TEXAS — When it comes to electricity, the Lone Star State is certainly alone. The power grid in Texas is isolated from the rest of the country, and the deadly winter storm last year fueled questions about whether it's time to reevaluate the state’s energy independence.
Last year, when the deadly winter storm pummeled most of Texas, there were other parts of the state left largely unscathed.
“You're really concerned about the parts of the state who are not prepared and are not equipped for that sort of thing, who don't have snow removal equipment” Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told Capital Tonight. “We should all be concerned about the things that our fellow citizens go through, because there's some real risks, economic risks and health risks.”
Seliger said he did not experience widespread power outages where he lives in the Panhandle. Like El Paso and Beaumont, Amarillo is not under the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which mostly operates separately from the rest of country. That has prompted questions of whether Texas should rethink its go-it-alone approach.
“It’s perfectly feasible. But if anybody thinks that's necessarily going to completely solve the problem, it probably won't. There probably is no one solution. One of the things that we know is, we probably need more electricity to enter into our system,” Seliger said.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed legislation regulating interstate electric utilities, but Texas wanted to avoid dealing with the federal government. Since his presidency, the lower 48 states have been divided into three grids, with the Western and Eastern Interconnections under federal oversight. But Texas’s ERCOT-managed grid stands alone.
If the Lone Star State was not largely on a power island during the winter storm, it could have pulled power from other parts of the country.
Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, cautioned that it would not have made a significant difference last year.
“We had a massive hole in our supply, and so we would have just dragged down everybody else. No grid is going to want to connect to Texas until the ERCOT grid is up to their standards,” Hirs said.
To connect to the Eastern or Western Interconnections would take years, hundreds of millions of dollars in engineering investments, not to mention buy-in from Texas regulators, the state legislature and the federal government.
Officials with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommended further studying whether Texas’s grid should be linked to the others. During meetings, the commission’s chairman suggested it is not about jurisdiction and encouraged Texas leaders to reconsider given the consequences of last year’s storm.
“ERCOT is essentially an island onto itself in large part because Texas wants to avoid having its grid be regulated, in part, by this commission. From my perspective that is very short-sighted and amounts to nothing more than cutting off your nose despite your face. I say to our friends in Texas, to me, this isn't about jurisdiction. It's about saving lives. There are always ways we can work together to ensure Texas retains a strong voice in its energy future,” said FERC Chairman Richard Glick, according to a transcript of a September commission meeting about the preliminary findings into the Texas winter storm.
Michael Webber, the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed it was worth posing the question and considering the possibility.
“Texans generally are afraid of federal regulators as part of our cultural ethics. But we also like to make money off our land. That's another cultural ethic,” Webber said. “These are in conflict, where our fear of the feds is preventing us making money for our land. Well, let's explore the possibility. Maybe it's not so bad.”