The February winter storm and power outage crisis in Texas “was foreseeable; it was preventable,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday.
The former state representative, speaking at a Texas Tribune event, also decried the state Legislature for ignoring several opportunities in recent years to update the state’s infrastructure and power grid to withstand the effects of climate change. Turner, who has led Houston through several climate disasters including Hurricane Harvey, recently became the newest chair of Climate Mayors, a nationwide coalition focused on combating the impacts of climate change.
“It’s clear that the climate is getting warmer and the storms are coming with greater frequency and greater intensity and costing even more,” Turner told Tribune environment reporter Erin Douglas. “It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”
Here are some highlights from the conversation.
Last month, millions across the state lost power during a massive winter storm. What were your big takeaways from this storm, and what went wrong on a local level in cities around Texas?
In 2011, after another winter storm that caused blackouts and water issues, Turner – a state representative at the time – filed a bill asking the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to maintain an adequate power supply to prevent outages during any crisis. He also wrote a letter that year to the Public Utility Commission voicing concerns about the available supply of electricity in the state, he said.
He added that both of those efforts “were pretty much ignored,” and the state did not implement any major changes to its infrastructure or power grid. He also added that ERCOT and other key players in the state’s electric system never fully acknowledged the role of climate change in causing more frequent and intense weather events.
“Climate change indicates that these types of extremes can come whether you’re dealing with the spring, the summer, the fall or the winter,” Turner said. “So you have to create a system that is resilient, that factors in that climate change is real, and you have to prepare for the entire year.”
In Houston and other major cities, what policy changes will be needed in the future to prevent this from happening again?
In February 2020, the city established its “Resilient Houston” program, a multi-billion-dollar effort to fight the effects of natural disasters and climate change. Turner said he is also collaborating on projects to protect essential services like the power grid and water treatment facilities.
Turner mentioned the possibility of building a power microgrid that would provide backup electricity in the event of a major outage in Houston. City officials are researching potential updates to building codes that would ensure greater protection for homes and apartments, he said.
“There are a number of things that we are looking at based on what took place one month ago to put us in a much better position, that if we have these widespread power outages, that people will not be left without power or without water, and that the whole system won’t shut down,” Turner said.
When you talk about energy transition, what does that mean for the Houston energy sector, especially the oil and gas industry?
Turner said he remains proud of Houston’s status as the energy capital of the world, but he emphasized that discussing energy transition and diversification are necessary to be a global leader in the modern energy sector.
As of July, for example, renewable energy sources fully power all city facilities in Houston, according to Turner.
Energy companies have a seat at the table to discuss innovation and modern solutions to climate problems, he said.
“You have to factor in renewables in a very real way, and these energy companies are a part of those collaborations,” Turner said. “Quite frankly, what we have found is that the more we are talking about pushing it forward, they’re taking bolder, stronger initiatives to bring about this energy transition. It just makes good economic sense to do that.”
Has the business community expressed any concerns over this energy transition plan? Do you worry that you’re going to push companies out?
Turner acknowledged that “there’s probably some nervousness on the part of companies,” but said moving forward with diversification of power sources and energy transition is necessary for the wellbeing of all residents and companies.
Turner thinks that there’s no better time for Houston to serve as an example for other cities around the country and the world in how to best fight climate change.
“You can’t talk about international, global trade and business investments without also being able to say to people around the country and around the globe that the city of Houston is genuinely focused on taking the necessary steps to build resilience and also to address climate change,” Turner said.
This conversation is supported by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, CenterPoint Energy and the Texas Municipal League. Foundation support is provided by the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, Energy Foundation and Catena Foundation.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.