Millions of residents of Texas and bordering states—and even parts of Mexico—are without power this week, facing freezing, life-threatening temperatures. This should be a wake-up call for the nation that “all-hazards resilience” must become a top priority for owners, operators, and regulators of electric power infrastructure at the federal, state, and local level.
Until resilience becomes as much of a priority as “clean” and “renewable” energy infrastructure, and until support for grid security overcomes partisan politics, blackouts will continue to threaten the lives of our citizens and even our national security.
Conservative pundits were quick to blame the Texas blackout on the state becoming “recklessly reliant on so-called alternative energy,” as Fox’s Tucker Carlson stated: “Running out of energy in Texas is like starving to death at the grocery store: You can only do it on purpose, and Texas did.” Similarly, Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, tweeted that “the root cause of the TX blackouts is a national and state policy that has prioritized the adoption of unreliable wind/solar energy over reliable energy.”
Meanwhile, Bloomberg Green cautioned, “Don’t point too many fingers at Texas wind turbines, because they’re not the main reason broad swaths of the state have been plunged into darkness,” rightfully warning that frozen instruments at power generation facilities—including coal, nuclear, and natural gas—were a significant concern, as pointed out by executives at Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which runs the Texas grid.
Ultimately, every form of power generation in Texas has been affected by the winter weather, much the same way that California’s power generators were affected by last year’s severe heat. According to its 2017 testimony before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Foundation for Resilient Societies warned, “Major blackouts for California and Texas in 2011 are warning signs of market failures—both of these blackouts were indirectly caused by insufficient local generation reserves.”
The testimony describes in detail how market failures lead to grid failures:
“For generator operators, the rational economic calculation can be to collect payments for ‘reliable capacity’ and to simply pay penalties for the rare occasions where capacity cannot be delivered as promised. … The result of these deliberate market designs is less generation capacity that is resilient to short-term disruptions in supply—such as nuclear, coal-fired, hydroelectric, petroleum-fired, and gas-fired dual-fuel—and more capacity that causes risk of long-term, large-scale blackouts—such as electricity imported on long transmission lines and also gas-fired generation entirely dependent on the unreliable flow of gas from pipelines with single points of failure.”
Translation: There are immense market pressures for grid operators to move to “environmentally friendly” power generation and “just in time” capacity and away from resilient sources of base-load power.
Much of this market pressure comes from the incentives or the penalties that governments dictate to the electric power industry. While market pressures, incentives, and penalties may seem in the weeds, these issues have profound implications for the nation’s security.
This is, in part, why the Trump administration worked to establish incentives for shoring up the national grid—declaring “a national emergency with respect to the threat to the United States bulk power system” and warning “foreign adversaries are increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in the United States bulk-power system.” The measure was suspended by the Biden administration.
Even now, during a real crisis affecting the lives of millions, the Biden administration’s acting Secretary of Energy, David Huizenga, directed ERCOT to “exhaust all reasonably and practically available resources, including available imports, demand response, and identified behind-the-meter generation resources selected to minimize an increase in emissions [emphasis added]”—putting onerous reporting requirements on the state while it struggles to find more power generation capability.
So, while penalties and incentives exist when it comes to the environmental aspects of electric power generation, transmission, and distribution—some of which may be justifiable—there are no such incentives for resilience.
And so grid resilience becomes an afterthought—until the lights go out.
“All-hazards resilience” must be the goal and should include securing the grid against physical sabotage, cyber vulnerabilities, supply chain vulnerabilities, terrestrial weather (such as hurricanes, floods, extreme cold weather, etc.), space weather, and man-made electromagnetic threats (such as radio frequency weapons or nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP). “All-hazards resilience” must also include important considerations such as the source, ownership, type, proximity, and storage capacity of power generation resources.
Texas has its “own grid” and is perhaps uniquely able to take steps, through executive and legislative action, to ensure “all-hazards resilience” for the grid their citizens rely on. Thus far, the state’s leaders have failed, despite ample warnings and a herculean effort on the part of just a couple of state legislators over the past six years.
Governor Abbott was warned in 2015 by 23 members of the Texas Congressional Delegation that “the federal government has struggled to address the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure at the national level,” suggesting that Texas “adopt measures that maximize the resiliency of our electric grid against all hazards.”
Again in 2018, members of the Texas Congressional Delegation wrote to Governor Abbott their “strong recommendation that action must be taken with the utmost urgency at the state level” to “help Texas lead by example by creating workable solutions to protect the electric grid from all hazards.”
The letter referenced promising legislation authored by Texas state Senator Bob Hall—legislation which in various forms ultimately passed in the Texas Senate in 2015, 2017, and 2019 only to die in the Texas House, despite heroic efforts by Texas State Representative Tony Tinderholt and a few others.
Texans should be aware that while Senator Bob Hall and Representative Tinderholt were championing the concept of “Sustaining Economic Prosperity Through Resilient Energy Communities” through protecting the electric grid from all hazards, some of their colleagues were working exceptionally hard to limit the focus to only cyber and physical security of the grid.
In 2019, Senator Hall’s legislation was replaced at the last moment with a watered-down version. Despite thorough written and verbal testimony cautioning about the dangerously narrow focus of the replacement legislation, the bill passed through the legislative process and was signed into law by Governor Abbott on June 7, 2019.
Since the 2019 legislative session, threats to the Texas grid have only grown. Not even the Trump administration or the environmental lobby was able to stop a Chinese-owned company, connected to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, from purchasing 130,000 acres to construct a wind farm near the state’s Laughlin Air Force Base.
If we are concerned about the effect to the grid from wind power being disabled due to freezing rain, imagine the risk with hostile actors who might deliberately disable them at a key moment. This is, perhaps, what has alerted lawmakers in other states, such as South Carolina, to file legislation directing studies surrounding the impact of wind farms on nearby DoD facilities.
As the Texas blackout continues into its third day, Governor Abbott announced a new emergency item for the Legislature to “investigate ERCOT” and to “ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the scale they have seen over the past several days.” Some lawmakers have already begun their own investigating, with Representative Jeff Leach pointing out that the current ERCOT board chair doesn’t live in the state of Texas and committing to file “legislation requiring all ERCOT officers and directors to be Texas residents.”
To be successful, Governor Abbott and the Texas Legislature can look at what champions on the issue of grid security have been saying all along.
“Grid security should be at the top of every lawmaker’s priorities. It is for me, and always will be,” said Representative Tinderholt, who has already filed grid security legislation this session.
Senator Hall added, “This firsthand experience of getting a taste of what it would be like without power for an extended period of time—even though this is but a small fraction of what they would experience—I think is going to be enough to sway people to say ‘enough is enough’ and that 2021 has to be the end of the road for kicking the grid security can down the road.”
Some leaders are pushing for incentives and penalties that will promote all-hazards resilience for their community’s utility providers, while others are willing to keep kicking the can down the road. As this winter storm passes and power is restored, the people of Texas will be looking for answers as to why the Lone Star State hasn’t used the opportunity of having its own grid to be a national leader in all-hazards resilience.
This commentary was originally published by the Center for Security Policy.
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