State of Texas: PUC chairman promises ‘real changes’ to prepare power grid for winter weather

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas power generators have just over two weeks to weatherize their equipment. It’s part of several mandates lawmakers passed during the 87th Regular Session in the spring, in response to the February freeze.

The Public Utilities Commission, which oversees ERCOT, is in charge of making sure these changes are implemented. Nexstar’s Maggie Glynn sat down with PUC Chairman Peter Lake to see if our power grid is ready for winter.

Q: Can you walk us through exactly what went wrong back in February?
A: I think the bottom line is everything that possibly could have gone wrong, went wrong. And that’s what we’ve been working to fix. Since then, we’ve been working both on the operational side and the physical infrastructure side, to make sure we mitigate as many of these challenges as possible before we get to this winter.

Q: What specifically has the PUC done since February to ensure the integrity of the grid and make sure it’s more stable heading into the winter months?
A: First and foremost, we’ve implemented winterization requirements for the first time ever. By Dec. 1, all generators in ERCOT must be up to the federal winterization standards. And in addition to that, they must be able to prove that they have mitigated anything that went wrong last winter. So we know going into this winter, our physical infrastructure will be more resilient than it was last winter. In addition to that, we’ve made drastic changes in the way our code operates. We’ve built in an additional margin of safety by buying more power reserves. And we’ve started operating with an abundance of caution so that, unlike in the past when ERCOT waited until the very last minute to use their authority to force generators online, now, if ERCOT has even a hint of trouble on the horizon, they exercise that authority to put generators online sooner rather than later. Both of these are big changes that are going to make a big difference this winter.

Q: Do generators have to implement those plans by Dec. 1, or do their plans just need to be submitted by then?
A: That’s implementation, we’re getting away from recommendations and plans and promises and we’re requiring real changes. ERCOT is hiring up a brand new inspection team as we speak. These folks are going to be out in the field, inspecting generators to make sure that the plans are more than just promises and making sure that there’s real structural changes on these units on the ground in time for this winter. They have to be winterized by Dec. 1 or they’ll face a penalty of up to $1 million per day, per incident.

Q: Is transparency something that is important to ERCOT going forward should we experience another emergency like what we saw in February?
A: Improved communication is absolutely something the public should continue to count on. As you know, that’s been a substantial change from past practices and extends beyond even just the website. Of course, we don’t like having to issue conservation notices. And we’re working hard to make sure that we’ve run the grid in a reliable enough manner that we don’t need to issue conservation notices.

Q: What were the main pieces of legislation that are aiming to help fix the grid?
A: The legislature deserves a tremendous amount of credit for passing Senate Bill 3. It is a once in a generation landmark reform to our power grid. That can’t be understated – how remarkable it was that they passed that legislation in such a short amount of time. And that’s one of the real benefits of Texans having its own independent autonomy over its grid. When something goes wrong, the legislature can take action to fix the problem. In addition, Senate Bill 2 was a complete overhaul of the governance of ERCOT. They now have an independent board for the first time, which is going to make a big difference in how that organization operates on a day-to-day basis. So both of those are landmark changes that we’ve already seen tremendous benefits from and big increases in reliability.

Q: What’s your response to people who say ‘Why does Texas need its own grid?’
A: Well, they’re pros and cons to all these scenarios. Most importantly, I’d note that during the winter event last February, our neighbors had the same problems that we had. They had rolling blackouts, not to the extent that ERCOT had, but there was not an abundance of power next door that was not being consumed. So there wasn’t necessarily a lot of available power at that time that we could have tapped into. But most importantly, by having its own independent grid, Texas can correct course when something goes wrong. And we’ve seen that in the quick action the legislature took to pass that landmark reform and enable us to make the operational changes that we’ve made. It’s hard to imagine that our partners in Washington, who we appreciate working with, and the US Congress could move as quickly or as decisively as the Texas Legislature and our governor did. By being independent, we’re able to address problems quicker and more efficiently. And the problems we’re dealing with are not unique. These problems are affecting power grids across the world. These challenges are not unique to us, but we’re able to tackle them quicker and in more substantial ways.

Q: Speaking of the legislation that was passed, there was a loophole that came to light earlier this fall about the $150 that companies could pay to opt-out of weatherization. How is that being addressed?
A: Well, to be clear, the $150 opt-out is for natural gas facilities, not generators. The winterization requirements that we passed that are required to be in place by Dec. 1 do not have any opt-out at all. There’s no choice for our generators. The opt-out regarding the natural gas facilities is what was put in the legislation and I’ll leave it to my colleagues at the Railroad Commission to address the intricacies of the natural gas system.

Q: Is the PUC working with the Texas Railroad Commission to ensure similar prevention steps are being taken on their side by the state’s natural gas producers? And if not, are you aware of any steps being taken by the Commission independently?
A: We’re working closely with the Railroad Commission not only in conjunction on the mapping committee but also at the staff level in a variety of issues in the State Operations Center. Our emergency operations folks are working together to ensure they’re better prepared in the event we have another crisis like that. And most importantly, I meet with my counterparts at the Railroad Commission at least weekly. We’ve seen people from across the natural gas industry raise their hand and identify themselves as critical infrastructure, which is the thing that’s going to make the most difference this winter. For example, one of our transmission companies, who were the folks that handle the actual rolling blackouts, had 11 natural gas facilities before the storm raise their hand and say, ‘hey, I’m critical, please don’t cut my power, if you have to do blackouts.’ After the storm, they had over 700 natural gas facilities that raised their hand and said, ‘hey, I’m critical, please don’t cut my power.’

Q: That being said, could having too many facilities that are identifying themselves as critical be a concern for future conservation needs?
A: Absolutely. That’s a challenge. If everything’s critical, nothing’s critical. So that’s why we’re going through the process to map exactly what of those 700 are critical. And those 700 are from just one of our transmission companies. There are many more across the state. That’s why the legislature established the critical infrastructure mapping committee. That committee meets at least monthly, with staff from both the Railroad Commission and the PUC. So while it’s a problem that we’re addressing and working through, I’d much rather have too much of our natural gas supply chain online, than not enough. If we’ve got to err, I’d rather be overcautious.

Q: Can you talk about how the new members of ERCOT’s board are going to ensure stability for Texans?
A: For the first time ever, this is an independent board. In the past, the circuit board was made up of market participants who, to be fair, provide a lot of valuable insight into the intricate and complex workings of the market marketplace. But they’re also market participants who have companies and financial interests at stake. And so what we’ve seen is that it’s hard to get a truly independent perspective when you’ve got those conflicting interests, which is why the legislature passed SB 2 to give us an independent board. And so now we will have a range of leaders from the business world, the technology world and the financial world to provide an outside perspective with robust backgrounds from a variety of industries.

Q: Is there anything more you would want lawmakers to consider going forward?
A: We’ve made drastic changes in the operations of ERCOT. We’ve implemented new winterization regulations to ensure that our physical infrastructure is much more resilient this winter than last winter and a variety of other changes to ensure that we continue to have a reliable grid for Texas. We’ve made tremendous strides. And we’ll continue to work to make sure we get it right. But we’ve got the tools that we need and we’re going to continue working to make sure that we make full use of those legislative tools.

Q: If you had one message for the average Texan, how would you reassure them that we will make it through this winter without another February 2021 Winter crisis?
A: Well, we all know there are no guarantees in Texas weather. You should know that we have taken drastic steps to ensure we have a more resilient infrastructure. We’ve got more reliable operations, and we’re doing everything possible to ensure we have a reliable grid this winter.

Texas birth rate falling faster than national average

The rate of babies being born in Texas continued to fall significantly faster than the national average.

From 2007-2019, the birth rate dropped from 79 to 62 babies born per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. That’s a drop of more than 21%.

During that same time frame, the birth rate nationally dropped from 69 to 58 babies born, a 16% decrease.

Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Pia Orrenious, a vice president with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said she was surprised to see the rapid drop in Texas.

“The reason for it appears to be primarily that Hispanic women are having far fewer births than they did 15 years ago,” said Orrenious. “Because we have such a large Hispanic population, that affects us much more. About 42% of childbearing women in Texas versus about 20% in the nation.”

To be clear, Texas women are still having more babies than women in other states. Nationwide, Texas ranked 14th, higher than other high population states including California, New York and Florida.

Courtesy: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

As for the reasons behind the drop, Orrenious said there are both positive and negative factors.

“Good things happening to women like higher education levels and higher wages, those things reduce the birth rate because women spend more time schooling, working and so they really leave a smaller window in their life for raising children,” Orrenious said. “Then on the negative side things like recessions have a big impact on the birth rate, so in bad times when the unemployment rate rises, birth rates will fall.”

Despite the current economic boom in Texas, Orrenious warns a declining birth rate can lead to economic trouble in the future.

She said not only are there fewer people available to work but there are also fewer innovative ideas because younger people tend to have more of an entrepreneurial spirit.

In recent years, the mass migration both domestically and internationally to Texas has helped offset the falling birthrate.

“Migration can reverse itself very quickly, it can stop, it can reverse itself,” Orrenious said. “It’s not guaranteed to continue into the future.”

Abbott directs state agencies to ‘shield children from pornography’ in Texas schools

 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced he is directing three state agencies to take measures to “shield children from pornography” and “inappropriate content” in public schools.

The governor sent a letter to Mike Morath, Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Kevin Ellis, Chair of the State Board of Education and Martha Wong, Chair of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

In his letter, Abbott asked the agency heads to “immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools, including in school libraries,” and to put in place a process for parents and community members to “vet school and library materials before they are used.”

The governor sent a similar letter to the Texas Association of School Boards last week.

In his letter Monday, Abbott pointed to the recent removal of books from two school districts across the state, including a book in the Leander Independent School District titled “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado, which the governor said describes overtly sexual and pornographic acts.

Abbott said another book titled “Gender Queer: a Memoir” by Maia Kobabe was removed from a school library in the Keller Independent School District near Fort Worth, following parent complaints over illustrations.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath (who was appointed by the governor) issued the following statement to KXAN:

“The Texas Education Agency takes seriously Governor Abbott’s call for action on this matter of great importance to families of Texas public school students. As directed, we will work closely with the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the State Board of Education to develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in our public schools, including school libraries. We appreciate the Governor’s leadership on this.”

MIKE MORATH, TEA COMMISSIONER

KXAN also received a statement from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, reading:

“The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is committed to the safety and educational needs of the students of Texas. We look forward to working with the Texas Education Agency and the State Board of Education to support our students and their families.”

STATEMENT, TEXAS STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES COMMISSION

Concert safety task force formed after deadly crowd surge at Houston music festival

The deadly tragedy at a music festival in Houston led Gov. Abbott to create a concert safety task force. Members will recommend state policies that can be put into place to keep crowds safe at big events.

“Live music is a source of joy, entertainment, and community for so many Texans — and the last thing concertgoers should have to worry about is their safety and security,” Abbott said in a statement. “To ensure that the tragedy that occurred at the Astroworld Festival never happens again, I am forming the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety. From crowd control strategies to security measures to addressing controlled substances, this task force will develop meaningful solutions that will keep Texans safe while maximizing the joy of live music events.”

Kevin Lawrence is the executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, one of the groups on the task force.

“A tragedy that shouldn’t have happened,” Lawrence said.

The task force will hold several roundtable discussions to analyze concert activity and ultimately make recommendations regarding state policies that can be put in place to keep crowds safe.

Lawrence says he expects venue layouts and security will be major topics.

“We typically go with the lowest bidder, and companies will cut corners where they can to try and save costs and maximize profits, and very often security is one of those things that gets trimmed,” he said.

The governor’s task force includes representatives from:

  • Texas Music Office
  • Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas
  • Sheriffs’ Association of Texas
  • Texas Department of Public Safety
  • Texas Municipal Police Association
  • Texas Police Chiefs Association
  • Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission
  • Texas State Association of Fire Fighters

The president of the Texas Music Office will lead the task force. No timeline has yet been given regarding when the recommendations are expected.

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