Energy & Environment

Texas bill seeks to keeps lights on in midst of disaster

Some Texas lawmakers want to turn rural hospitals, police stations and other critical infrastructure into backup power plants for their communities.

The bipartisan Senate Bill 1212 seeks to stabilize the state’s unreliable grid by taking a different approach than the package passed earlier this month almost entirely by Senate Republicans. 

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the bill unanimously passed the state Senate last week and is now working its way through the Texas House’s State Affairs committee.

Rather than simply increasing the amount of natural gas generation, it would further decentralize the Texas electrical system with a series of mini-grids within the larger grid — providing an additional line defense in the face of hurricanes, ice storms, or the crushing demands of heat waves.

The bill is based around two central ideas: first, that grid failures are unavoidable. And second, that building backups to guard against inevitable failure makes the system as a whole far more flexible and resilient — lowering the overall odds of failure.

The need for the bill rests on a grim truth of Texas power: that “the grid will remain vulnerable no matter what you do,” sponsor Sen. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) told The Hill.

The Hill has reached out to heads of the state Republican caucus.

The bill represents a marked departure from other legislative efforts to bolster the state grid, which largely exists as an island unconnected to the larger U.S. power system.

Past bills have focused on raising Texas utilities’ capacity to generate power on demand — particularly, as in a recent Senate package, by incentivizing natural gas and penalizing renewables.

But no matter how much power is produced — and whether made by large-scale gas or sprawling wind and solar farms — the Texas grid still relies on power lines delivering electricity from power plants to substations, and then on to neighborhoods.

Those linkages remain vulnerable to hurricanes, blocked roads, tornadoes — even cyber-attacks or physical attacks on the grid, such as the shootings last winter that destroyed North Carolina and Washington state substations.

When those links fail, critical infrastructure fails along with them: water towers, police and fire departments, hospitals, grocery stores or even (in many smaller Texas towns) a municipality’s only gas station. 

Other bills have sought to create reserves of spare power capacity, but that backup power still must come through vulnerable transmission networks. 

If those go down, “there’s certain things that we don’t want to ever go with all electricity,” Johnson said.

Senate Bill 1212 seeks to create a standardized set of off-the-shelf backup generators to keep thousands of such facilities online.

The proposed models would likely be some combination of solar and battery storage, with propane or diesel generators to provide an additional failsafe.

These are the sorts of projects that are very expensive for county managers and business owners to produce one at a time — and that (in the event that policymakers do spend on such systems on their own) risks resulting in a grid made up of an idiosyncratic array of incompatible solutions, each using different parts.

Instead, Johnson said, “We’re talking about a standardized set of off-the-shelf components, so you can say ‘yep, that’s the one I need.'”

That would guarantee to the public that even if a hurricane knocks out the power, key infrastructure will be able to keep running for a few days while transformers are repaired, and power lines reconnected.

Johnson argued that there’s another knock-on benefit: that once thousands of crucial battery and generator backups are deployed throughout the state, the grid as a whole becomes far less vulnerable to protracted outages like the ones that followed 2021’s Winter Storm Uri.

The power failures that marked Uri was a complex event resulting from the combination of 

spiking power demands (driven by households attempting to keep warm) that collided with supply interruptions as power lines and gas pipelines froze.

The loss of nearly half the state’s generation capacity forced the independent operators of the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas to rapidly cut 20 gigawatts of power, according to a report by S&P Global.

That’s a staggering amount of power — equivalent to the energy required to power about 15 million households, or half-again as many as there are in Texas.  

And Texas got off easy. While the days of power interruptions were disastrous — leading to hundreds of deaths from freezing temperatures and generator mishaps — before ERCOT slashed the load, the state grid was less than five minutes from a total overload.

If electric load hadn’t been cut in time, Texas could have experienced statewide blackouts that could have taken weeks or months to fix.

“If we have a blackout of the system, the system is out for an indeterminate amount of time, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to bring back,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said in February 2021. 

The need to massively reduce load led to a protracted crisis, Johnson told The Hill.

“The real horror show from [2021’s] Winter Storm Uri isn’t that people lost power — it’s that people lost power for days on end,” Johnson told The Hill.

And a principal reason for that, he argued, is that ERCOT couldn’t rotate power away from any lines feeding power to facilities like nursing homes or hospitals, because — since those facilities had no backup power — the consequences of doing so were potentially lethal.

Senate Bill 1212 addresses that larger problem by making sure that such infrastructure has backups — allowing grid operators more flexibility in moving power around. 

“We can flip stuff on and off and rotate it around,” Johnson said. 

By doing so, sections of the grid “that was a critical feeder — which you could not cut because you’d end up killing all the people in the assisted living facility — now becomes rotatable because you have backup power,” he said.

Tags Energy power grid power outages Texas

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