Texas' Electric Capacity Under Scrutiny

An electrical substation in Comfort, TX.
An electrical substation in Comfort, TX.

Last summer’s record heat pushed the Texas power grid to the brink. Many of us sat comfortably in our air conditioning without realizing we were on the edge of rolling blackouts.

Today, a state House committee will look into what's being done to prevent that from happening again.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

The state is struggling to replace capacity at plants that, because of age or federal regulation, need to be overhauled or simply closed. That’s the landscape Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, will survey at today’s State Affairs Committee hearing.

“As an example, the cross-state air pollution rule, had it gone into effect the first of January, I think it’s very likely that we would have found ourselves short of adequate energy margins,” Cook said.

That rule would have partially shut a coal-fired power plant in Northeast Texas.

A federal court blocked the EPA rule. But Texas is still expected to have less extra electricity than it did last summer.

That safety cushion is called the “reserve margin.” It’s how much capacity exceeds forecast demand. And that cushion will be thinner this year because demand for electricity is increasing but the state’s ability to generate it is not.

For Geoffrey Gay, the head lawyer at the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, that’s a great example of why it may be time for Texas to end its self-run, self-contained grid system.

“All I’m suggesting is, it’s time to start talking to federal regulators about how we can participate in a national grid,” Gay said.

Gay said he’d like to see Texas keep its regulatory oversight of the grid through the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. But he said tapping into the national grid would be a cheaper and easier way to add electric capacity.

“It used to be that we wanted to preserve our autonomy and to protect our cheap power and to recognize the fact that we had adequate reserve margins,” Gay said. “Today that is changed, and we don’t have the cheapest power in the country, and we have a dwindling reserve margin.”

He said that for him, it’s not a political issue but about practicality and what is good for the people of Texas.

But the political winds in the state are bearing strongly against Washington. Some politicians blame the Environmental Protection Agency for limiting the state’s options for new power generation. And the idea of having the federal government oversee the Texas grid may be too hard to swallow in the next legislative session.

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