUC as well as the Railroad Commission to actively, with certain deadlines and timelines, to evaluate this issue and to implement appropriate rules and regulations regarding weatherization that is necessary to support, maintain and protect the grid in Texas,” he said.

Hancock added, “There’s no one sitting or standing here who does not remember that week.”

“We don’t want people to go through that again,” he said. “That’s why we passed reforms to fix that, to make sure it will never happen again.”

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