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Energy & Environment
Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

The Texas Grid Is Not On The Special Session's Agenda. Here Are Some Ideas Lawmakers Could Have Discussed.

Icicles hang from electricity readers.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Icicles hang from electricity readers outside an apartment complex in the Travis Heights neighborhood on Feb. 16, during the Texas freeze.

A special session of the Texas legislature started Thursday. Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back to the Capitol to finish work on some of his priority initiatives and outlined his agenda for the session the day before.

Conspicuously absent from the agenda is anything to do with strengthening the state’s less-than-reliable electric grid, which left millions without power during the catastrophic freeze in February.

Abbott had received calls to include further reforms to the grid in his agenda and is already facing criticism for omitting them. Last month he said that "everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas” during the legislature's regular session, though he recently ordered the Public Utility Commission of Texas to take steps to overhaul the state’s electric system.

Abbott can still expand his agenda to include items related to the grid.

Below is a list of some proposals that energy experts, consumer advocates and others have made to improve the electric system. They are not universally endorsed, but they offer an idea of where the conversation at the Capitol could have gone — or could still go if Abbott changes his mind.

Connect The Texas Grid To Other Grids

Unlike any other state in the country, Texas is an energy island. Many have said the state needs to consider linking up to neighboring grids to guard against future catastrophic blackouts.

As this piece from a group of energy scholars observes, “it’s possible that a few [gigawatts] of additional capacity would have blunted the worst outcomes at the depth of the [winter storm] crisis, giving enough spare capacity to facilitate rotating outages.”

Instead, millions of Texans lost power for days.

Increase Oversight of The Natural Gas Industry

Gas suppliers failed to get fuel to power plants during the storm. That was one of the main causes of the blackout.

The astonishing increase in natural gas prices during the freeze has also led to numerous lawsuits and will mean higher utility bills for customers for decades to come. The fallout has led some to suggest that increased oversight of the gas markets and industry could be helpful.

Store Backup Power

Last month, a group of former Public Utility Commission officials signed this list of ideas to guard against future power catastrophes in the state. One of the proposals says the Texas legislature should help critical facilities like nursing homes and water treatment plants to “have two days’ worth of backup power” on site.

A similar plan nearly made it through during the regular session.

Others have said policies to encourage the storage of backup fuel at gas power plants would also be helpful to avoid grid emergencies.

Offer Direct Relief To Ratepayers

After lawmakers created policies during the regular session to bail out utilities and other companies after the freeze, some hoped they would take up direct ratepayer relief in the special session.

Promote Energy Efficiency

Reducing how much electricity Texans use would help stabilize the grid and lead to lower bills for consumers.

Some ideas to achieve that include increasing insulation to keep buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, offering incentives to people who use energy-efficient appliances, and creating programs to get people to reduce electricity use when power is scarce.

Democratic lawmakers tried to advance some of these policies during the regular session, but it didn’t happen.

Protect The Natural Gas Infrastructure

During the regular legislative session, lawmakers mandated the "winterization" of some energy infrastructure, including power plants. But when they took a piece meal approach to winterizing the natural gas supply chain, some engineers say they left the job unfinished.

"What I fear, that it's just not going to be enough," Dan Cohan, a professor of civil engineering at Rice University, told KUT during the session.

Overhaul Texas' Energy Market

The Texas competitive electricity market is set up to reward power generators and fuel suppliers with high prices during times of energy scarcity. Many say that market system needs an overhaul.

But market reform was off the table during the first session, because state leadership said it would be too complicated to tackle quickly.

So far, it's off the table during the special session as well.

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