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Watch Live: Texas House, Senate hold hearings to investigate last week’s crippling power outages

Energy experts say more regulation is needed, they say, but there are also investments that could be made to stave off similar outages in the future

System operators in the command center of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in Taylor, shown in a 2018 file photo, should be considered among the essential workers who get COVID-19 shots early, council president and chief executive Bill Magness wrote to a state vaccine distribution panel. “These workers keep the power flowing to critical customers such as hospitals and emergency facilities and their responders, and all other Texans located within the ERCOT footprint," he said.
System operators in the command center of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in Taylor, shown in a 2018 file photo, should be considered among the essential workers who get COVID-19 shots early, council president and chief executive Bill Magness wrote to a state vaccine distribution panel. “These workers keep the power flowing to critical customers such as hospitals and emergency facilities and their responders, and all other Texans located within the ERCOT footprint," he said.(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers will hold hearings Thursday to investigate last week’s power outages that left millions of Texans shivering in the cold as a freezing winter storm knocked out huge portions of the state’s electric supply for days.

The House’s State Affairs and Energy Resources committees will hold a joint hearing simultaneously with the Senate’s Business and Commerce Committee beginning at 9 a.m., as both chambers of the Legislature look for answers on what went catastrophically wrong and what can be done to prevent similar outages.

Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony from officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the flow of power to more than 26 million Texans; the Railroad Commission, which oversees gas pipelines in the state; and the Public Utility Commission, which oversees utility infrastructure.

Watch the joint House committee meeting live here:

Click here to watch the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.

Officials have admitted that there’s “plenty of blame to go around” as they search for answers. But energy experts say focusing on blame will not solve the considerable flaws last week’s storm exposed in Texas’ energy system. Here are five things they said lawmakers should focus on.

Energy system interdependence

When last week’s winter storm froze wellheads and hindered gas production, it affected power plants that rely on natural gas to generate electricity. That showed how many of the state’s infrastructure systems rely on one another.

“Policymakers need to realize this wasn’t just an electricity system failure, it was an energy system failure,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “Both our gas system and electric system failed us and collapsed upon each other. So if they try to fix either one in isolation we’re not going to be able to prevent these failures from happening again.”

Energy experts said the outages also had an impact on the state’s water and transportation systems. Millions of Texans fell under a boil water notice when water treatment plants went offline because they lost power. Additionally, some repair crews could not hit the road quickly to unfreeze wellheads or to perform repairs on power plants or pipelines because they could not navigate icy roads.

The failure of one system compounded and led to the failure of others, which highlights how interdependent the systems are, experts said.

“All of our critical systems are interrelated,” said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant. “We all now have a visceral experience because the power went down and [then] the water went out. We now all know that they are infinitely tied together and if there’s a failure in one there’s a failure in the other.”

Weatherization

Experts also want to know the extent to which power generators upgraded their equipment and facilities following a snowstorm in 2011 that led to rolling blackouts in the state.

“There was a post-mortem done then that suggested we should weatherize the grid in Texas and put heat tracers, better insulation in pipelines and power generation capacity,” said Fernando Valle, senior oil and gas analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. “But because it’s a one-in-10-year event, that didn’t really happen.”

Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant who previously worked for the Public Utility Commission, said the industry needs to better prepare for extreme weather events, which are happening more frequently.

“This industry has been treating weather events as if they’re high-impact, low-frequency,” she said. “In my view, extreme weather events are no longer high-impact, low-frequency, they are high-impact, medium-frequency.”

The experts, however, warned against simply “winterizing” the equipment for snowstorms and said regulators should focus on “weatherizing” equipment and facilities for a variety of weather events that could affect Texas, like heat waves, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Part of that, experts said, is accepting that climate change is happening and finding ways to mitigate its impact.

“This is just imperative. We can no longer ignore or deny the science,” Lewin said. “We’ve got to embrace the science and get smarter about how we deal with climate change. It’s hard for people. It’s hard for me to say it, but it is going to get worse and people need to understand this.”

Regulation failure

The experts said all state agencies and officials involved in regulation of energy should be held to account. But they said the Legislature has opted for low regulation for decades, making it impossible for regulators to implement standards on issues like “weatherization.”

“Our policies have deliberately held back regulation,” Silverstein said. “Texas, sort of philosophically, wants as little and as weak regulatory intervention as possible. And now we’re reaping that bitter harvest.”

If lawmakers want to prevent similar outages in the future, Cohan said, they’ll need to pass laws that let regulators enforce some standards.

We’ve kept the federal regulators out of our business. Each other [state] agency only addresses one piece of the problem,” he said. “This is going to need a fix from the state legislature. The Legislature is in session for its one time in two years, and that’s where solutions must come. ”

Lewin also suggested the creation of a state official to coordinate the various agencies — Railroad Commission, Public Utility Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — that deal with energy.

“There’s all of these things and very, very little coordination. This was not just a failure of equipment but of governance,“ he said. “Oklahoma has an energy secretary. Who’s the top official in Texas who wakes up every day and goes to sleep at night thinking about energy issues?”

Energy efficiency

Most of the attention this week has focused on the lack of energy supply caused by power generators and power plants going offline. But experts said one aspect that could help decrease the likelihood of future outages is managing energy demand.

This could be achieved by increasing the state’s energy efficiency. Silverstein said the state could reduce the demand on the power grid by investing money in retrofitting low-income and multifamily housing, where residents would not usually invest in making their homes more energy efficient.

Making those buildings more energy efficient would reduce the overall energy demand to keep their lights on and help reduce the demand on the grid overall.

Similarly, updating the state’s building codes would make new homes across the state more energy efficient, Lewin said. If homes are required to have better insulation, less heat escapes during cold winter storms, which reduces the need to run heaters.

“We wouldn’t have pictures of water freezing inside homes,” he said. “We build our buildings for Climate Zone 2, which is like one step above the tropics, and so that’s why our pipes are bursting.”

Need for independent experts

Lawmakers should not rely solely on the testimony of regulators and the energy industry, experts said. They should try to include independent experts who can refute rehearsed talking points and offer informed opinions on last week’s events.

“When you invite industry in they have their interests to protect and that’s their primary focus,” Lewin said. “It’s really important to have people there who don’t have a dog in the hunt, that can offer independent expert advice to policymakers.”

James Barragán. James Barragán covers Texas politics for The Dallas Morning News. He has covered immigration, public safety and voting rights and has traveled on assignment to the U.S. Supreme Court and Houston during Hurricane Harvey. Before joining The News in 2017, he worked for the Austin American-Statesman and The Los Angeles Times.

jbarragan@dallasnews.com /JamesBarraganNews James_Barragan
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