Jolie McCullough

Texas leaders failed to heed warnings that left the state's power grid vulnerable to winter extremes: experts

By Erin Douglas, Kate McGee and Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Feb. 17, 2021

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Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.

While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state's energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state's power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.

“Nuclear units, gas units, wind turbines, even solar, in different ways — the very cold weather and snow has impacted every type of generator," said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

Energy and policy experts said Texas' decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choice to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.

Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.

“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits," said Tom “Smitty" Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.

“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies'] rush for profits," he said.

It is possible to “winterize" natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.

Lessons from 2011

In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.

Woodfin, of ERCOT, acknowledged that there's no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures. “Those are not mandatory, it's a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things," he said. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point."

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is currently developing mandatory standards for “winterizing" energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.

Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing" of power infrastructure was necessary, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation shows. The large number of units that tripped offline or couldn't start during that storm “demonstrates that the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds," regulators wrote at the time. More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages, the report said.

“This should have been addressed in 2011 by the Legislature after that market meltdown, but there was no substantial follow up," by state politicians or regulators, said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston. “They skipped on down the road with business as usual."

ERCOT officials said that some generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, and new voluntary “best practices" were adopted. Woodfin said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were “not sufficient to keep these generators online," during this storm.

After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rolling blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark and have remained without heat or power for days. On Tuesday, nearly 60% of Houston households and businesses were without power. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40% went offline during the storm, Woodfin said.

Climate wake-up call

Climate scientists in Texas agree with ERCOT leaders that this week's storm was unprecedented in some ways. They also say it's evidence that Texas is not prepared to handle an increasing number of more volatile and more extreme weather events.

“We cannot rely on our past to guide our future," said Dev Niyogi, a geosciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously served as the state climatologist for Indiana. He noted that previous barometers are becoming less useful as states see more intense weather covering larger areas for prolonged periods of time. He said climate scientists want infrastructure design to consider a “much larger spectrum of possibilities" rather than treating these storms as a rarity, or a so-called “100-year event."

Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University, highlighted a 2018 study that showed how a warming Arctic is creating more severe polar vortex events. “It's a wake up call to say, 'What if these are getting more frequent?'" Hayhoe said. “Moving forward, that gives us even more reason to be more prepared in the future."

Still, Hayhoe and Niyogi acknowledged there's uncertainty about the connection between climate change and cold air outbreaks from the Arctic.

Other Texas officials looked beyond ERCOT. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins argued that the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry — a remit that includes natural gas wells and pipelines — prioritized commercial customers over residents by not requiring equipment to be better equipped for cold weather. The RRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Other states require you to have cold weather packages on your generation equipment and require you to use, either through depth or through materials, gas piping that is less likely to freeze," Jenkins said.

Texas' electricity market is also deregulated, meaning that no one company owns all the power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks. Instead, several different companies generate and transmit power, which they sell on the wholesale market to yet more players. Those power companies in turn are the ones that sell to homes and businesses. Policy experts disagree on whether a different structure would have helped Texas navigate these outages. “I don't think deregulation itself is necessarily the thing to blame here," said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute.

History of isolation

Texas' grid is also mostly isolated from other areas of the country, a set up designed to avoid federal regulation. It has some connectivity to Mexico and to the Eastern U.S. grid, but those ties have limits on what they can transmit. The Eastern U.S. is also facing the same winter storm that is creating a surge in power demand. That means that Texas has been unable to get much help from other areas.

“If you're going to say you can handle it by yourself, step up and do it," said Hirs, the UH energy fellow, of the state's pursuit of an independent grid with a deregulated market. “That's the incredible failure."

Rhodes, of UT Austin, said Texas policy makers should consider more connections to the rest of the country. That, he acknowledged, could come at a higher financial cost — and so will any improvements to the grid to prevent future disasters. There's an open question as to whether Texas leadership will be willing to fund, or politically support, any of these options.

“We need to have a conversation about if we believe that we're going to have more weather events like this," Rhodes said. “On some level, it comes down to if you want a more resilient grid, we can build it, it will just cost more money. What are you willing to pay? We're going to have to confront that."

Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Austin and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/17/texas-power-grid-failures/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

George W. Bush congratulates President-elect Joe Biden on his victory: The 'outcome is clear'

"George W. Bush congratulates President-elect Joe Biden on his victory, says the "outcome is clear"" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Former President George W. Bush congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on Sunday, sending a clear signal to other Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who are questioning the election results.

"Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country," Bush said in a statement. "The President-elect reiterated that while he ran as a Democrat, he will govern for all Americans. I offered him the same thing I offered Presidents Trump and Obama: my prayers for his success, and my pledge to help in any way I can."

Bush, a Republican who also served as Texas' governor, said he had spoken with the Democratic president-elect and had thanked Biden for "the patriotic message he delivered last night" in his acceptance speech. He also said he called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Bush said that Biden "earned the votes of more than 70 million Americans," but noted that Trump had the right to "request recounts and pursue legal challenges"

"The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld and its outcome is clear," Bush said. "The challenges that face our country will demand the best of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris – and the best of us all. We must come together for the sake of our families and neighbors, and for our nation and its future."

Trump has refused to concede, saying the election was stolen and making unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. The president's campaign has filed several legal challenges to contest the election results in battleground states. Judges in two of those cases — in Michigan and Georgia — tossed out the lawsuits because the campaign failed to provide evidence that laws were broken. A federal judge also denied the campaign's request to stop counting votes in Philadelphia, but ordered election officials to expand the number of people allowed in the room.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/08/george-w-bush-congratulates-biden/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

Texas Supreme Court rejects GOP-led effort to throw out nearly 127,000 Harris County votes

By Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Nov. 1, 2020

"Texas Supreme Court rejects Republican-led effort to throw out nearly 127,000 Harris County votes" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

A legal cloud hanging over nearly 127,000 votes already cast in Harris County was at least temporarily lifted Sunday when the Texas Supreme Court rejected a request by several conservative Republican activists and candidates to preemptively throw out early balloting from drive-thru polling sites in the state's most populous, and largely Democratic, county.

The all-Republican court denied the request without an order or opinion, as justices did last month in a similar lawsuit brought by some of the same plaintiffs.

The Republican plaintiffs, however, are pursuing a similar lawsuit in federal court, hoping to get the votes thrown out by arguing that drive-thru voting violates the U.S. constitution. A hearing in that case is set for Monday morning in a Houston-based federal district court, one day before Election Day. A rejection of the votes would constitute a monumental disenfranchisement of voters — drive-thru ballots account for about 10% of all in-person ballots cast during early voting in Harris County.

After testing the approach during the July primary runoff with little controversy, Harris County, home to Houston, set up 10 drive-thru centers for the fall election to make early voting easier for people concerned about entering polling places during the pandemic. Voters pull up in their cars and, after their registrations and identifications have been confirmed by poll workers, are handed an electronic tablet through their car windows to cast ballots.

In a last-minute filing to the Supreme Court, litigious conservative Steven Hotze and Harris County Republicans state Rep. Steve Toth, congressional candidate Wendell Champion and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill sought to have the votes declared illegal. They argued that the drive-thru program was an expansion of curbside voting and under state election law should only be available for voters with disabilities. The same argument had been made in an unsuccessful previous legal challenge from Hotze and Hemphill — along with the Harris County Republican Party — filed at the state Supreme Court hours before early voting began.

Curbside voting, long available under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter's health." Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The Harris County Clerk's Office argued that its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore can be available to all voters. The clerk's filing with the Supreme Court in the earlier lawsuit also said the Texas secretary of state's office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state's chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally," according to court transcripts.

Plus, the county argued in a Friday filing that Texas' election code, along with court rulings, have determined that even if the drive-thru locations are violations, votes cast there are still valid.

"More than a century of Texas case law requires that votes be counted even if election official[s] violate directory election laws," the filing said.

The challenge was the latest in a flurry of lawsuits on Texas voting procedures filed in recent months, with Democrats and voting rights groups pushing for expanded voting access in the pandemic and Republicans seeking to limit voting options. In this case, the lawsuit filed Tuesday asked the state Supreme Court to close Harris County's 10 new drive-thru polling places and not count votes that had been cast at them during early voting.

The court has recently ruled against other last-minute challenges on voting access by noting that the cases were filed too late and that changes to voting procedure during an election would sow voter confusion.

Since the first Republican challenge to drive-thru voting was filed on Oct. 12, the Texas secretary of state and Gov. Greg Abbott had both ignored requests from reporters and Harris County officials to clarify their positions on whether the process was legal. Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to all local election officials claiming that most voters can't legally vote at drive-thru locations, fueling speculation that the all-Republican Supreme Court would use the case to invalidate ballots already cast. The court rejected the case the next week, with a lone dissent from Justice John Devine.

The new challenge by Republicans again asked the court to reject drive-thru voting as an illegal expansion of curbside voting, and went further by also asking the court to issue an order rejecting votes already cast.

“Unless stopped, illegal votes will be cast and counted in direct violation of the Texas Election Code and the United States Constitution and result in the integrity of elections in Harris County being compromised," the petition to the court said.

The county clerk's office countered that the first challenge to drive-thru voting had already been denied, and the second filing came much too late.

"Hotze filed a petition contesting drive thru locations on the third day of early voting which this Court already denied," the clerk's Friday filing said. "He filed this second petition two and a half weeks into early voting, six days before Election Day, and after fifty percent of registered voters have already voted."

The tens of thousands of votes are still in flux, however, as the federal courts now weigh the issue. Hotze and the others asked the district court this week to toss the votes, arguing the county's implementation of drive-thru voting violates the U.S. Constitution. The campaign of Texas' Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, MJ Hegar, along with national Democratic campaign groups have asked to intervene in the lawsuit — following a national trend in Republican-led fights against voting expansions during the tumultuous election.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/01/texas-drive-thru-votes-harris-county/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

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