AUSTIN (Nexstar) – As a winter storm that brought ice and freezing temperatures moved out of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and and state leaders said Friday the electric grid performed as expected and is “more reliable than ever.”
“The actions taken by the legislature, by the PUC and by ERCOT have resulted in a stronger grid,” Abbott said.
The Republican governor said Texas had about 15% more power generation than last year, “as a result of the winterization that protected power generation facilities across the state.”
Abbott said these results should assure Texans the power grid will continue to perform well during the highest points of demand.
Abbott was joined by state representatives from the Texas Division of Emergency Management, ERCOT and Texas Department of Public Safety, among others responding to the storm.
It appears Texas hit its peak power demand Friday morning, and it came at around 69,000 MW, significantly less than ERCOT projections. State leaders said even during that power consumption peak, there will be enough power in the grid to avoid any disruptions.
The governor said the state is not expecting to surpass this demand level throughout the rest of this cold snap. He noted more than 86,000 MW of power was available to meet grid demand during that time. Abbott said last year, ERCOT forecasted peak demand to be around 77,000 MW.
“That’s important, because that far exceeds the estimated peak demand during last year’s winter storm … that’s about 9,000 megawatts less than this year’s highest available power supply.”
The changes made include requiring power generators to weatherize ahead of this winter.
“We have no confirmed outages of any equipment related to weather. So we believe that the weather weatherization event and our prepare preparations have been extraordinary, and been very successful today,” ERCOT CEO Brad Jones said Friday.
Energy experts acknowledge the changes made to the grid have improved reliability overall.
“The grid probably is in its best shape, in terms of a robustness to cold weather perspective than it has ever been,” Michael Webber, an energy expert at University of Texas said this week. But, he said more needs to be done.
“We still need to invest in improving the reliability to gas system, improving the reliability of the power generation system, and improving the reliability the transmission distribution systems with smart meters and dispatchable, load and energy efficiency, all sorts of things,” Webber said.
Webber also pointed out this winter storm wasn’t anywhere near what Texas experienced in 2021, or even the 2011 storm that resulted in rolling blackouts.
“This storm wasn’t a true test, it wasn’t as cold for as long across as wide an area. And so to use a simpler test with a weaker storm was still a lot of outages to declare victory might be problematic, because it might give us a false sense of confidence. And I would say it might be a near miss is the way to think about it,” Webber said.
Thursday, Abbott said this storm is one of the “most significant icing events that we have had in the state of Texas in several decades.”
In response, Abbott signed a disaster declaration in multiple counties at a noon press conference Thursday. The declaration, made in response to a massive and ongoing winter storm, triggers price gouging rules and makes it illegal to excessively hike up prices on vital goods and services. It also made it easier to get power trucks into Texas to help make repairs to any downed lines.
42 states have online voter registration – could Texas be next?
Monday was the last day to register to vote in the March primary elections. It’s also the same day the Texas Department of Information Resources launched an app that will allow Texans to create an account to keep track of different government-issued IDs, including licenses and registrations.
“We’re launching a digital assistant that’s called Texas by Texas or TXT for short. And it’s going to allow Texans to create an online account where they can manage multiple different government services through the ease, security and convenience of one application on any device anywhere and at anytime,” TDIR’s chief information officer and executive director, Amanda Crawford, said Monday.
“Texans can use TXT to officially renew or replace their driver’s license, or their state ID and renew their vehicle registration. Or if you happen to be a massage therapist or a massage instructor, you can also renew those two occupational licenses. And as time progresses, we’re going to be able to add more and more constituent facing services to TXT,” Crawford said.
But those services won’t include online voter registration any time soon, because the state legislature has not yet passed a law that would allow it.
“That would be a policy call for the legislature. But we stand ready with Texas by Texas to be able to put whatever constituent-facing services the legislature or state agencies decided to move online and make digital,” Crawford said.
Currently, already-registered voters in Texas are able to update their address online, but new voters must still fill out voter registration forms on paper.
“Everybody who’s a new voter must actually fill out a paper registration and sign their names with what’s called a wet signature,” President of the League of Women Voters Grace Chimene said Monday.
Earlier this month, the Secretary of State’s Office said it ran into a paper supply chain issue and told the League of Women Voters it would only be able to fulfill a quarter of the nonprofit’s request for voter registration cards.
“They told us we’d have to print our own. And that’s a huge expense for our organization,” Chimene explained.
Days later, the state was able to fulfill the entire order from LWV. But, Chimene said that could have been avoided altogether if there was an online version she could have pushed new voters to.
“Forty-two other states have online voter registration, and Texas still does not. We do have the technology. We just don’t have the will in the legislature to pass this very needed update to our voter registration process,” Chimene continued.
James Henson with the Texas Politics Project said on average, Texans approve of online registration.
“Democrats, and, to a lesser extent, independents are largely for it, and Republicans are increasingly evenly split,” Henson said.
He said with a Republican-led legislature, it’s unlikely the state will pass its own online registration law any time soon.
“All elements of the voting process have become more contentious and public opinion divided among partisan lines, you increasingly see more Republican skepticism,” Henson said, pointing to hefty voting legislation championed by Republican lawmakers last year.
“On one hand, it’s the increasingly politically loaded nature of rules, regulating voting and the idea that making it easier to vote is somehow always an opportunity for increased corruption and fraud, despite the fact that there’s not much evidence of that at all,” Henson explained.
“On the other hand, in conflict with people’s basic desire for convenience, I think it’s one of the most interesting things about the results we see when you ask people about online voter registration, is I think a lot of people’s first impulse is not ideological, it’s about convenience,” Henson said, pointing to a Texas Politics Project poll ahead of the 2020 election.
Henson said new laws at the federal level could be the only way Texans see online voter registration any time soon.
“If you’re going to see any chance at all, it’s going to have to be something coming out of the Democratic majorities in Washington right now,” Henson said.
Public input sought for 86 miles of border wall slated for south Texas
Environmentalists and the South Texas community can now tell U.S. Customs and Border Protection whether they want additional border wall to be built, or alternative infrastructure put on the border, and any concerns they might have.
The agency is asking for input on 86 miles of planned border barrier along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo, Starr and Cameron counties, for which Congress previously approved millions of dollars.
The Biden administration halted border wall construction in 2021 and has asked Congress to permanently cancel this funding, but until lawmakers do, the appropriated money remains. And the Department of Homeland Security is tasked with putting up some form of border barrier and/or related security systems, CBP officials said.
So CBP is asking for public comments — during what is called a public scoping period — to gauge the public’s concerns and infrastructure suggestions. After that, the agency plans to use the comments to conduct an environmental assessment, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“The action to be analyzed is the proposed construction of up to approximately 86 miles of new border barrier and related system elements such as roads, lighting, enforcement cameras, and other detection technology within the USBP Rio Grande Valley Sector,” Paul Enriquez, U.S. Border Patrol Real Estate and Environmental Director, wrote in a Jan. 20 community outreach letter.
“We appreciate your feedback and help with evaluating the potential impacts of this project,” Enriquez wrote.
The environmental assessment could take a year, and environmentalists are hopeful that this is a delaying tactic by the Biden administration as it tries to force congressional lawmakers to claw back the money originally earmarked for miles of border wall.
“The Biden administration cannot legally refuse to build border walls that Congress appropriated money for, he can only pause them. This environmental assessment is the justification that he is using to pause border wall construction. It gives Congress time to rescind the border wall appropriations. If Congress fails to take back the money Biden will be required to build these walls,” environmentalist Scott Nicol told Border Report.
“These border walls will be tremendously destructive if they are built, so Congress needs to take immediate action to make sure they never are,” said Nicol, former head of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign.
But many Republican lawmakers remain supportive of a border wall, and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has even started building a state-funded border wall in Starr County.
Border Report spoke with several environmentalists in the Rio Grande Valley who say they are glad that the federal government is asking for the public’s input, but they also strongly urge that Congress rescind the funding altogether. That is, if the Biden administration wants to hold firm and actually prevent the building of future border wall miles.
The 86 miles of border wall were planned during the Trump administration. Congress approved funding in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for infrastructure to be built in the Rio Grande Valley in several projects slated throughout the region.
Several miles have been built, but many others are unfinished or have large gaps. This is especially true in Hidalgo County, where large sections of an earthen levee — built decades ago for flood control — were ripped apart for the construction of the border wall.
Now the agency wants to know what “alternatives” for border enforcement could be utilized. But the agency said building a 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall is still a possibility, along with the following in certain sections:
- Up to a 150-foot wide enforcement zone
- Up to 50-foot-wide maintenance road
- Linear Ground Detection System
- Remote Video Surveillance System (towers
- Access Roads
On Wednesday, Border Report walked through a section of the unfinished levee from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas, with Jim Chapman, who is vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a support organization for the refuge.
Congress years ago exempted the Santa Ana Refuge from border wall construction, along with Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center and La Lomita Historical Chapel, and other historical cemeteries.
But if an enforcement zone or maintenance road is built here — which CBP maps indicate is a possibility — then a wide swath of the 2,000-acre wildlife refuge could be decimated, Chapman said.
There is also a small section of border levee — less than half a mile — on the refuge’s eastern perimeter that has long been disputed, with environmentalists saying that section of levee is part of the park and should be exempted from any future border wall construction.
“The latest maps that CBP has put out as part of this public comment is that they will be putting a wall here and clearing what you see behind me, which is refuge, which is Santa Ana. That was established in 1942 and its been wildlife habitat untouched ever since,” Chapman said.
“A lot of wildlife uses the edges of refuges because you’re going from one type of habitat to another and if you take away the edge then you really have a disproportionate impact,” Chapman said about the disputed section. “This is entirely avoidable. This doesn’t need to happen. Congress stuck up for Santa Ana and the Butterfly Center and for Bentsen acknowledging they were too important to wall off and that’s still the case so that’s what we’re going to be telling CBP and telling Congress.”
Chapman urges the public to participate and send comments.
“It is an opportunity for the public to weigh in, give comments and to stand up for wildlife refugees and that’s really what we’re doing,” he said.
Public comments can be emailed until March 7 to: RGVComments@cbp.dhs.gov. Include the subject line: “Rio Grande Valley Environmental Planning.” That also is the email to sign up for two Feb. 8 webinars that CBP is hosting on this issue.
Nicol said the key to preserving the local environment is for Congress to take away the border wall funds altogether.
He also disputed recent comments from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents part of the RGV, who pledged to prevent future border wall construction.
“Congress needs to rescind the FY 2018 and 2019 appropriations that would pay for border wall construction in the RGV — appropriations that Cuellar actually voted for. But the provisions that would rescind that funding have not yet made it through Congress, so it will take a lot more work to make them secure and to kill this looming border wall construction,” Nicol said.
In a statement sent last week, Cuellar pledged that “the environmental study will not result in any new border barrier system construction. I remain steadfast in my commitment to protecting Starr County residents from any additional border wall construction.”
Cuellar is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and he said he “helped secure provisions that will permanently remove any funding for border wall activities.
But he acknowledged that clawing back funds will require Congress to support the Fiscal 2022 omnibus budget and he said he will “encourage my colleagues to vote on it in an expeditious manner.”
However, on Saturday, The Hill reported that lawmakers are not close in negotiations and are in jeopardy of missing the Feb. 18 deadline to pass the omnibus spending measure.
Failure to pass the omnibus spending measure could trigger a federal government shutdown.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Too much money at stake’ – Who in Texas is looking over homebuilders?
Three months ago, Janeka Harris was nursing her newborn baby upstairs as construction crews began drilling the driveway of her southeast Austin home.
It was the last part of a months-long repair of her home foundation. Harris said a couple of years after purchasing and building her new home in 2013, she noticed cracks coming from her window seals.
“After they started getting bigger, I called a friend to come out and do some measurements,” Harris said.
Harris’s home is one of nearly 50 in the Lennar at Bradshaw Crossing neighborhood that has undergone foundation repair since 2010, city permits show. Her repair was covered under her warranty with the developer, Lennar, records show.
But not every homeowner in the subdivision has had their repairs covered by the national builder, according to court records.
In 2019, two Bradshaw Crossing homeowners sued Lennar claiming the developer “failed to honor their warranties.”
Lennar declined an interview, but in an emailed statement to KXAN Investigates, Lennar said it “has built thousands of homes in Austin, and stand[s] behind all of them, including those in Bradshaw Crossing.”
The builder also said it will repair any home that does not meet the commitment made to buyers.
For many homeowners, it’s hard to drill down on the underlying problem causing their home foundations to fail.
The City of Austin told us it doesn’t require developers to submit the results of soil evaluations that would shed light on the environmental conditions home foundations are built on — and how the soil was treated — and outside of local permitting offices there is not much regulation for home builders in Texas.
At one time in Texas, there was an agency tasked with helping homeowners, like Harris and her neighbors, deal with alleged construction defects.
Back in 2003, for the first time, lawmakers created the Texas Residential Construction Commission. But the agency was short-lived. After seven years in operation, the legislature shuttered it in 2009 during the Sunset Review process — a system where state workers and legislators evaluate an agency and make recommendations to the legislature for changes, including abolishment.
The then-Sunset Commission director told lawmakers during a hearing in 2009 his staff’s review of the agency found “a fundamentally flawed system” for regulating builders.
The TRCC was not a hit with homeowners. The then-director of the agency, Paulo Flores — a construction law attorney — told lawmakers in 2009 he saw the commission not as a regulatory agency, but as a state agency to help resolve disputes between builders and homebuyers.
Some lawmakers and consumers accused the TRCC of favoring builders and delaying homebuyers from filing lawsuits over what they believed were construction defects.
The TRCC had a process where homeowners could request a third-party inspection of their home through the agency — and a ruling on the alleged issues with their home. The TRCC said it oversaw 580 inspections in 2007 and found 25,000 post-construction defects in Texas homes. But critics claimed the TRCC had little power to force builders to then make repairs.
“I mean you have a process with no results. You have a homeowner that goes through a two-year process and gets nothing from your agency because you have no authority. You have nothing to do to force a builder to make a repair to a home,” said Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, during the Sunset Advisory Commission meeting on Sept. 23, 2008.
But, during hearings in 2008 and 2009, even the harshest critics of the agency expressed interest in keeping it — with fixes including shortening the timeframe for inspections and posting consumer complaints on the agency’s website.
A bill proposed by then-Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy — Hegar is now the Texas Comptroller — and the late Rep. Ruth Jones McLendon, D-San Antonio, gave lawmakers a choice: overhaul the agency or abolish it altogether.
“If this agency is abolished, both consumers and builders will lose,” said former TRCC member Mickey Redwine. “Renegade and unscrupulous builders will once again be able to operate in Texas, practically unchecked and unregulated.”
More than a decade after the commission’s end, Texas home inspector Lewis Brown, who once sat on the commission, says the homebuilding industry is still in need of regulation.
“There is no oversight,” Brown said. “We need a commission. We need oversight. We need unbiased oversight in our profession.”
The commission noted in 2007, 33 states regulated residential homebuilders in different ways. Many have state licensing agencies or set up recovery funds for homebuyers. Some states, like Nevada, developed inspection programs and help resolve disputes between builders and homeowners.
Individual cities across Texas approve building codes, including those from the International Building Code, that dictate the minimum requirements homebuilders must meet when they are building homes in any given area. The requirements can vary across the state. The Texas Legislature has passed legislation impacting the residential homebuilding industry, like laws restricting the period of time a contractor can be sued for defective construction or pandemic protections for construction projects. But there is still not a single agency tasked with solely regulating home builders in the state.
Scott Norman, the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders, said he would not speculate on whether the TRCC would be better to have now. But he said one thing available to homeowners that was not during the days of the TRCC is access to research on builders and remodelers.
“I think one of the things that exist now — that was not as prevalent, you know, going on 17, 18 years ago — is the rise of the internet and social media, the ability for consumers to learn more information beforehand,” Norman said. “We do not hear near the stories. We have 10,000 members around the state, get calls and hear things from all over our 26 local home builders associations, and the volume of complaints and those sorts of things are nothing, nothing to compare to where they were before or during the TRCC time.”