An energy catastrophe forces the question – just how reliable a power system do Texans really want?

The blackout leaving 4.5 million Texans in cold and darkness laid bare deep gaps of coordination, interaction, responsibility and accountability while creating an ugly name for a state that prides itself on its energy system

A NASA model illustrates the icy polar vortex that blacked out much of Texas
Image: NASA Earth Observatory

The sure-to-be-lengthy post-mortem of Texas’ February energy catastrophe needs to turn on deeper questions, all more fundamental than a mere ideology-framed debate on regulation vs. de-regulation.

Not only that argues Varun Rai, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Once that post-mortem is over, he adds, we need what amounts to a new ethos of vigilance, awareness and engagement with the growing complexity of all the systems undergirding modern life.

Varun Rai, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin

“We will learn from this deep crisis,” predicted Rai in a March 4This is Democracy podcast with Urbānitūs co-founder Jeremi Suri and poet Zachary Suri. “As communities, we have to come out of this designing our systems better.

A professor in UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, Rai also directs the school’s Energy Institute. Historian Jeremi Suri is a professor in the university’s Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs and poet Zachary Suri is an Austin high school student.

As the search for culprits accelerates in the wake of a storm that left 4.5 million Texans without light or heat for four days or more, Rai’s message in the wide-ranging discussion was a call to slow down. The recriminations and finger-pointing have already begun: the CEO and and half the board of the statewide grid, best known by its acronym ERCOT, have resigned, as has the chairwoman of the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Angry hearings in the Texas Legislature are expected to dominate much of this year’s session.

Rai declined to weigh in on the near-term political clashing. Rather the goal, he argued, should be debate informed by a much deeper understanding of the “circularity” in Texas’ power production which he said needs to be understood with a “holistic” approach.

Gas is the major contributor to Texas’ energy mix, particularly in the winter. But gas pumping and distribution, in turn, is powered by electricity. Which is why as ERCOT began shutting down parts of the electricity grid, it also shut down gas-fired gas plants and the result was the self-reinforcing disaster than played out beginning the morning of Feb. 14.

“A lot of the gas operation, it’s dependent on electricity,” Rai said. “As load was being shed, a lot of that was lost. Winterization would have helped but the issue is this circularity… and we saw a lot of this circularity play out.”

That said, there were important failures before and during the crisis that should not be dismissed or overlooked:

Planning was inadequate. Much of the discussion now turns on the February storm being an exceedingly rare event. It wasn’t. A similar storm buffeted Texas in 2011 and one in 1989 may actually have been even more intense – though population and energy consumption were much lower. Planning on a longer term time horizon is critical for the future, Rai, argued.

Coordination among state agencies and institutions was a glaring failure. Frontline workers did a phenomenal job, and “without those efforts the crisis could have been much deeper and the impacts much greater,” he said. But still, the kind of coordination the state mustered before and after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was totally lacking. “It really laid bare some deep gaps that exist in the system in terms of coordination, interaction, responsibility and accountability and it created an ugly name for a state that prides itself on its energy system.”

Communication, along with lack of coordination, was yet another compounding problem. Most important, effective communication before the storm could have convinced consumers to conserve. And reducing the demand-side of the equation was probably the single biggest tool the state had in advance – and never really used, Rai argued.

“We could have had real rolling blackouts…” rather than a blanket outage, Rai said.

Many players in the highly complex system began blaming one another even before the storm had passed, adding to the anxiety of shivering Texans and leading to confusion. This included dishonest statements from the governor seeking to blame renewable energy for the catastrophe. In the summer, Texas gets as much as 25 percent of its power from wind, but not in the winter. No more than 10 percent of the power loss was the result of inadequate wind generation; the remaining loss was due to shut down of gas generation. The traditional energy sources were the problem. 

The task now, Rai said, is to turn down the rhetoric and turn up the substantive discussion of just what level of reliability, cost, and service the pubic seeks. The deregulated system that allowed for prices to famously spike, bankrupting utilities and landing four-figure power bills in consumers’ in-boxes will need to be broadly reexamined. But abandonment of markets and market incentives is probably not the answer either.

To arrive at the balance, the public needs to become much more aware of the “layered complexities” in power generation, as well as in other systems amid growing climate volatility and population growth, Rai explained.

Before we redesign our energy system, Rai argued, we’ll need to redesign the way we think about the way we produce, store and distribute in a rapidly changing environment. The debate will take months. The solution will take years.

Click here to listen to the entire podcast, “Energy Catastrophe in Texas,” the 137th episode of This is Democracy, produced by the UT Liberal Arts Development Studio at the College of Liberal Arts.

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