- - Monday, April 12, 2021

Texas froze in February and vast portions of the state’s electric grid went dark. 

Four million Texans lacked electricity, heat or water for days. The death count is still climbing. Looking for answers, the Texas Legislature convened hearings, summoning dozens of witnesses who sit atop corporate and government bodies, most of whom accepted some shared responsibility for the failures.

Now, one of our three statewide elected Railroad Commissioners (who oversee oil and gas production, not railroads), Wayne Christian, is pointing the finger at wind and solar power. In “Texas’ Blackouts Blew in on the Wind” (Wall Street Journal Commentary 3/19/2021), he argues that the grid failed because the supply was weighted too much toward wind and solar, which he deems “unreliable sources of power.” Unsurprisingly, he advocates relying more on oil and gas.

Make no mistake: No fuel source was blameless in the Texas freeze of 2021. Even one of Texas’ two nuclear plants was briefly offline. Natural gas, the largest single electricity generation source (46%) lost over half of its generation capacity. In total, gas and coal lost 27gw of generation capacity, more than a third of the total grid capacity needed at the height of the storm. 

Sadly, the Texas Railroad Commission itself led to much of the gas-powered generation being shut down. In an effort to help homes dependent on natural gas heat, the TRRC diverted gas from electricity generation to residential use. This had the perverse effect of shutting down plants that would have generated electricity needed to heat Texas homes with electrical heat.

If Texas is to prevent the next catastrophe, we must deal with facts, not outdated political agendas. Facts will save us. One very plain fact is that renewable energy is here to stay. A second is that natural gas generation facilities can operate under most conditions (if properly managed) while wind is intermittent. In recognition of that fact, at the time the grid went down, ERCOT (the grid operator) expected wind to supply less than 10% of capacity while natural gas was expected to supply nearly 50% (but fell short by half).

Properly managed, we believe Texas can show the nation how renewable and conventional energy can complement each other. Texas is uniquely blessed with abundant energy from many sources. We can lead the way in developing a coordinated energy strategy that both respects the environment and provides reliable power. But we have to be smarter about how that mix is managed.

During the legislative hearings, both gas producers and those running electric generation plants pointed to the root cause of the grid failure: Electric generation companies relying on natural gas could not get enough and couldn’t get it delivered at the necessary pressure to generate electricity. Meanwhile, producers could not produce and compress enough natural gas to deliver it to the generation plants because the electric grid was down, stranding their compressors and production equipment.

“We need to recognize the interdependencies and we need to come up with a protocol between gas and power,” said Curt Morgan, the CEO of Vistra, a company owning many gas-powered electric generation facilities. “There’s nothing that I can do, if the gas companies cannot get pressurized gas to us.”

The testimony of Mr. Morgan and others points to a third fact that it is time to address: The growing interdependencies of energy production, electricity generation and consumption are not well served by Texas’ current regulatory structure.

Two distinctly different organizations with different cultures and constituencies currently oversee the Texas energy landscape. The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) oversees oil and gas. The Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) is responsible for electricity generation, transmission and distribution and oversight of ERCOT. 

The three Railroad Commissioners are elected statewide, while the PUC’s three commissioners are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate. Why not combine these two commissions into one, and simply call it the Texas Energy Commission? Elect six commissioners, preferably on a regional basis so that the unique interests of the disparate regions of Texas are considered, and have the governor appoint the chairman, subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate.

Give this new commission jurisdiction over energy sourcing, generation, transmission, distribution and sales. Allow it to plan for reliability, environmental and other applicable concerns, both now and into the future, so that we are not left in a lurch by another event like this one.

The Texas Legislature is even now considering a proposal to reconstitute the PUC, but it does not go far enough. The critical failures of 2021 will not be solved by the current proposal, which fails to coordinate our energy sources (gas, wind, solar, nuclear and others) with energy production and distribution.

The current proposal would leave us open to another debacle because it provides no oversight of the critical failure modes that can bring the grid down, like the interdependence of natural gas and electricity. A newly created Texas Energy Commission should be created with exactly those powers. The lives of current and future Texans depend on it.

The late Texas oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens was also a big advocate of wind power and natural gas vehicles. He had a saying he attributed to his father: “Leadership is turning good intentions into positive reality.” If Texas is to prevent the next catastrophe, our leaders must face facts and turn our current good intentions into a positive future reality of clean, inexpensive and reliable energy. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Facts, save Texas.

• Chrysta Castaneda is a Dallas attorney and engineer specializing in oil and gas litigation matters. She was the 2020 Democratic nominee for the Texas Railroad Commission and is a co-author of “The Last Trial of T. Boone Pickens.” Joe Barton is a retired Republican congressman from Texas who was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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