When millions of Texans lose power when they need it most – in freezing cold – it gets their attention. Texans are demanding to know how we got into this disastrous situation and what we can do to avoid ever being here again.
I intend to sketch some of my thoughts about root causes and the solutions needed below. But I think it will be instructive to give you some history first.
THE UNSUCCESSFUL QUEST FOR RESILIANCY OF THE TEXAS GRID
I lead a group that I created in 2015 called Protect the Texas Grid to lobby the Texas legislature to take steps to harden the Texas grid from multiple threats including nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP), Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) also known as solar flares, directed energy weapons, cyberthreats, and physical attacks.
I have been thinking about the life and death importance of electricity for a decade now, ever since I read two ground-breaking post-apocalyptic novels – One Second After by William R. Forstchen (published March, 2009) and Lights Out by Texan David Crawford (published December, 2010). Both novels were inspired by the groundbreaking work of two congressionally sponsored reports by the EMP Commission in 2004 and 2008 which explored what was likely to happen if an EMP attack took down our grid and critical infrastructure.
After I finished One Second After, I must admit that I walked around in a daze for several weeks. The novel painted vividly the horrible consequences of what America could look like after the grid, most things running off electronic circuitry, including modern vehicles and communication, as well as process control for the critical infrastructures of water, fuel refineries, and pipelines being destroyed. The original EMP Commission report estimated that if America suffered an EMP attack that 90% of us would die within one year after the attack.
My immediate impulse was to personally prepare for such an event. But after researching what needed to be done to prepare, I realized that I could spend a fortune on personal preparation and still not have a good chance of seeing those I loved and cared for survive such a calamity. I realized that if we were going to effectively prepare for such an event, our government needed to work with critical infrastructure providers to harden their technology against such an eventuality.
After I retired, I decided to spend my time at the Texas legislature urging them to take the actions necessary to harden the grid against the threats presented by the EMP Commission. The feds seemed to be taking no action whatsoever. I knew that Texas had its own grid for a big portion of the state, and I figured I had a better shot at influencing the Texas legislature than the Congress. Besides, I have a fundamental distrust of the federal government’s motivations and ability to do the right thing. And I like Texans taking action to run Texas and I like that Texas has a theoretically (see more later) independent grid. It appeals to my Texas pride.
As I started that quest in 2015, I was happy to find that Senator Bob Hall and State Representative Tan Parker (and then freshman State Rep. Tony Tinderholt) were already leading in this area. But then my crash course into special interest politics began.
Despite the fact that every bill introduced in 2015, 2017, and 2019 had a mechanism to make sure that the grid owners were reimbursed for their hardening expenses (either by traditional rate recovery or direct tax-funded reimbursements), the major grid providers in this state showed up to lobby against grid hardening. In 2015, I watched the jaw of Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Sarah Davis literally drop when the grid consortium lobbyist told her they opposed hardening the grid. She said something like, “Wait, do I understand you correctly? We are talking about appropriating Texas tax-dollars to pay you to take steps to insure that you stay in business and protect the people of Texas, and you don’t want it?!” “We’ve got it under control,” was the condescending reply.
I watched representatives of the two largest Texas grid providers say under oath with a straight face to the Senate Committee on Senator Bob Hall’s bill that they were 100% prepared for an EMP attack. Then I watched Senator Bob Hall (who helped harden Minutemen missiles against EMP in his past military service) question them until they admitted they had done almost NOTHING and did NOT have a plan for EMP. But they were still opposed to the hardening because they did not think the threat that the U.S. military has spent billions on was real.
When I went to see the governor’s staff person for electric grid matters, I was greeted by a person who had just worked in the industry before transfer to her current position. She was so condescending, it felt like she was patting my head and accusing me of tin-foil hat conspiracy. I was told by someone in the know in 2017 that if grid hardening legislation passed that required generating companies in Texas to do anything, the governor would veto it.
To make a long story short, I came to realize that special interest lobbying not only threatens the prosperity of Texans, it threatens our very lives and national security. We have tried for three legislative sessions to get grid protection legislation passed to no avail.
RELIABILITY DURING SEVERE WEATHER EVENTS
Now, to the current situation. The solutions Protect the Texas Grid have been working on would likely have not prevented what we have gone through. But because of the study I have done on the grid and the testimony I have listened to in front of the House State Affairs Committee and Senate Business & Commerce Committee, I think I have an idea of root causes and solutions for the current problem.
This winter outage disaster has at least three layers of complexity. The first layer is the technical aspects of the problem that encompass the issues of all the different types of electricity generation, the transmission network, and the management of the technical balancing of demand with the supply.
The second layer of complexity is the regulatory environment for the manufacture, transmission, distribution, and pricing of electricity in Texas. One aspect of this regulatory scheme created in 1999 is that it has many economic players in the system, each of which has different incentives and ways to make (and lose) money.
A key understanding of this situation is that the special interests are at odds with each other. Not just among generators, transmitters and distributors, retailers, and traders, but the different types of generator companies are at economic odds with each other. This makes the politics and lobbying of the situation very complex. If you are a politician who wants to serve the special interests, who do you serve when they are at war with each other? Note that this diverse set of interests in the industry means that the arguments for what is wrong, and what needs to be fixed need to be closely scrutinized. Because special interest lobbying is not likely to be designed to protect the reliability, resiliency, and affordability of electricity for us, the ultimate consumers.
The third layer of complexity in this situation is the ideological war going on in Texas and the Union between command and control greens/climate change true believers and globalist Deep Staters on one side and liberty-driven, market advocates on the other. I heard expert Robert Bryce say on Fox 26 in Houston this morning that ERCOT has too much focus on “de-carbonization” (i.e., the climate change hoax) and not enough on reliability. I don’t want people running the Texas grid who are ideologically committed to pushing their climate agenda over providing Texans with reliable electricity.
Sketches of Root Cause of the Problem
I am still striving to get the facts. And I recognize there are a number of causal factors behind this disaster. And I admit there is lots of complexity.
Reliance on Unreliable Renewables by the Reliability Council Undermines Reliable Generators
I am converging on the idea that the root cause of our problem is that the leadership of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has been captured by a combination of extremely highly paid, green true believer ideologues and corporate elite/Deep State connected individuals, one third of them non- Texans. The Reliability Council has been driven by their green ideology to force-fit unreliable wind power into the mix, causing the entire system to not be reliable.
I tip my hat to Jason Isaacs and Chuck DeVore at the Texas Public Policy Foundation for this insight. The idea that icing of wind turbines cause instability in the rotors and the need to shut most of them down when they froze caused of all problems is simplistic. The idea that a higher proportion of natural gas plants went off line makes it a natural gas generation winterization problem is in my view simplistic, too. Both of these positions have truth in them. But I am looking for the root cause.
What Jason Isaacs points out is that when demand exceeds supply on the grid and load is not shed quick enough (i.e., sections of the grid demand are cut off), voltage drops and generating plants have automatic trip-off controls that take their plants off line to protect key parts of their plant from being destroyed by the low voltage condition. I think that this model – that the reliance on the unreliable wind by the Reliability Council caused reliable generation plants to trip off and then be put into the soup of trying to cold start when it was REALLY cold -- is a major part of the root cause.
Of course this argument gets us into the third tier of complexity in this argument – the debate between Green New Dealer true believers and market-based reality advocates. But the idea that we need a critical mass of reliable productive capability like nuclear, coal, and natural gas in the Texas mix is something I think likely that the Reliability Council has ignored. And insuring that the people running the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) put reliability and resiliency at the top of their hierarchy of values will go a long way to stopping a repeat of the problem.
Let Texans run the Independent Texas Grid
One of the shockers that has come to light by this disaster is that one third of the highly compensated board of ERCOT are non-Texans. Two are not even Americans. I don’t think we need globalist-connected individuals running the independent Texas grid. We need Texans to run Texas.
Artificial Markets Managed by ERCOT Need to be Explored
The people who sold us the regulatory approach put in place in 1999 sold it by labeling it as “deregulation.” I think that was a lie. The regulatory framework set up broke up the regulated monopolies and forced the pieces into artificially created “markets” managed by ERCOT. They claimed that these “markets” would make electricity more affordable than it would be under the regulated monopoly model. I don’t know all of the history of how that transformation occurred. I know Ken Lay of Enron infamy was involved.
Note that ERCOT has several university-based economists on its board. Technical economists and bureaucrats love the Texas regulatory environment because it gives them an esoteric, intellectual puzzle to study and make a living off of. They get to call them “markets” despite them being heavily regulated and monitored. (When I was in law school, I took a course on the current regulatory scheme, taught by a bureaucrat enamored with it.) I also presume that the trading companies involved in these models see this regime as a very good way to make money.
While lobbying for grid protection, I have heard testimony to the Texas legislature about the perverse impact on the “markets” for electricity caused by the large portion of wind power on the Texas grid. When the wind blows hard, so much power is produced, it causes the prices paid to generators on the grid to plummet, causing great economic harm (and even survivability risk) to the reliable nuclear, coal, and natural gas generating companies.
Those running the Reliability Council need to understand this to insure reliability to the grid and our legislators may need to take steps to stop these situations from threatening reliability. Certainly, Texas needs to stop subsidies for any particular variant of energy. Each should survive in a fair, competitive marketplace on its own.
A friend of mine points out that one failure of ERCOT or regulatory framework is its failure to produce an artificial capacity market. There are lots of people with backup generators (whether natural gas or propane or solar or other) for their homes and businesses that could have supplied the demand that the Texas network needed during this crisis, but the market and technical infrastructure was not designed to facilitate that.
I am told there is one Texas company that provides backup power to HEB that went out and laboriously made deals to many retailers to meet urgent demand and make money by selling its backup power to the grid when HEB did not need it. We need to make that sort of arrangement easier. If someone at the transmission companies had just asked or offered to pay those with home or business backup generators to switch to backup to take load off the grid, I bet many would have been willing to do so, helping reduce the size of the problem.
I do not completely understand the economic incentives to all the players, but the design of the artificial markets needs to be studied for its impact on reliability. I know that many retailers are being put out of business by this disaster because they sell at fixed price and are being destroyed by soaring marginal prices during the outage. End users who accepted the risk of variable rates are also being socked very hard by this disaster.
I hope that we get to root causes as we explore this disaster. And while we are at it, I hope that we go ahead and harden our grid and generating capacity against other, even more dire threats to the Texas grid.
Tom Glass also leads a group called Texas Constitutional Enforcement which can be explored at its website or Facebook group. And given the recent Facebook censorship, there are now Texas Constitutional Enforcement groups on Texan owned and operated Freedom Lake and Blabbook, as well as MeWe and Wimkin.