Tomlinson: The Texas Legislature wants to raise electricity rates

Every state official should feel ashamed that Texas cannot reliably provide a fundamental...

Tomlinson: The Texas Legislature wants to raise electricity rates

This is a carousel. Use Next and Previous buttons to navigate 1of6Tree branches downwind from the fountain at Bob Smith Park is coated in ice as temperatures remain below freezing on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022 in Houston.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less 2of6Line crews work on a transformer that was hit by a metro bus, creating a power outage, on Washington and Montrose on Friday, Dec.

23, 2022 in Houston.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less 3of6The sunrises behind the Houston skyline as residents wake up to below freezing temperatures on Friday, Dec. 23, 2022 in Houston.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less 4of6John Davis Sapp, with Conroe's Park and Recreation Department, looks on as Dayton Sweeting works to secure covered plants in front of the Crighton Theater, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Conroe.

“Most of these plants should make it, but others you do what you can and hope for the best,” Sapp said. “The rain will let up before the worse of it gets here, so it doesnâ€__LINK__t look like conditions will be as bad as last yearâ€__LINK__s freeze. Still, you still prepare the same.

Things can change quickly.” A cold front forecasted to sweep across Texas could plunge temperatures in and around Houston into the 20s or lower, the National Weather Service said. A forecast predicting very cold temperatures on the night of Thursday, Dec. 22 into the following morning.

The sub-freezing could last through Christmas Day on Sunday.Jason Fochtman/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less 5of6Chairs lined up inside the George R. Brown Convention Center before it is opened up for a warming station on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022 in Houston.

The city plans to keep the warming center, which has chairs, no cots, open until Saturday.Elizabeth Conley/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less 6of6Angel Salazar insulates the pipes at an apartment complex that he maintains in preparation for the dropping temperature on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022 in Houston.Raquel Natalicchio/Staff photographerShow MoreShow Less Every state official should feel ashamed that Texas cannot reliably provide a fundamental public service when needed most. Frigid temperatures caused ERCOT demand to peak after sunset Thursday evening at about 75,000 megawatts and spiked again when Texans woke up Friday morning.

Demand far exceeded ERCOT's forecast of 70,000 megawatts, proving the grid operator's incompetence in planning again. We had plenty of power Thursday night when the wind howled, with generators committing 93,000 megawatts and wholesale prices remaining below $50 a megawatt hour. But when the wind died down before dawn Friday, only 74,000 megawatts were available, and prices spiked to $3,700 until the sun rose.

The pre-Christmas cold snap was not nearly as bad as the February 2021 freeze that left hundreds dead and millions without power for four days. But, if this polar vortex had brought ice and snow, as in 2021, hundreds might have died last week. Two years after state leaders and the grid failed us, we still don't have a long-term solution to Texas's electricity needs.

Republicans in the Legislature don't like a proposal tabled by the Public Utility Commission, but the state's leaders appear committed to crony capitalism. Entrenched corporations that generate electricity with fossil fuels want new rules that benefit them, and the state's Republican leadership appears happy to provide. State Sen.

Charles Schwertner, chair of the committee overseeing the PUC, wants new natural gas power plants built and has little patience for much else. Schwertner, PUC Chair Peter Lake and others argue only natural gas plants capable of quickly turning off and on will solve our emergency backup problem. But while we will need some new natural gas power plants, building facilities that generate for only 30 hours a year is extremely expensive.

Republican leaders and their appointed bureaucrats insist we need 'more money in the system' to encourage new investment in natural gas power plants. That money will come from consumers like you and me, of course, through higher electric bills. Fossil fuel generators such as NRG, one of Texas's largest, fully support a wholesale electricity market redesign that gives them higher profits.

In filings with the PUC, NRG complained that wind and solar energy are suppressing prices most of the year, and those low prices discourage construction of new power plants. Politicians loyal to the fossil fuel industry are struggling with how to impose higher prices to build more power plants without angering voters. But there are other, cheaper ways of stabilizing the grid.

First, flexible consumers can power down. ERCOT paid nearly 1,000 megawatts to go offline Friday morning, while others shut down to avoid paying high wholesale prices. Such demand response can make a big difference, and expanding demand response programs could eliminate the need for some power plants.

After the 2021 freeze, many electricity customers boosted their energy efficiency. They weatherized their homes and businesses, replaced electric furnaces with heat pumps and bought smart thermostats. Mandatory energy efficiency through updated building codes could dramatically reduce the need for power plants.

Big generators don't want demand to drop because they need higher revenues to attract investors. But most natural gas power plants are designed to operate for 30 years, and it's unclear if they'll remain profitable that long. The fastest-growing source of electricity is solar power, and most new facilities come with battery storage.

The latest batteries can supply the grid for four hours, longer than most high-demand periods on the ERCOT grid last. Energy from batteries would be cheaper than firing up a natural gas plant. Fossil fuel generators constantly complain about the tax credits renewable energy projects receive, including battery storage.

But they also receive massive subsidies. The government does not make natural gas producers pay for methane leaks, and generators do not pay for their carbon dioxide emissions. Methane and carbon dioxide are the most damaging greenhouse gases.

Most wealthy countries are taxing such emissions. Eventually, the United States will as well. Unsubsidized renewable energy will be far cheaper when fossil fuel companies must pay for their pollution.

Lastly, there is a simpler solution to Texas's electricity shortage. ERCOT could string transmission lines to the rest of the country. If Texas could import and export more electricity to Georgia and Nevada, we would never lack energy.

Last week, we survived another polar vortex, a phenomenon climate change will make more frequent. The bigger challenge is whether we will survive a state government focused on enriching big corporations at the expense of consumers and the climate. Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas.

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