Op-Ed: It’s time for ERCOT to Beef Up Grid Capacity Now

Texas needs new transmission lines to deliver affordable, reliable electricity.

By Suzi McClellan and Jeff Clark. Suzi McClellan was public counsel of the Office of Public Utility Counsel and an ERCOT board member under Texas governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry. Jeff Clark is president of the Advanced Power Alliance. This opinion piece ran in The Dallas Morning News on June 26, 2022.

Over decades, your electric bills have helped build a vast network of power plants, power lines, and computer systems. It’s all designed around one thing: delivering the electricity you need, when you need it, and at the most affordable price.

Too often, the Texas’ power grid fails at that mission. After 2021′s deadly winter blackouts, Texans zeroed in on natural gas supply problems and increasingly high fuel costs.

But too little has been said about the grid itself — the wires and poles that carry power from power plants to consumers.

For too long, this system has been underserved and unable to keep up with Texas’ explosive growth. Costly cracks are beginning to show. This week, the Texas House Committee on State Affairs met to review the status of transmission upgrades and expansions. Going forward, it remains essential that lawmakers establish policies to create a stronger grid, address current weaknesses, and prepare for the demands of a growing population and economy.

Power lines often deliver electricity from rural parts of Texas where it’s generated, to urban areas that need it.

But many days, Texas’ transmission lines are overwhelmed like a two-lane road in a booming metropolis. Inadequate lines get congested and overwhelmed, unable either to deliver the supply of electricity being generated, or to meet the demand a few hundred miles away.

Congestion means higher electricity bills. Increasingly, Texans must pay for expensive generation because cheaper electricity — especially solar and wind power generated in remote parts of South and West Texas — can’t get to them.

Taken together, these costs can be crushing for the economy. In 2021, grid congestion cost more than $2 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 2020. It’s on track to set another record this year.

Meanwhile, the cheaper electricity Texans need is often wasted because transmission lines are jammed.

On April 22, Texans should have benefitted from a record amount of cheap wind and solar power. Instead, roughly 46,000 megawatt hours of clean power was wasted because it could not reach customers. Much of the power on the grid that day came from more expensive and dirtier power plants, needlessly driving up bills and air pollution.

The lack of transmission threatens Texas’ clean energy boom and the rural communities thriving from it. Solar power alone has more than doubled just since last summer. Much of this generation has been built in rural counties, where sun, wind and space are plentiful.

Transmission limitations will stop that solar, wind, and battery storage development cold, choking off a vital source of tax revenue and economic development for rural Texans.

Skyrocketing natural gas costs make transmission even more important to Texas’ energy consumers and the economy. Without more and better power lines, customers have to pay more, even though there’s a cheaper alternative.

Our state’s growing population — and the rise of products like electric vehicles that rely on affordable, accessible electricity — make a strong grid even more important. It takes years to build new power lines, so today’s problems will only get worse if the state fails to take action.

Unfortunately, nothing has moved. In 2021, the Texas legislature explicitly directed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and Public Utility Commission to better consider current and projected congestion costs when considering the addition of new lines — but neither agency has taken action so far.

Without significant movement, the state’s economic future will depend on stronger policies and funding efforts when the legislature reconvenes in 2023.

We’re all proud of Texas’ energy leadership. Governor Abbott often and rightly brags that Texas is already the nation’s leader in wind energy, and we’re fast becoming its solar leader too.

But that leadership means little if Texans can’t actually get the cheaper, home-grown power that’s being generated here every day.

This summer is already unbearable. Without a new rule or law creating more transmission, it’s going to get worse.