Isaac Foote, MJLST Staffer
For most Texans, the winter storm in February 2021 meant cold temperatures, uncertain electricity at best, and prolonged blackouts at worst. For some energy companies, however, it was like “hitting the jackpot.” We here at MJLST (in Madeline Vavricek’s excellent piece) have already discussed the numerous historical factors that made Texas’s power system so vulnerable to this storm, but in the month after power was restored to customers, a new challenge has emerged for regulators to address: who will pay the estimated $50 billion in electricity transactions carried out during the week of blackouts. A number estimated to eclipse the total sales on the system over the previous three years!
At the highest level, the Texas blackouts were a result of the electric grid’s need to be ‘balanced’ in real time, i.e. always have sufficient electricity supply to meet demand. As the winter storm hit Texas, consumers increased demand for electricity, as they turned up electric heaters, while simultaneously a lack of winterization drove natural gas, wind, and nuclear electricity producers offline. So, to “avoid a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months,” Texas grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), needed to find a way to drastically increase electricity supply and reduce electricity demand. Blackouts were the tool-of-last-resort to cut demand, but ERCOT also attempted to increase supply through authorizing an extremely high wholesale price of electricity. Specifically, ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) authorized a price of $9,000 per megawatt hour (MWh), over 340 times the annual average price of $26/MWh.
These high prices may have kept some additional generation online, but they also resulted in devastating impacts for consumers (especially those using the electric provider Griddy) and electric distributors (like Brazos Electric Power Cooperative that has already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection). Now, the Independent Market Monitor (IMM)for the PUC is questioning whether the $9,000/MWh electricity price was maintained for too long after the storm hit: specifically, the 32 hours following the end of controlled blackouts between February 17th and 19th. The IMM claims that the decision to delay reducing the price of electricity “resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to ERCOT’s market” that will eventually need to be recovered from consumers.
The IMM report on the issue has created a showdown in Texas Government between the State Senate, House, and the PUC. Former Chair of the PUC, Arthur D’Andrea, argued against repricing as “it’s just nearly impossible to unscramble this sort of egg,” while the State Senate passed a bill that would require ERCOT to claw back between $4.2 billion and $5.1 billion in from generators for the inflated prices. D’Andrea’s opposition to the clawback has already resulted in his resignation, but it appears unlikely this conflict will be resolved as the State House may concur with the PUC’s position.
There is further confusion over whether such a clawback would be legal in the first place. Before his resignation, D’Andrea implied such a clawback was beyond the power of the PUC. However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that: “the Public Utility Commission has complete authority to act to ensure that ERCOT has accurately accounted for electricity production and delivery among market participants in the region. Such authority likely could be interpreted to allow the Public Utility Commission to order ERCOT to correct prices for wholesale electricity and ancillary services during a specific timeframe . . . provided that such regulatory action furthers a compelling public interest.”
Going forward it appears that the Texas energy industry will be facing a wave of lawsuits and bankruptcies, whatever the decisions made by the PUC or legislators. However, it is important to remember that someone will end up bearing responsibility for the billions of dollars in costs incurred during the crisis. While most consumers will not see this directly on their electricity bill, like those using Griddy had the misfortune to experience, these costs will eventually be transferred onto consumers in some ways. Managing this process in conjunction with rebuilding a more resilient energy system will be a challenge that Texas energy system stakeholders, policymakers, and regulators will have to take on.