We’re taking a look at energy in Texas, from the largest urban solar farm being built in Houston to a road trip in an electric car. We’re also looking at the power grid and the issues we faced during our winter storm. Politicians made efforts to fix the problems, but is it enough?
You can can watch our full ‘Energizing Texas’ special here
And below, you can also watch segments and stories from our special and read more about everything energy in Texas.
Power grid reform
If there is a starting point, a kickoff for the future of Texas power, it came at the state capitol on a Tuesday in June. With the stroke of pen, Governor Greg Abbott ceremoniously inked his signature and proudly declared that power grid reform had become law.
“Everything that needed to be done, was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said at the June 8 signing of Senate Bill 2 and Senate Bill 3.
Just six days later, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, was asking Texans to conserve electricity, concerned there wouldn’t be enough to go around.
The juxtaposition of the two events is a red flag for democrat State Senator John Whitmire.
“If they’re warning us in June after the legislature just met … I don’t know how the public would have confidence in us,” Whitmire said.
“I do not have complete confidence.”
RELATED: Groups present joint preliminary findings on root causes of February’s winter storm outages
That is where Texans stands—restoring grid reliability and regaining the public’s trust. Whitmire believes it’s all taking too long.
“It’s got to be an urgent matter, and it’s not as I talk to you today.”
Consider the timeline for winterization of energy equipment. Under the newly-passed Senate Bill 3, the Texas Public Utilities Commission has until December to write the rules on how power generators must winterize. For natural gas facilities considered critical to keeping those generators online, the Texas Railroad Commission has until March 2023 to write new rules. Once the new standards are in place, the new legislation does not specify how long facilities have to comply.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, you’re right about that,” said State Senator Charles Schwertner, a Republican who authored the weatherization bill. “But we are well on our way to addressing the concerns that Texans had and the failures really that we saw here in Texas.”.
While Texans wait for change, EROCT still has to keep the lights on every day. That involves a daunting balancing act—how to match power supply with demand. The newly-appointed chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission likened it to jumping out of a plane.
“Every morning we’re skydiving and you only get one chance for it to go wrong,” Chairman Peter Lake said at a June 17 open meeting.
The analogy is troubling to Ed Hirs, a University of Houston energy fellow and KHOU’s energy analyst.
“You don’t run a multi-billion dollar process day by day by skydiving, not knowing if your parachutes are going to open,” Hirs said. “This is not the way a grid is supposed to be managed.”
He said the problem lies in the very way the ERCOT market is designed. Power generators generally get paid only for the electricity they produce, not to be on “standby” or paid for mere capacity to produce power.
“The analogy I use is that of the Astros,” Hirs said. “In an electricity-only market, only those ten guys taking the field tonight are going to get paid. The guys on the bench, they don’t get a check.”
The players, or power generators, bid to sell their electricity on the ERCOT grid, and that competition often means low prices and low revenues.
“For 8 of the last 10 years in ERCOT, the Independent Market Monitors’ report, so that’s a referee, the scorekeeper … has pointed out that revenues have not covered cost,” Hirs said.
“So if revenues don’t cover cost, they’re not being made to reinvest. Reinvesting would mean keeping the equipment ready to go.”
The ERCOT market hinges on what’s known as scarcity pricing. Energy prices shoot up only when power becomes more scarce and reserves run low—sometimes dangerously low—like during extreme weather.
At a July 13 hearing of the Texas Senate Business and Commerce Committee, PUC Chairman Lake called the ERCOT market design a “crisis-based business model.”
Lake conceded the description is not comforting in the business of reliability.
“And that’s why we’ve got to get away with it,” Lake said. “Private companies can only generate revenue as Texas gets closer and closer to the edge. And that’s, as you said, that is not a good way to run a reliable grid.”
Chairman Lake is pledging to redesign the entire electricity market from scratch. He said the aim of the overall is to pay companies for reliable and consistent power, not just in crisis mode.
Exactly what the changes will look like, just like the other energy reforms, will take time. Lake hopes to have a detailed plan by the end of the year.
Getting power where it needs to go
Another challenge for the future of the Texas power grid is getting power where it needs to go. In the Panhandle, West Texas and the Rio Grand Valley, towering wind turbines have sprouted up everywhere, making Texas the number one wind-power producing state in the nation.
But it’s not just getting produced.
It’s getting wasted too.
“It’s really frustrating to see that we have the capability to produce more power than we’re actually able to get to the people who need it,” said Jenny Fink, asset manager at EDF Renewables North America.
Fink oversees the company’s Las Mojadas wind farm near Harlingen. The 125 turbine facility can generate enough electricity to power 77,000 homes. But on nearby transmission lines, there’s often a roadblock of sorts to get it all there. Think of those lines as electricity highways that can safely handle only so many cars. When they get congested with power generators trying to get on, the grid operator ERCOT, much like a traffic cop, limits or constrains the amount of traffic (electrons) flowing on the road.
RELATED: Adding to ERCOT? | Energy company looking into extra power sources in Texas
“If there isn’t that highway space available for us to move that energy effectively and efficiently, then we actually have to tell the turbines to stop, stop generating,” Fink said.
In other words, you could have a windy day at Las Mojadas but look up a couple hundred feet and the turbines won’t be spinning.
“And those are really frustrating days,” she said.
The company told state lawmakers that frustration happened during the February winter storm, when millions of Texans were left in the cold and dark for days. Jay Temple, regional senior direct for asset optimization, testified February 26 hearing before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee.
“Additional megawatts of generation were available but could not be delivered because over 90 percent of the highway was blocked,” Temple said.
ERCOT has put such a block, known as a generic transmission constraint, on 16 transmission lines across the state. Seven of those are in the Rio Grand Valley. Behind the bottlenecks, electricity, mostly cheap wind and solar power, is essentially trapped.
“And that has a cost,” said Carrie Bivens.
Bivens is vice president at Potomac Economics, the Independent Market Monitor over ERCOT.
“When you have to tell them that they can’t generate as much because there’s transmission problems, you’re losing some of the benefit of those low-cost resources,” she said.
Bivens said on the other side of the constraint or bottleneck, power becomes more scare, and scarcity in the competitive Texas market drives up prices.
“And it’s billions of dollars, last year it was one $1.4 billion,” Bivens said. “They’ll eventually end up in retail rates.”
On some of the electricity highways, the constraint is severe. EDF Renewables said the export transmission line out of the Rio Grande Valley is rated to handle 6,000 megawatts, but ERCOT has throttled back the allowable traffic down to 650 megawatts.
“We have to manage all of the transmission lines to make sure that we’re not overloading any line,” said ERCOT interim CEO Brad Jones.
“Simply similar to if you have too many Christmas lights together, you’re going to have a problem, you’ll blow a fuse eventually.”
The solution seems obvious-build more transmission lines. But that is expensive and takes time. Between lengthy regulatory approvals and construction, a high voltage line can take six years to get off the ground. A wind or solar farm can be up and running in less than two.
“That’s part of the problem,” said Alex Miller, senior commercial transmission and analytics manager for EDF Renewables North America.
She said the other part of the problem is there’s been no proactive way to fix it.
“Given that everything is kind of reactive in the ERCOT market, the way it’s designed, the solutions don’t come before the problems,” Miller said.
“First you have to get a problem, then you can maybe get a solution.”
In July, ERCOT issued a 60-point roadmap to improving grid reliability. One of the action items is to “initiate a process, both at ERCOT and the PUC, to address the Lower Rio Grande Valley transmission limitations, up to and including the construction of new transmission capacity.”
The roadmap did not offer further details on that process, or a timeline for when changes might happen, but last week ERCOT did come up with a plan to ease congestion in the Rio Grande Valley.It would involve building 350 miles of new, high-voltage transmission lines with a 1.2-billion-dollar price tag. The project would take until the year 2027 to complete.
Solution to intermittency
While mother nature can make cheap and clean electricity, she doesn’t come with a switch we can control. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.
But the issue of intermittency has one promising solution.
“Battery storage is something that is going to be a game changer,” said Clark Bixler, senior development manager for Enel Green Power.
Enel is part of the changing landscape of the Texas power grid. In rural Kaufman County southeast of Dallas, its 1400-acre solar far not only harnesses the sun’s energy but stores it too.
“This plant can deploy energy at any given time of day, not just when the sun is shining”
The thousands of solar arrays are connected to two dozen storage containers each with about 500 lithium-ion batteries inside.
“When they’re fully charged, it will take about an hour and a half to totally discharge all the energy onto the grid,” said operations and maintenance site manager Alfonso Reyes.
The project can store and discharge 50 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 10,000 homes. It’s a boost of juice available when the ERCOT grid is running low.
“Battery storage can bridge the gap when other generators go down,” Bixler said.
“The battery storage can supply that energy until those generators can come back online.”
There was hardly any battery storage in Texas just a few years ago. In 2019, there was only 104 megawatts in the entire grid. By 2022, it’s estimated to hit 2,831 megawatts. The increase was spurred by technology improvements and falling prices.
“The cost of storage is coming down dramatically because we all use I-phones or starting to drive electric cars and that drives down the cost of batteries,” said Michael Skelly, a longtime Texas renewable energy businessman and currently the CEO of Grid United.
“That’s exactly why you’re seeing more storage is because the cost is really a fraction of what it was just five years ago,” Skelly said.
Battery storage is not only “hybrid” or paired with wind and solar farms, developers are building “stand alone” projects. They buy power directly from the grid when prices are low, then store and sell it back to the grid when prices are high.
“Like the middle of the night when we’re not using that much power, those batteries get charged up,” Skelly said.
“And then during the afternoon hours of say 3pm to 6pm when electricity demand peaks, they discharge power back into the grid.”
The biggest challenge is how long grid-scale batteries can last. Currently, the storage limit is four to six hours. The holy grail in the energy world is to develop a battery that can store and discharge power for days.
Texas the ‘electricity island’:
Why other grids couldn’t help
At the peak of the February artic freeze, when 51 gigawatts of unavailable electricity left millions in the dark and cold, Texas was not able to get much help from neighbors.
It’s not that neighboring grids didn’t want to offer assistance. They couldn’t. They’re not connected to the ERCOT power gird.
Texas’ energy independence, what many call a “go-it-alone” approach, dates back to when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. Congress passed a law to regulate interstate electricity, but Texas utilities choose to keep power within state lines. It shaped the nation’s power grid system as it looks today. The Western interconnect grid and Eastern interconnect grid are regulated by the feds, but the ERCOT-operated Texas grid is not. It’s been described as an electrical island. Except for a few, small connections or tie-ins, it’s largely isolated from neighbors and outside help.
Pattern Energy has spent a decade trying to change that with a two gigawatt transmission line called Southern Cross. The project will connect Texas to states in the southeast, and the company said it will do so without jeopardizing the independence of ERCOT.
“Congress has set a very narrow path, a road map for how you can do an interconnection between ERCOT and a non-ERCOT region,” said attorney and Pattern Energy lobbyist Michael Jewell.
“Pattern and Southern Cross were able to thread the needle of the federal requirements in order to get that order,” he said.
The order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gives Pattern Energy clearance to build the 400-mile high voltage direct current line from Mississippi to the Texas-Louisiana border. It would connect to the ERCOT grid another 35 miles east in Rusk County, near the town of Henderson.
Some residents there have mixed feelings about the project.
“Y’all need to get this line through here to make sure we don’t lose power again during a snow apocalypse, bring it on,” said Henderson native Cliff Wilson.
“I’d rather keep it in Texas and fix what we have,” said Paul Raack.
“Just having our independence that way is a big identity for Texas,” he said.
Pattern Energy emphasized the company is funding the project and not looking to Texas residents to pay for the cost. Instead, Southern Cross will work similar to a toll road, where power generators on either side can pay to move and sell power.
“This transmission line can help to keep the lights on by sending power in times of need,” said Cary Kottler, vice president of North American development for Pattern Energy.
While two gigawatts of additional electricity would not have solved the massive failures of the February storm, it could have powered a few hundred thousand homes and bought the Texas grid some breathing room.
“It’s hard to just say there’s one single thing that’s going to solve this, but Southern Cross, this transmission project can be one of the key things that can help us solve this,” Kottler said.
“So we can’t just continue the status quo.”
Groundbreaking for the Southern Cross Transmission line is approximately two years away and construction is expected to take an additional three years, according to Pattern Energy.
Sunnyside Solar Farm:
From landfill to power source
Few people know Sunnyside like 100 year old Miss Deatrice Cloud.
“I’ve been here for a while yes,” said Cloud. “The dump was right over here.”
For nearly three decades, she lived in the shadow of a city landfill.
“I could stand in my yard and see the clouds coming out of it,” said Cloud. “It smelled like old rotten meat, rotten wood. It was horrible. Just horrible.”
It was reality from 1937 to the mid 70s. Sunnyside was where the city dumped its garbage.
“There were humps of trash,” said District D Council Member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz.
Evans-Shabazz remembers driving by it as a little girl with her dad.
“Oh most certainly it was an eyesore,” said Evans-Shabazz. “I wouldn’t think I’d feel valued if you put a landfill next to my home.”
The dump has been shut down for decades, now it’s just hundreds of acres of overgrown trees.
“For 50 years, you have this large contaminated space in your community that has been pulling down your community,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Now Turner says that is all about to change.
“Sunnyside is ignored no more, they’re on the radar,” said Turner.
The former landfill will soon be home to a 240-acre urban solar farm.
“There’s no better use for a former landfill than putting solar on it,” said Dori Wolfe, co-developer of the Sunnyside Solar Project.
Wolfe says Sunnyside Energy will lease the former dump site from the city and transform it into a stunning array of solar panels.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas right,” said Wolfe.
The project will make history. It’s all part of the city’s Climate Action Plan and Mayor Turner’s Complete Communities Initiative.
“You’re talking about the largest urban solar farm in the country,” said Wolfe.
Tens of thousands of solar panels will line an area the size of 200 football fields and produce enough energy to power 5,000 homes. That means discounted power rates for Sunnyside residents.
“The impact is not just felt here locally, the impact would be global in scale,” said Turner.
The city of Houston known for having one of the highest number of greenhouse gas emitters suddenly through this solar farm alone will be able to offset 120 million pounds of CO2 per year.
“This would be quite significant and transformative in nature,” said Turner.
But longtime Sunnyside residents are hoping the biggest transformation is seen and felt in their on backyard.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Cloud.
Most significant, building out the solar farm will lead to new job training opportunities and hundreds of new jobs.
“Even beyond the solar farm, I can envision the investments taking place around it,” said Turner.
It’s a game changing green project fueling Sunnyside’s next chapter. Construction is slated to begin before the end of 2022.
“A community that has been held down for generations all of a sudden will be transformed and revitalized,” said Turner. “If it can be done in Sunnyside, it can be done in other communities as well.”
Renewable energy plans:
How they work
On top of this house on the west side of Houston, you’ll find solar panels. Inside the 1500 square foot home, you’ll find a very happy Bobby Marinov.
“I am very environmentally conscious,” he said.
Which is also why Marinov switched from a traditional electricity plan to a renewable one.
“I’m not skimping at all,” he said. “We keep it at the same temperature throughout the year.”
But going green at home doesn’t require a big investment or adding anything to your home. Daniel Richmond is with Green Mountain Energy. His company offers environmentally friendly plans.
“The going thing about Texas is that it’s a competitive electricity market,” he said. “You can choose your provider and you can choose what goes into your plan.”
But here’s something you should know.
Even with a renewable plan, the electricity fed into your home is the same mix everyone gets from the grid. What you’re paying for is to have more green energy produced in Texas along with a guarantee of sorts.
“What happens is your electricity company keeps track of where that power comes from and makes sure that if they’re selling you 100% renewable power,” he said. “The way that renewable energy works is through an accounting mechanism.”
That accounting mechanism is called “renewable energy credit.” When you purchase a plan, your provider buys credits equal to the amount of power you use. The alternative energy power plants get those credits when their green energy is added to the grid. The buying and trading of credits happens at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, better known as ERCOT.
Marinov believes going green sends a message about wanting more renewable energy in Texas.
If you want to check out green electricity plans in your zip code, go to www.powertochoose.org and scroll to the renewable energy section. A search for the cheapest options shows a renewable plan is about a penny and a half more per kilowatt hour.
Driving electric in Houston:
Get plugged in
When I got the assignment to test drive an electric car, I was a little nervous. Houston traffic is already tricky but now I had to navigate through freeways in a vehicle that’s powered by a battery.
We rented a Kia Niro EV. The starting price is just under $40,000 and can get about 240 miles on a charge. Kelley Blue Book calls the Niro a good first electric car because it’s a small and practical electric crossover.
As we start the trip, we wondered how many EVs are out here. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles shows 36,418 EVs were registered in 2020. State officials expect that number to climb to 3.3 million in the next twelve years.
Chuck Crews from Baytown says yes.
“Just wait,” he said from behind the wheel of his Tesla Model Y. “I remember feeling exactly the same way when I saw the very first iPhones.”
Crews was an early investor in Tesla and bought his Model Y in the summer of 2020. The nearest charging station from his home is 10 miles and nothing about it feels inconvenient.
“The first folks who said my horse can eat grass anywhere now you’re telling me I have to go and fill up my car with gasoline. Similarly, it’s learning there are charging stations I’m going to need to go here,” he said.
Right now, Tesla is the only company with its own nationwide network of superchargers. We met Crews at a charging station. It takes much longer to charge than to fill up with gas.
“Typically, we’re here about 20 minutes for a charge,” he said. “I’ve spent as long as 40, 45 minutes.”
The charging network will expand to other EVs at some point in time this year. A tweet from Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk confirmed that news in July.
Having lots of charging station across the state is key to the future of electric driving in Texas. That’s why we’re talking to Tom “Smitty” Smith. He’s an environmentalist and the Executive Director of the Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance.
“What we have today are a lot of charging stations in almost every metro area,” Smitty said. “Beyond that, it gets kind of thin.”
To create a seamless network, “Smitty” wants the state to build 75 charging stations to make traveling across Texas easier. He believes those extra stations will convince more Texans to switch to electric.
“This is an evolutionary market,” he said. “We’re trying to get things in place before the big boom really begins to hit in about 2025.”
With more automakers getting into the EV market, batteries will get better and go farther before needing to be charged.
We also talked to Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston.
He says the building the battery for an EV leaves a larger carbon footprint than manufacturing a traditional vehicle. Over time that flip flops.
“About a year and a half out, you’ve come to the point where those two are equivalent in the amount of environmental harm they do,” said Krishnamoorti. “After 18 months, an electric vehicle actually benefits the environment.”
We also asked about where the power comes from at charging stations.
“It comes from exactly where your household and your work get electricity,” he said.
Currently in Texas, energy comes mostly from natural gas, wind and coal. The rest is generated from nuclear and solar.
“As we start to make our grid more renewable friendly, we’re going to start seeing less and less of a carbon footprint associated with EVs,” he said.
In the end, our drive was fun and a learning lesson. I’ll probably wait a little longer before taking an electric road trip across Texas.
Tesla battery storage in Texas:
Why Elon Musk picked Angleton
From outer space to self-driving cars, Tesla is making its mark on innovation. Now, its founder, Elon Musk, has a new adventure, and it involves becoming a power player in Texas.
Tesla picked Angleton, a small town south of Houston, where, in the beginning, folks say what Tesla was building was a bit of a mystery.
“I really don’t know that much about it, actually,” said Andrea Genzer, a neighbor who lives down the street from the site.
“We thought it was a subdivision, or it looked like they were putting in roads,” said Aaron Hadley, another neighbor who lives nearby.
“I ain’t ever been down there. When I drive, I look that’s it, ’cause they don’t want you in there,” said Ernest Cotton, who also lives near the site.
RELATED: Angleton home to Tesla battery storage facility
The same battery technology used to power cars is what Tesla wants to use to power homes. The benefit to being in Angleton is a substation that forms a critical entry point to Texas’ energy grid.
“When they were actually here building and saw the Tesla vehicles and the employees eating at the restaurants, that was really cool, because we can say Tesla is in our city,” said Jason Perez, Mayor of Angleton.
Angleton is known as the heart of Brazoria County, and Mayor Perez hopes the investment in energy will become the pulse of the community.
“I think that it’s a marketing tool that maybe we can piggyback on, and that’s how we are going to get new citizens. Those are the people you want to come, stay, root, raise a family, be the little league coaches, be the scout moms and all that,” Perez said.