By Shelley Livaudais
The Dallas Morning News, Dec. 11, 2022
Recently, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his priorities for the 2023 state legislative session, including “passing legislation that would guarantee that we are going to start building more natural gas plants.”
Doing so wouldn’t necessarily make our electric grid more reliable, but it would certainly make our utility bills even more expensive.
During the 2021 winter storm, every source of power generation struggled under the extreme cold, but none more than gas. According to an analysis by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, “gas-fired units represented 58% of all generating units experiencing unplanned outages, derates or failures to start.” Equipment at gas plants froze and so did the supply of gas.
In 2021, the Legislature passed laws requiring power plants and parts of the gas supply chain to weatherize, but experts are skeptical the new rules are enough to prevent blackouts if temperatures again drop to 2021-like levels. Just on Nov. 30, Spectrum News reported that “DCP Midstream Operating, one of the largest natural gas processors in the nation, experienced a cold weather-related breakdown” near Odessa, causing a disruption in the gas supply.
Meanwhile, natural gas prices have more than quadrupled. Rising demand for natural gas, mostly for exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) “helped drive natural gas prices from under $2/MMBtu (a standard unit for measuring natural gas volume) in early 2020 to nearly $9/MMBtu in August 2022″ according to Forbes.
Over the last two years, Texans have watched their electric and home heating bills skyrocket, with little they can do. It’s a result not only of those higher gas costs, but also debt acquired by utilities to pay exorbitant prices for gas during the blackouts. Gas companies hit the “jackpot”, while the rest of us paid the price.
And this is all before Patrick’s plan to commit the state to even greater reliance on gas. One proposal considered, and rejected, in the 2021 legislative session would have Texas consumers pick up the tab to build 10 new gas plants at a cost of $8.3 billion. The plants would only be used during an emergency, which means the vast majority of the time they would sit idle, with consumers paying for them even if they never get used. And, of course, if temperatures plummet and gas can’t get to the plants, there’s no guarantee they’ll even produce electricity.
It’s clear we need to do more to prevent more deadly blackouts. A Nov. 29 report from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas finds that the Texas electrical grid remains vulnerable to extreme winter weather. But there are better, healthier and less costly ways to strengthen the grid. For example, a 2021 analysis by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that expanding Texas’ very limited set of energy efficiency and demand response programs would save as much energy as the proposed new gas generators, but with a capital cost 39% lower.
Next-generation clean technologies offer better alternatives. Take battery storage units, which cost dramatically less and perform much better each year. That’s leading to record growth of new utility-scale and home use of batteries, which will help the state cache energy to dispatch when demand is highest. Additional transmission lines can bring power from areas not impacted by extreme weather conditions to the homes and businesses that need it.
And new federal funding provides generous financial support to help Texansinsulate their homes, install solar panels, and purchase more efficient HVAC systems and water heaters. A push by the state to help Texans take advantage of these opportunities could both reduce demand for power and save consumer money.
None of us want to go through prolonged blackouts ever again. But we need to be smart about solutions, not just give another big handout to the gas companies. Haven’t they profited enough off our backs?
Originally posted on the Dallas Morning News.