Gov. Greg Abbott and ERCOT promise to 'keep the lights on' as Texas power grid remains vulnerable

Gov. Greg Abbott and ERCOT promise to 'keep the lights on' as Texas power grid remains vulnerable
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas

Portions of Texas are experiencing frigid winter weather for the first time this season. Given last year’s devastating winter storm that led to millions going without power and at least 246 people dying, all eyes are on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s power grid. All messaging from Gov. Greg Abbott and ERCOT has been resoundingly optimistic and oddly unified—and there’s a reason for that. According to the Texas Tribune, Abbott deliberately stepped in to set up a reassuring press conference and take the public relations reins from ERCOT.

ERCOT board member Peter Lake and interim ERCOT CEO Brad Jones held a public meeting in early December where they promised Texans that “the lights will stay on,” echoing verbatim comments made by Abbott during an interview with Austin Fox affiliate KTBC mere weeks beforehand. Towards the end of December, ERCOT issued a press release with even more reassurances. “Texans can be confident the electric generation fleet and the grid are winterized and ready to provide power,” Vice President of Grid Planning and Weatherization Woody Rickerson said in a press release, citing new regulation requirements.

One former ERCOT board member told the Tribune that such promises from both ERCOT and Abbott amounted to nothing more than lip service. “It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move. It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now,” Peter Cramton told the paper. Cramton is an energy markets expert who resigned from the ERCOT board after the 2021 storm. Those who’ve remained on the board appear to be fairly content with their decisions, or at least have made an investment into keeping this symbiotic relationship with Abbott.

According to data from nonprofit campaign filing watchdog Transparency USA, prominent Texas businessman and ERCOT Board Chair Paul Foster has thrown at least $250,000 Abbott’s way in hopes of keeping the governor in power. Other board members have been less obvious with their donations, though their money has likely made its way to Abbott’s Texans for Greg Abbott super PAC. Robert “Bob” Flexon, who is considered an independent board member, has dropped hundreds into the NRG Energy Inc. PAC, which has unsurprisingly pledged thousands to Abbott as part of its PAC efforts. Prior to joining the ERCOT board, Flexon held a number of prominent positions with energy companies and was the COO and CFO of NRG Energy. A quick look at donations for Abbott’s super PAC shows a who’s who of major energy players, including Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, who’s given $1 million. Much like other energy companies that ultimately benefited from last year’s winter storm, Energy Transfer raked in $2.4 billion due to skyrocketing gas prices as Texas experienced a major shortage during the storm.

Shortly after making his promise that the energy grid would hold up, Abbott met with energy industry CEOs to discuss their winter readiness, which is certainly putting the cart before the horse. Though ERCOT continues to promise that their weatherization efforts will hold up, a finalized inspection report won’t even be available to lawmakers until Jan. 18. According to ERCOT, “inspections were completed at more than 300 electric generation units, representing 85 percent of the megawatt hours lost during Winter Storm Uri due to outages and 22 transmission station facilities.” According to ERCOT’s own website, the organization boasts more than 710 generation units. It’s unclear if ERCOT has done its due diligence to weatherize not just units that gravely failed, but every unit susceptible to inclement weather.

Texas lawmakers raised maximum penalties to $1 million per day for facilities that are not adequately weatherized in the wake of last year’s winter storm, but a more proactive move would be to update and address issues like this before they become a problem. Climate change will continue to make keeping the lights on that much more difficult, but allocations in the Build Back Better Act could make a huge difference in the present and in the long run. Of course, there are other options if that fails, such as executive orders and states taking action. With West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin still unwilling to compromise and even admitting that “there are no negotiations going on at this time,” it’s anyone’s guess what the next steps forward may actually look like, though the clock is certainly ticking as inclement weather continues to batter Texas and other states in the Lower 48.

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