One year after the Texas Blackouts: What progress has the state made to keep the lights on?
By Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)
It was over a year ago, during February 2020, when the lights went out in Texas. Winter Storm Uri descended on Texans and triggered cascading power outages that left over 4 million households without power for days or even weeks. At least 246 people died as a result of the storms. And over time, we have learned how Winter Storm Uri’s impacts were borne disproportionately by minority and low-income communities. An April 2021 analysis found that areas in Texas with a high share of minority population were more than four times as likely to suffer a power outage from Uri than predominantly white areas.
It is my responsibility as the dean of the Texas delegation in Congress, and as Chairwoman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, to examine the conditions that led to this calamity. The Science Committee has a key role to play in the development of legislation that can help build far more resilient energy infrastructure in our state and across the country. My Committee held a hearing on the blackouts last March, where we learned that the crisis was not the fault of renewable energy in any substantial way, but instead primarily due to energy infrastructure that had not been winterized and a broader lack of planning for the entire electricity system.
So, what progress has the state made?
Here’s the bad news: a year later we haven’t yet addressed nearly enough of the conditions that made the Texas grid so vulnerable. Most power plants have now been winterized, but the gas wells and supply lines that serve them have not. Only very preliminary plans have been laid to improve energy efficiency programs that would reduce stress on the grid during extreme conditions, and our imprecise strategies for reducing electricity load during a crisis remain unchanged. We haven’t yet acted on a promising proposal that would interconnect the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid with the eastern United States via high-voltage transmission. Connecting ERCOT to energy grids outside the state would help keep the lights on when Texans are faced with an extreme event overloading our grid, like Winter Storm Uri.
The good news is: the Texas Public Utility Commission recently produced a blueprint for evaluating a number of reforms intended to improve grid performance, and we have a brain trust of scientific experts in Texas and across the nation who can help us choose the right path. If we take effective action, Texas can improve grid resilience while cutting electricity bills, reducing our impact on the global climate, and creating economic opportunities in emerging industries. As the leading energy producing state in the nation, Texas should be making plans for nothing less than the most sophisticated electricity systems that modern technology can provide.
In Washington, Congress has been hard at work to provide new resources to enable a 21st century grid. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which President Biden signed into law in November, provides unprecedented new funding to demonstrate and deploy advanced grid technologies. The Energy Act of 2020 supports exciting new research activities at the Department of Energy that will help develop improved smart grid technologies, better enable distributed generation of electricity, and visualize grid operations in real time. My Committee is working now on a bipartisan basis to advance the Grid Security Research and Development Act, which would help fortify the electricity system against cyberattacks and natural hazards, and the National Wildland Fire Risk Reduction Program Act, which would improve energy sector safety and resilience in extreme conditions — including extreme cold.
I have a lot of aspirations for Texas’s energy sector as we move forward in 2022. I hope that the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT will strengthen their partnerships with the world class experts at the Department of Energy’s national laboratories to evaluate new grid strategies and ensure decision-making is informed by the best available science. I hope that the Public Utility Commission will welcome advice and feedback from the stakeholders who come to the table, particularly from those communities most impacted by Winter Storm Uri. I also hope that our university and industry researchers, utilities, and grid managers will make use of existing federal funding opportunities for developing, demonstrating, and deploying new, improved grid technologies across the state.
What Texans endured last February must not be in vain. Winter Storm Uri was historic, but we also have historic resources at our disposal that can help ensure Texas builds back better. I remain committed to standing up for Texans, and Americans across the nation, as we work towards building a stronger, safer, and more reliable energy infrastructure.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson represents the 30th District of Texas (Dallas) in Congress and is the Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.