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US lawmakers agree on a need for a resilient, reliable electrical grid

18 February 2021 Amena Saiyid

Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree on a need for a reliable US electricity grid that is resilient against climate extremes, though their approaches continue to differ along partisan lines.

"It's a reality check that we need to make our electric grid and energy infrastructure far more resilient to climate change," Representative Frank Pallone, Democrat-New Jersey, who chairs the US House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee, said at the start of an 18 February hearing on decarbonizing the US energy sector.

Pallone's remarks resonated with both Republicans and Democrats on the committee in a week when the electrical grid in Texas has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand for power.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state's grid operator, said the transmission network was unable to cope because the unexpectedly frigid temperatures that have gripped the state since late 14 February downed power lines and froze natural gas wellheads, pipelines, and power plant equipment, including wind turbine blades.

"It was a failure to recognize that the 100-year storms of yesterday may now be the every 10-year storms of today," Pallone said, adding "these major outages also show that the climate crisis doesn't differentiate between red states and blue states: the whole nation is being impacted by the climate crisis."

ERCOT also said the challenge for the state was to meet the demand for power, which Texas mostly generates from natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants, and to a lesser extent from wind farms.

A reliable grid

The top-ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, also acknowledged that "the importance of reliability has been on full, heart-wrenching display this week in Texas, the South, and the Midwest."

Republican Representative Michael Burgess, of Texas, said he welcomed suggestions to improve the reliability and resiliency of the grid. "This is not a partisan issue," Burgess said. "No one cares which party this comes from when they want heat and light and water."

However, Pallone and Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat-Illinois, who heads the House Energy Subcommittee, differed with Burgess and Rodgers on the best approach to improving the grid.

"Getting the United States in the lead on the clean energy game is essential," Rush said. He warned about the "severe consequences of inaction," as he pointed to the 4.3 million customers without electricity who endured frigid temperatures normally only seen many hundreds of miles to the north.

Clean Electricity Standard

Pallone called for a national clean electricity standard in the updated version of comprehensive climate legislation known as the Clean Future Act, which he expects to formally introduce in the coming weeks. A year ago, Pallone, Rush and other Democrats had introduced a discussion draft of this bill, but never formally introduced it.

During the hearing, Pallone promised that a clean electricity standard would not only help reduce greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, but also lead to a resilient grid.

However, Rodgers warned against "top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates and costs on Americans, which will threaten our nation's energy dominance and our national security."

During the hearing, Pallone also questioned why Texas was caught unawares despite experiencing similar cold-weather driven outages in 2011 that resulted in a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) investigation, and subsequent report.

FERC announced 16 February that it and the North American Reliability Council will investigate the recent power outages across south central and Midwest states and report. Pallone said the energy committee too would investigate the Texas crisis further, but decide what other action to take after FERC has reported its findings.

ERCOT questioned

While Burgess did not comment on FERC's earlier findings, he has joined other members of the state congressional delegation in writing to ERCOT demanding an explanation for the agency's response to the outages. In a 17 February letter, Burgess asked ERCOT to explain how it had prepared for this weather event and anticipated energy demand prior to when the controlled rolling shutoffs began.

Burgess has also asked ERCOT to explain how various sources of power generation were affected and operated during the crisis, especially as opponents of renewable power have been quick to blame wind generation for the outages in the Lone Star State.

However, gas-fired power plants are responsible for 65.7% of the power supply in Texas, while coal-fired plants make up 15.9%, and nuclear generation supplies 6%. Wind contributes 9% of the power mix, according to ERCOT's winter fuels data.

ERCOT documents reveal it had prepared for a worst-case scenario, but the demand for power, coupled with the magnitude of the outages, far exceeded what it had envisioned. The agency's 2020/2021 Winter Adequacy Resource Assessment estimated about 13 gigawatts (GW) of planned outages as a worst-case scenario. On 16 February, at least 31 GW of power remained offline in Texas. ERCOT reported a record demand for 69 GW, which was 3 GW greater than its worst-case scenario.

Posted 18 February 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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