Presidents Corner: March 2021

Howdy WHA Members, 

February brought us some of the coldest days on record in Houston and across the state. The winter weather, Winter Storm Uri, caused the worst blackouts the West Houston region (and Texas as a whole) has seen in decades. Almost everyone in the Greater West Houston region lost power for at least a day or two, some people for even longer, during a time of life-threatening coldAdditionally, loss of power led to freezing pipes, some of which burst. This led to water damage for many residents and businesses, as well as boil water notices for those who could get water. Thanks to the work of WHA water operator members like Inframark, TNG Utilitiesand Quadvest that led to getting water restored as quickly as possible.  

Over 30 years ago, the state faced a similar blackout challenge as a result of the winter freeze in December 1989. The response was a report. The words from the 1990 report still ring true, “The winter freeze greatly strained the ability of the Texas electric utilities to provide reliable power to their customers. … [a]t the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line.”  

Twenty years later, in February 2011, extreme cold led to a similar spike in electric use and rolling blackouts, however those lasted hours rather than days. In 2011, responses included a bill enacted by the Texas Legislature that called for the Public Utility Commission of Texas to analyze emergency operations plans developed by electric utilities and prepare a weather emergency preparedness report on power generation weatherization preparedness, leading to yet another report but no change in public policy nor extreme cold weather preparedness. The response by ERCOT has been to have capacity reserves to meet seasonal higher demands given models that predict some outages of generation.  

What Texans experienced this year was much more impactful than in the past. At present, the Texas Legislature is holding hearings and another report will likely be produced that documents what happened. In short, more power generation was lost than planned for and ERCOT had ainsufficient buffer margin to deal with the extreme cold weather effects. Having a larger buffer, paying operators on an ongoing basis for being on emergency standby, winterizing generation facilities, and even connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the county could have helped reduce the impact. There were options available, but all would have led to higher costs and/or more regulations that were being avoided. The question for the legislature is if there will be more action beyond a report and potential reforms to ERCOT. 

Between this topic, the still looming COVID crisis, and delayed redistricting, it is not clear what else the legislature will try to tackle. We hope to see traction on HB 1410 filed by Rep. Jim Murphywhich addresses current restrictions on recreational and green space financing by allowing established and financially healthy municipal utility districts to have more flexibility in using voter-approved bonds for additional critical green space. The WHA Government Affairs Committee will continue to monitor the legislative session. 

A heartfelt “Thank You to our members who have stepped up to support those impacted by the extreme cold, power outages and water problems. Despite these challenges, wcontinue our commitment to quality growth by ensuring West Houston is resilient, well-planned, well-maintained, and welcoming.