Gov. Abbott tells regulators to encourage building more power plants, penalize renewable energy

ByMitchell Ferman, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
ERCOT: What it does for Texas power and why is it a nonprofit?
WHAT IS ERCOT? There might be some misunderstanding behind the leaders behind Texas' electric grid. In the video, get a basic understanding of what this group does and why it was formed.

Two days before state lawmakers return to Austin for a special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave state electricity regulators marching orders to "improve electric reliability."

In a letter to the Public Utility Commission, Abbott directed the three-person board of directors, who he appoints, to take action that would require renewable energy companies to pay for power when wind and solar aren't able to provide it to the state's main power grid, echoing a move state lawmakers rejected in May.

The Texas Tribune reports that Abbott also told the PUC to incentivize companies to build and maintain nuclear, natural gas and coal power generation for the grid - which failed spectacularly during a February winter storm, leaving millions of Texans without power or heat for days in below freezing temperatures.

READ MORE: Texas death toll from February's winter storm storm and power outages surpasses 100

As temperatures dropped, Gilbert Rivera hunkered down in his second-floor garage apartment. His family spoke to him Tuesday, but by evening, he stopped answering their phone calls. On Wednesday morning, Rivera's family learned he froze to death.

Texas energy experts were skeptical that Abbott's orders would actually improve the reliability of the state grid, which operates mostly independently of the nation's two other major grids.

"What is here is not a serious or prudent plan for improving the grid," Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said in an interview Tuesday. "It's more of a political job favoring some [energy] sources over others. For Texans to have a more reliable power supply, we need clearer thinking that makes the best of all the sources we have."

Abbott's letter also called on the PUC to direct the state's main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to better schedule when power plants are offline, an issue that caused tension between state regulators and power generators after some power plants unexpectedly went offline in June and led ERCOT to ask Texans to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees for a week during a heat wave to conserve energy.

SEE ALSO: 13 Investigates: No incentive, no clear electric savings, ERCOT can't define voluntary compliance

The best an ERCOT spokesperson could tell 13 Investigates was that they know it helps, but at this point "we don't know how much."

Abbott responded to the plant outages by declaring the power grid "is better today than it's ever been."

In the letter, Abbott said his directives to the PUC are aimed at ensuring "that all Texans have access to reliable, safe, and affordable power, and that this task is achieved in the quickest possible way."

The letter doesn't include many specifics about how the PUC should carry out Abbott's requests to improve the grid. A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

State lawmakers responded to February's deadly winter storm with a few key changes to the power grid that energy experts have said will begin to address issues exposed by the storm, such as requiring power companies to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather and creating an emergency alert system. But lawmakers did not provide direct relief for everyday Texans.

RELATED: Texas Legislature approves bill to ban residential wholesale electricity plans

While the governor's office got the first key bill in response to February's winter storm, time is running out on a slate of other bills lawmakers are considering.

"Governor Abbott has been consistently clear on his desire for a reliable grid and the 87th Texas Legislature laid out a detailed road map to that goal," PUC spokesperson Andrew Barlow said in response to questions about Abbott's letter. "While the PUC has been working on many of the items in his directive, this additional clarity is a welcome addition to our process."

As Abbott prepares to release the agenda for a special session of the Legislature that begins Thursday, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others have called on him to add energy-related issues to the list.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers and leaders have criticized Abbott for turning his attention to building a state-funded border wall rather than fixing the state power grid.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.