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ERCOT's fixer-upper plan aims to prevent more winter storm outages

Posted at 9:46 AM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-06 11:20:04-04

HOLLAND, TX — ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission recently unveiled their plan to fix the issues which caused so many people to have problems during the Texas Deep Freeze.

It follows a legislative session in which lawmakers ordered a long list of changes in how the state handles its electric power delivery.

And while many of us may realize Texas has changes planned, few, if any, of us can describe them.

"Texans demand and deserve a reliable grid, and that's our top priority," said PUC Chairman Peter Lake.

The politicians that created Texas's deregulated energy market finally admitted they got it wrong when that market failed during the Texas Deep Freeze.

But you had to kind of read between the lines to get that message. It escaped most of us, just like it did Kent Nitcholas.

"I heard on the news that there were changes, but it didn't really seem like it was really significant to me," he said.

Nitcholas and his wife can now sit on their front porch, sipping after-dinner coffee, something they could only dream about 6 months ago.

They live in the Bell County town of Holland, about 20 miles south of Temple.

In February's days-long ice and snow event, nobody in Texas got hit harder than these folks.

The scope of the disaster here even impressed Brenda Nitcholas.

"Nobody's prepared for this down here, I'm from Chicago, we're supposed to be used to this stuff. Well, you usually have power," she said.

In Chicago, you do. That's why Texas lawmakers have ordered energy producers to "Chicago-ize" in the weather sense.

"They substantially reformed ERCOT governance, they mandated weatherization and they required a redesign of our market to enhance reliability," said Lake.

That last regarding redesigning a market holds the key to the whole problem.

The problem with that is, nobody can tell you what it means.

"What does this look like in practice we don't know yet," said Chairman Lake.

We hope to have an idea of how this new energy market will work, by the end of the year.

In the meantime, ERCOT released what you might call, its "Fixer-Upper" plan, tackling some of the easy fixes, like keeping the grid up and running.

"Going forward, the PUC has directed ERCOT to first, improve the margin of safety on the grid. We need a cushion of extra reserves," said Chariman Lake.

That's an idea that came from economist, Ray Perryman who told us ERCOT needs to pay producers to keep a minimum amount of electricity on the grid to keep it operating.

"We should have had a capacity market. Texas has a market where you make money when you sell power not when you have power available in case of emergency," said Perryman.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have on our power bills, but you can kinda see where this is going and so far, it's escaped most of us.

Here in the hard-hit town of Holland people give a collective shrug when asked about ERCOT's changes.

"It's kind of an idea for a project but it's not a project yet," said Dallas Attorney and Engineer, Christa Casteñeda, who has a reputation for cutting right to the heart of a problem.

Casteñeda calls the ERCOT plan and action from lawmakers a good start.

"The ideas are useful, there's still a long road to hope between here and getting to better. I think that we're starting to move in some of the right direction, but we've got a lot to do to make sure that our ERCOT system is actually reliable," she said.

Despite its vague references to remaking an energy market, Casteñeda says the plan at least gives us an idea of what to look for, as regulators put it to work.

"So if you were to grade this presentation that they rolled out what would you give it," asked 25 New's, Dennis Turner.

"Well, I'd say that there's an E for effort in terms of developing some ideas that could move us forward," she said.

Good news to the Nitcholas's, who hope to never see another winter storm like that in Texas again, but who wonder how many problems this fixer-upper plan will really fix.

"It didn't seem like this was, oh, this was the answer to you know whatever problems we have with our power," said Kent.

Mostly, because so much remains to be worked out with this market makeover.

Keep your hand on your wallet Texas, the Texas Deep Freeze may not be through with us yet.