Don’t let the door hit you on the way out! That’s the message millions of Texans who spent the coldest week in memory shivering in the dark have for the now-former leadership of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the manager of the electric grid powering 90% of the Lone Star State.
There’s some serious work to be done in order to put the R back in ERCOT. While new leadership taking over is the first step, it won’t fix the underlying problem. ERCOT’s actions were just the straw that broke the camel’s back after years of bad policy decisions that weakened the electric grid in Texas. The conversation must not stop here — for the sake of the entire nation.
It seems like common sense that the men and women at the helm of ERCOT should live in Texas. When I served in the Texas House of Representatives, I understood the value of our part-time state legislature. It ensures that those elected to serve have to return to their districts and live under the laws they pass — unlike Congress, where career politicians spend the majority of their time in the Washington, D.C., bubble and too often lose touch with the issues their constituents face.
The same should be true of ERCOT. There are plenty of experienced and talented professionals in our state of 29 million capable of serving on its board. Texas should welcome the perspective and different experiences of grid managers and electric industry experts in other states, but ERCOT’s leaders should be accountable for the decisions they make.
A series of errors last week made a bad situation worse. First, ERCOT allowed too many natural gas and coal plants to go offline for planned maintenance — even after the storm was forecast, leaving a razor-thin reserve margin. Next, it appears ERCOT waited too long to minimize the damage. Instead of employing brief rolling outages, which would have been inconvenient but tolerable, several power plants in Texas were knocked offline, creating full-on blackouts for 4 million Texans with nearly no communication or explanation.
However, ERCOT didn’t cause the blackouts. Energy policy experts have warned this level of grid failure could hit Texas for years; I wrote about it last summer. Inaccurate reserve margin projections that don’t account for wild fluctuations in wind and solar have obscured the fundamental weakness in our grid (that it depends so heavily on windy weather) until now.
The blackouts should be a wake-up call to Texas’s leaders, who for too long have indulged the wind industry’s dependence on subsidies to score political points and appear virtuous in a media climate that loves to hate fossil fuels. They’ve made excuses for its unreliability, saying the technology is new or getting better, even though we’ve spent tens of billions of our taxes on subsidies with next to no effect.
It should also be a wake-up call for other states and federal officials, who often look to Texas as a leader in many areas, including wind energy.
We’ve forgotten that cold is a deadly foe and that reliable electricity is crucial not just to our comfort, but our survival. We’re fortunate the death toll from the blackouts isn’t higher. Texas must not let this happen again.
We can ensure it doesn’t by ending energy subsidies (for all energy sources, not just unreliable renewables) and letting the free market work. Decades of subsidies have tipped the scale in favor of wind and solar, made them artificially profitable on the backs of the taxpayers, and created an environment in which it’s almost impossible for reliable generators to succeed.
We can stop making excuses for renewable energy’s unreliability. While green activists were quick to note that wind produced exactly as projected on the night of the blackouts, it’s hardly a success when the bar is so low. Wind produces about 25% of Texas’s electricity on average, but during the blackouts, it sunk to as low as 2%. It was useless when Texans needed it.
And we must ensure reliable electricity is the top priority for our energy policy decisions. Unreliable generators, not consumers, should be held responsible for the costs they impose on the grid and should be required to guarantee they will provide a certain amount of consistent power.
The saying is, “As goes Texas, so goes the nation.” As the legislature debates the future of our grid management with the nation watching, the conversation must not stop with ERCOT. We must prioritize affordable, reliable energy over green bling and renewable dreams, and invite the nation to follow in our footsteps.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on March 4, 2021.