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Texas Woes Highlight Need for More Resilient Power Grid

March 19, 2021, 8:00 AM

The February cold snap sent millions of Texans into days of cold and darkness because of the failures in the state’s electricity system. But in neighboring regions there were some encouraging signs of resiliency. This demonstrates what should now be a top priority for federal regulators: improving the process for getting electricity transmission lines built.

As my colleague Toba Pearlman explained, as severely cold temperatures descended on the middle of the nation in mid-February, the grid operators for the Southwest and Midwest saw a spike in demand for electricity just as Texas did. But these grid operators pulled electricity from neighboring parts of the country that weren’t hit by the polar vortex, as well as from different parts of their own geographically diverse regions.

It wasn’t perfect. The Southwest Power Pool, which includes parts of 14 states from Wyoming to Louisiana, had the first rolling blackouts in its history. But those blackouts were limited, lasting hours rather than days as they did in Texas.

Lines Between Regional Grids Are Key

Transmission lines between regional grids that make up our country’s electric system (referred to as “seams”) are the key to getting that power from regions with spare capacity to regions where it is running low.

During the January 2019 polar vortex, for example, power flowed west to the Midwest as the cold hit that region, and then it flowed from the Midwest to the PJM grid, which includes portions of 13 states in the East, as the cold moved across the nation.

We’ve known for a few decades that we need to upgrade our long-haul transmission lines; unfortunately, we have largely failed to address this need. Right now, most of the new transmission lines being built in the Midwest, for example, are short distance ones, the equivalent of two-lane country roads when we need interstate electricity highways.

FERC Can Play Important Role

Texas, of course, is a unique example. It made the explicit decision to cut itself off from regional grids and has limited connectivity. But our other grids also need transmission upgrades, and this is where the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, can play an important part.

Getting transmission policy right should be a top priority for FERC, as it will bolster the resilience and reliability of the electric grid in the face of severe weather from the climate crisis and ensure that new, cleaner sources of energy can supply that power.

Thankfully, the new leadership at FERC recognizes the problem and is ready to act. It should move expeditiously to adopt a new nationwide transmission planning rule that addresses two distinct but interrelated issues: an aging transmission system facing more severe weather events and a rapidly changing resource mix. The current transmission planning process is unlikely to adequately address either issue.

Here are a few examples of changes FERC can make:

  • FERC should require grids to plan for a high-renewables future that includes state clean energy and carbon reduction goals as well as additional load from electrifying vehicles and buildings.
  • FERC needs to step in to make sure grid operators are considering regional needs when deciding on new transmission investments, so that we are building the transmission superhighways we need and not just refurbishing the old, outdated lines.
  • We need more transmission across the seams in the grid. To get these lines built and paid for now requires separate approvals from both grid operators and from a separate inter-regional process, a difficult and cumbersome task. FERC could streamline this process by establishing inter-regional planning boards that have authority to identify needs, select solutions and allocate costs for these projects.

This is all wonky stuff, but as we saw with the Texas catastrophe, the wonky can quickly become critical when it comes to our electricity system.

System Needs Changing

Pretty much everyone recognizes that the current transmission system is failing us. The operators in both Texas and New York, which aren’t usually rowing in the same direction, have both highlighted the importance of transmission in the resilience of their electricity system. Recognizing that there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it, but we need to take the next steps to correct the problem—and take them now.

Our transmission crisis has festered for far too long. Fixing it will not solve all the problems revealed by the Texas catastrophe, but it’s one key ingredient in ensuring that we have a more reliable, resilient, and cleaner grid for the future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Cullen Howe is a senior advocate for renewable energy with the Sustainable FERC Project, which is housed at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). Previously, he was senior attorney and New York office director at Acadia Center.