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Texas This Week: Is the Texas power grid ready for extreme winter weather?

Mitchell Ferman of The Texas Tribune shares why some energy experts say the actions leaders have taken so far may not be enough to keep the power on this winter.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this edition of Texas This Week, The Texas Tribune's energy and economy reporter, Mitchell Ferman, shares the results of his investigation into the Texas power grid ahead of the winter season, plus we recap this week's top political headlines. 

Three things to know in Texas politics

Campaign season is in full swing

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke (D) is continuing to travel the state, talking with voters about why he should be the next governor of Texas. On Saturday, he held a rally in Austin. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is also making his pitch to voters and was in Edinburg this week. Meanwhile, speculation about a possible gubernatorial candidate came to end. Actor Matthew McConaughey tweeted a video Sunday evening, announcing he's not going to run. 

   

DPS to build portion of border wall on state-owned land

Construction on a portion of Gov. Greg Abbott's border wall could start soon. This week, Land Commissioner George P. Bush signed an agreement to build "temporary border fencing" on two miles of state-owned land in Starr County. His office tells KVUE News DPS will cover the costs and will start construction soon. We've reached out to DPS to find out how much it will cost.

New rules for power generators & electric companies

State leaders met this week to put policies in place to try to prevent another power failure in wake of the deadly February winter storms. During the storms, electricity to dozens of natural gas companies was turned off, preventing them from being able to produce. That largely happened because those companies didn't fill out paperwork designating them as critical infrastructure. The Texas Railroad Commission approved a rule on Tuesday requiring critical gas suppliers to fill out the forms, but there is an exemption that allows some companies to not winterize their equipment. Those companies will have to submit an application for exemption and pay the application fee of $150. Commissioners say an application doesn't automatically mean approval and expects some companies will be denied exemptions. 

   

The Texas Tribune's Mitchell Ferman: 'Energy experts say people should probably be worried'  

While some steps have been taken to keep the power on this winter, there are energy experts who say it's not enough. A report from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas stated if there is severe winter weather, we could see blackouts. The Texas Tribune's energy and economy reporter, Mitchell Ferman, talked to other experts who say people should be worried. He joined KVUE to share what he's learned.

Ashley Goudeau: This week, you all at The Texas Tribune put out a pretty alarming report. You have experts saying that people should be worried about what's going to happen this winter. Talk to us about, you know, for you the overall big themes from this report and what you found.  

Mitchell Ferman: "Yeah, we wanted to look at if another extreme freeze were to hit Texas this winter, much like last year, would Texas be in a better position to handle it? And we found that the answer is probably not. The State has responded. They passed legislation in the spring after, after hours and hours of hearings and meetings. They did pass legislation. They shaped up the leadership of, of the grid operator and of other regulating agencies. But that process takes takes time. And for, especially natural gas producers, they are not weatherizing to the degree that lawmakers were hoping. State senators in September were furious at the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the State's massive oil and gas industry, for not requiring gas producers to have their equipment properly prepared for extreme winter weather …The gas industry has a heavy hand in how things operate in Texas. They fund a lot of the political campaigns of lawmakers, governors and regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission – and weatherizing equipment is an expensive process, especially retrofitting equipment. That gas producers' equipment is already online. So, you know, in order to retrofit the equipment, it's even costlier, experts have told us. So part of the issue here is that the Texas Railroad Commission and ERCOT, the grid operator, have not produced how the numbers of how many gas producers have weatherized. There is a rule-making process that has been slow and that's part of, that was part of the frustration that state senators expressed in September. And you know, so for this upcoming winter it is likely that the gas piece of the electricity supply chain in Texas will mostly not be weatherized. The Texas Railroad Commission did say, when I asked for for data on how many gas producers are weatherized, they told me to ask ERCOT and ERCOT declined to comment."

Goudeau: Regulation seems like it's a dirty word in Texas politics, but at the end of the day, it would seem as though we need someone to be in charge and telling us what's going on, who's weatherized, who's not. And you're finding that with all that finger-pointing, that's not necessarily happening.

Ferman: "Yeah. And the finger pointing started with the governor at the very beginning in February. He immediately pointed the finger at ERCOT and at renewable energy sources. Those are two elements of the supply chain that received raft from the governor and the lieutenant governor, for that matter. I mean, the officials really wanted to be absent of blame here, even though they're the ones who write the laws in Texas. Unlike any other state in the country it operates its own power grid. So the state lawmakers are the ones who write the laws that guide the power grid here. Everywhere else in the country, it is run by lawmakers in D.C. National lawmakers are the ones responsible, but in Texas, it is very unique because the State wanted to – because the State did not want to be regulated by the federal government, they took it upon themselves. But at times like this, when we're trying to find out who is responsible here and what needs to be done, it doesn't seem like anyone is interested in raising their hand."

Goudeau: Just last week, Gov. Greg Abbott said that everything is going to be fine. We are prepared. The head of the Texas Oil and Gas Association says everything is going to be fine. The natural gas is going to be fine. Should Texans feel some reassurance that our state leaders are saying these things? 

Ferman: "If they want to. The governor's remarks don't exactly align with what ERCOT is saying and their analysis. Also maybe in the last two weeks, I believe it was ERCOT put out a report that said if if the same type of similar type of storm struck Texas, the grid is still vulnerable."

Goudeau: Right, and then obviously, we have federal officials who are sounding alarms about what Texas is dealing with.

Ferman: "Yeah, the federal regulators have have definitely been harsh about Texas's response and and management of the grid. But federal regulators have minimal say in how the Texas grid operates because of how the State set up the grid to be deregulated from the federal government and instead, now it's on the state lawmakers and on the governor to make sure that the grid can handle extreme weather."

You can read Ferman's full report here: 'People should probably be worried': Texas hasn’t done enough to prevent another winter blackout, experts say

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