When Public Utility Commissioner Lori Cobos pressed the state's climatologist on how to account for extreme weather in strengthening Texas' electricity grid, she didn't use the C-words.
"I don't think that we can rely on the old models anymore," said Cobos, who was appointed to the commission in June. "We've got to really kind of think more progressively going forward on how we're calculating statistics and what data we're using, given the weather fluctuations in Texas and all over the country."
"Weather fluctuations" and "extreme weather" were the phrases Texas regulators largely stuck to last week in a meeting about hardening the state's electricity grid - just a few days after the world's preeminent climate change scientists released the most dire report yet on how human activity is warming the globe at a rapid pace.
Texas is already experiencing hotter and longer summers, sea level rise, and increasingly intense hurricanes due to climate change - trends that are expected to accelerate in the coming decades if humans continue to emit unsustainable quantities of greenhouse gases.
With climate change looming over the discussion, officials on the Public Utility Commission of Texas hesitantly questioned the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the state's top climatologist on how those trends could be factored into regulations for the power grid that covers much of Texas. Commissioners pondered how to plan for an unknown that scientists agree is bringing new weather extremes.
That's the fundamental question for those managing the power grid: What is "extreme" weather in Texas? The definition will underpin the agency's rules on how far power plants must go in upgrading and weatherizing to prevent another grid catastrophe - and it's unclear how or if Texas will include forward-looking climate modeling in the parameters.
The utility regulatory agency is developing rules aimed at ensuring that power plants can withstand extreme weather after a winter storm crippled the grid and left millions of people without power for several days in February, one of the worst environmental disasters in state history. The storm caused the deaths of as many as 700 people, according to a BuzzFeed analysis, and caused an estimated $86 billion to $129 billion in economic damage, according to The Perryman Group, a Texas economic firm.
Lawmakers responded with Senate Bill 3, which required upgrades to the electricity grid but largely left the details to the PUC. During the Thursday meeting, PUC staff and commissioners said lawmakers had left the agency little time to implement the new and complex regulations.
The PUC has published a preliminary draft of rules and estimates that large power plants would not need to implement the rules until the winter of 2022. Medium-size and smaller power plants would have deadlines of winter 2023 and 2024, respectively.
"We're left trying to define what a weather emergency is," Barksdale English, a director of compliance and enforcement at the Public Utility Commission, said in his remarks to commissioners Thursday. "The best we've come up with is to think about all the historical weather data that exists in the state."
But, he noted, "there's a lot of different ways to slice that data."
Despite the uncertainty about how to factor climate modeling into new rules for the power grid, Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy and climate consultant who has observed the Public Utility Commission for more than a decade, said that Thursday was a "milestone moment" politically, given that a Texas regulatory agency asked about extreme weather at all.
A decade ago, Texas' top politicians sowed confusion about climate science while suing the Obama administration over federal efforts to cut down carbon emissions. In 2014, Texas Republicans' party platform called climate change a "political agenda which attempts to control every aspect of our lives." The most recent platform states that while the party supports objective teaching of scientific theories, science, including climate change, should be taught as "challengeable scientific theories subject to change."
"This is what the Texas government, and society in general, is struggling with, is the long tradition of climate [change] denial," Lewin said. "But climate change is not a 2050 thing. It's happening now, in real time. So, that's the shift [electricity regulators have] got to make.
"I think they're trying," he added.
Will regulators prepare the grid for climate change?
A draft of the agency's new rules would require plants to be able to provide service under the 95th percentile of extreme weather scenarios - for example, the plants would have to function during 95% of extreme high or low temperatures that might occur.
Those ranges will be determined by a weather study done by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the entity that operates the grid, with input from the state's climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon. The new grid regulations would depend on that study - which may or may not include climate modeling that attempts to predict future scenarios.
In the PUC's Thursday meeting, ERCOT representatives and Nielsen-Gammon said the study would be based on historical climate data. How the study might incorporate changing weather patterns is undetermined at this point, experts at the meeting said.
"I've found that Texans in general are more trusting of data than models," Nielsen-Gammon said in response to questions from commissioners on how to incorporate recent extreme weather into the study.
"On the other hand," he said, "given the fact that we don't know what's going to happen with the climate, and given that we have a limited record, it can be prudent to allow for bigger margins of error."
One of the challenges for regulators, scientists said, will be that climate models are based on data that's analyzed on a global scale. Regulators in Texas want to predict changes on a much more granular level - the grid needs data on an hourly basis to deliver enough power as demand fluctuates - so it could prove difficult to put the two together. But climate scientists warned that leaving out climate projections would be folly.
"Any reasonable standards would account for the additional warming that can be expected," said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State and director of the Earth System Science Center.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Nielsen-Gammon said that it is possible to include some climate modeling in the study, if that's what ERCOT and the PUC decide to do.
Jason Furtado, a climate scientist at the University of Oklahoma, said that climate data can be regionalized with various "downscaling" techniques and that scientists are able to project how carbon dioxide emissions will affect the frequency of some extreme weather, such as the number of days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit per year, in a certain region.
"In my opinion, this is what needs to be done if you're planning to invest in something for the next 20, 30 or 50 years," Furtado said.
He and other climate scientists said that regulators need to include climate forecasts or risk leaving the grid unprepared for a warming world.
"The baseline is changing," Furtado said. "What we might call extreme now, in 30 years might not be as extreme."
Projecting the next extreme cold event in Texas is even more complex, scientists said. In general, climate scientists expect to see less extreme cold as the climate warms globally, but some scientists think climate change is disrupting the winter jet stream in a way that makes places like Texas more susceptible to blasts of frigid air like during the February storm, Mann said.
Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that regulators should find a way to incorporate climate modeling into the new grid rules. She pointed out that decisions made about weatherizing large facilities will need to last for decades and the planning itself can often take years.
"By just looking at past conditions, we would not have a good picture of what might happen in the future," Dahl said.
Grid fix already running behind schedule
But ERCOT and the PUC may not be able to incorporate climate change at all into the first pass at new regulations for the grid. The state is already running behind on developing regulations, commissioners and agency staff members said.
"[We have] six months to write a rule that the commission has never taken up before, and we have never regulated in this area before," said English, the PUC director. "For one that is as complex and important to the public as it is, it has been a difficult challenge."
He said that the agency asked ERCOT to complete the weather study because finding and hiring an independent firm to do it would take too long to meet the six-month deadline set by the Legislature. Even so, ERCOT is unlikely to finish the study before the end of January, PUC staff said.
In the meantime, the PUC could be forced to adopt a short-term solution. Commissioners bounced ideas around including requiring power plants to submit reports on what went wrong in February and their plans or proof of fixing it. Or, they said, they might simply use some of the national winter grid reliability standards being developed by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. as a baseline until more stringent Texas weather standards are developed.
That could buy the agency time to craft a more rigorous definition of "extreme" weather while requiring power plants to make the upgrades that lawmakers clearly desired in a short time period, commissioners said.
Whether the implementation takes months or years, energy and climate experts said, the debate over whether and how to include climate change models in the regulation will be key in the effort to prevent another power grid disaster.
"If they set a standard to weatherize to ... past weather, we're in real trouble as a state," Lewin said. "That will not secure our grid."