By Erin Douglas and Mitchell Ferman
Both the Texas Senate and House have written bills that attempt to prevent another massive power failure in extreme temperatures. But parts of their legislative proposals are drawing criticism for not going far enough to prepare electricity infrastructure for increased risks posed by climate change.
And critics are also wary that some measures would leave enforcement of the mandated upgrades to the Public Utility Commission without increasing its funding or resources to do the job.
House Bill 11, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, was part of a package of bills that the lower chamber approved Wednesday. It defines extreme weather conditions in the winter as a time when temperatures remain below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a day and are expected to remain that low for the next 24 hours. For the summer, it defines it as when the National Weather Service issues a heat advisory.
Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at University of Texas at Austin, said the House legislation importantly provides a target for regulators and industry to design around, rather than leaving it too broad. He said it’s a step in the right direction because it provides more clarity than the current weatherization measure in Senate Bill 3, the omnibus electricity legislation the upper chamber sent to the House this week.
“[The temperature threshold] is not as extreme as what we just experienced, and it could go further,” said Webber, “but, it’s something.”
Jeffrey Jacoby, deputy director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, opposed HB 11 because he said it would not have required power plants to be weatherized to a degree that would have prevented disruptions during the February storm.
“It doesn’t go far enough to truly protect Texans from the next winter weather calamity,” Jacoby said during a committee hearing on the bill on March 18.
More than 4.8 million customers in Texas were left without power during a winter storm that plunged large parts of the state into single-digit temperatures in February. At least 111 people died — more than half of them from hypothermia.
The series of standalone bills the House approved Wednesday included legislation that mandates that power plants prepare for extreme weather, reform the governance of the state’s grid operator, ban wholesale index electricity products, pursue the creation of an emergency alert system and form a new disaster electricity committee.
Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, called the slate of bills “important first steps” in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri.
“The actions taken by the house will help restore confidence in our critical infrastructure after the catastrophic mismanagement of our electric grid last month,” he said in a statement.
The two chambers’ legislation is collectively similar, but not identical. So, each chamber could soon have a chance to tweak the others’ bills. But members of both chambers will at some point have to iron out the differences in their respective legislation before anything can become law.
Jacoby remained opposed to HB 11, although he said in an interview with the Tribune that the group supports the intent of the legislation.
“Under this definition of an extreme weather emergency, these mandates would not apply,” Jacoby said during the committee meeting. “Frankly, most of the state would not have actually been experiencing an extreme weather emergency during the recent freeze.”
Other environmental groups, meanwhile, including the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Environment Texas, endorsed the bill, alongside industry groups including the Texas Association of Manufacturers and the Advanced Power Alliance, which represents the renewable power industry.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, proposed an amendment to require the weatherization rules be based on information from the National Weather Service and the office of the state climatologist regarding climate variability and projected changes in weather, but withdrew it. She told the Tribune that she withdrew it because the bill already references the National Weather Service and the weatherization rules would be regularly reviewed.
Critics of the quickly moving legislation were also concerned that the burden of enforcing any potential new mandates on weatherization will fall on the Public Utility Commission, which in 2020 disbanded its oversight and enforcement division. The PUC also does not have any field inspectors.
Michelle and Stan Brannon, whose son, Will, was killed by a fallen power line in 2017, warned legislators in a prior committee meeting that they believed the bill to weatherize power plants did not go far enough. They said that in the years since another piece of legislation was passed in response to their son’s death to require utilities to inspect power lines, they found that the Public Utility Commission did little to enforce the requirement.
In response to the concerns, Andrew Barlow, a spokesperson for the PUC, said that the agency’s enforcement function was enhanced by the change by increasing the number of attorneys available to work on enforcement matters. He also said the agency “admires and respects the Brannons for the courage and passion for change they have shown,” and added that the agency is in the process of auditing the reports for the purpose of reporting violations.
But the gaps identified by the Brannons caused them to warn legislators that keeping regulators accountable for enforcing the mandates will be as important as passing them.
“We do not believe that new laws requiring utilities to winterize their infrastructure will solve the issues that caused the winter storm failures without having a Public Utility Commission empowered to monitor and enforce compliance with these laws,” said Michelle Brannon during a House State Affairs Committee hearing on March 18. “The utilities cannot be trusted to follow standards unless there are strict requirements.”
In the days leading up to February’s winter storm and during the widespread blackouts that left millions of people with no access to electricity or drinking water in subfreezing temperatures, Texans were never warned or notified by the state about the disaster. The same agency — the Texas Division of Emergency Management — that failed to deliver that critical emergency information to Texans would be responsible for studying the feasibility of establishing a statewide alert system, and then implementing it, under House Bill 12, which also got approval in the House on Wednesday.
“A lot of people didn’t know what was happening and I think sometimes the fear of not knowing what’s going on is just as bad as the crisis itself,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. Wu also added an amendment to the legislation, which was approved, to ensure that if the alert system is created, it would include languages other than English.
The House unanimously approved to the legislation, though members were disappointed that they had to create the legislation in the first place.
“Regrettably, had it been in place previously, it might have helped a lot of people in the state of Texas and save a lot of lives,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas.
Lawmakers Wednesday also moved forward House Bill 16, which would prohibit retail electric providers from selling products based on wholesale power prices in the market and House Bill 10, which would restructure ERCOT’s board of directors.
They also approved House Bill 13 which would create a new committee made up of leaders from the PUC, ERCOT, Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates the oil and gas industry) and Texas Division of Emergency Management. The committee, modeled after an existing voluntary body, would meet semi-annually to coordinate power, natural gas companies and utilities for reliable electric service. The body would be required to convene as soon as possible prior to or during a disaster to address extended power outages, said Paddie, lead author on the bill.
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