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David Sibley: Quick action by ERCOT engineers saved many lives

David Sibley: Quick action by ERCOT engineers saved many lives

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“Misinformation rides the greased algorithmic rails of powerful social media platforms and travels at velocities and in volumes that make it nearly impossible to stop,” New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel recently wrote.

Then, no matter how incorrect the misinformation is, it becomes “information.” We’ve seen that a lot recently as state leaders, the public and many others have loudly blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for widespread power failures during statewide subfreezing temperatures.

I write to defend ERCOT and set the record straight on what is information vs. misinformation.

First, it’s important to understand exactly what ERCOT does, and doesn’t, do. ERCOT manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texas customers who represent about 90% of the state’s electric load. It schedules power on an electric grid that connects more than 46,500 miles of transmission lines and 680-plus generation units. When generation drops to dangerous levels, like it did in the early hours of Monday, Feb. 15, ERCOT tells transmission companies, municipal utilities and electric cooperatives how much energy must be shed to keep the grid stable. Those entities decide how to reduce demand and which customers have their power cut. ERCOT is not a state agency, but it answers to the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas Legislature.

Texas just suffered through its worst winter storm in a century. As a result, electricity for much of the state was disrupted for hours and days. As bad as this was, it could have been much, much worse. Quick action by ERCOT engineers in the middle of the night on Monday, Feb. 15, saved many lives. Had they not acted when they did, the whole grid would have collapsed. Full service to the state could not have been restored for months. Imagine how many lives would have been lost if that disaster had occurred.

Within two hours on that night, as the winter storm worsened, electric generation massively failed as plants stopped operating. Texas lost 41% of electricity produced by natural gas, coal and nuclear plants. Some wind turbines froze, compromising that source of electricity. Interestingly, in the days after the crisis developed, solar production doubled.

On a normal February day, Texans need about 54,000 megawatts of electricity at peak demand. Early on that Monday morning we needed more than 70,000 megawatts. When generators started going down, ERCOT was managing a full-blown disaster. Given the tools ERCOT had, it did an excellent job.

I hear accusations that Texas’ deregulated market was the culprit in this disaster. Not true. As co-author of that deregulation legislation (which easily passed with a bipartisan vote), I’m proud of what it has accomplished since the deregulated market was established in 2001.

Texans have since saved billions of dollars in electric costs and now pay some of the lowest rates in the country. New generation has been built, with fewer regulatory roadblocks, helping power our state’s booming population and economic growth over the past decade. Without that additional capacity, last week could truly have been catastrophic and impacted even more Texans.

Improving the reliability of generating plants does not require abandoning our free market. Winterization of these plants is indeed needed; this was recommended a decade ago and should be required. The Texas Legislature can grant the PUC authority to enforce this.

Some of my conservative friends are blaming renewable energy for the grid failure. This isn’t fair. When you lose 41% of gas, coal and nuclear plants, it isn’t the fault of renewables. Only 25% of the grid’s capacity comes from wind, with 70% of the state’s energy generated by gas, coal or nuclear sources.

Early Monday morning, over half of ERCOT’s generating capacity was offline because of the storm, mostly due to problems with the natural gas system.

So, what should Texas do? ERCOT and the PUC can only act in ways permitted by the Texas Legislature. They do not have the authority to compel electric generators to winterize their plants. They can only suggest it.

Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed legislation to give the PUC authority to require winterization. The Legislature should act immediately to give the PUC the tools it needs so that Texans do not suffer another week in the cold and dark.

PHOTO GALLERY

David Sibley of Waco is a former Republican state senator who co-authored Senate Bill 7 in 1999, which deregulated the Texas electricity market. He represented the Waco area from 1991-2002 after a stint on the Waco City Council from 1984-87, including serving as mayor. He is a graduate of Baylor University, Baylor College of Dentistry and Baylor Law School who has served on the board of regents. This commentary first appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

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