The head of the U.S. electric reliability organization on Thursday recommended that, if Congress does take action in response to the widespread outages that hit Texas in February, it targets the gas supply side.
"The area that Congress should reflect on, and potentially take action, is to think about how [weatherization] extends into the natural gas and fuel sectors," North American Electric Reliability Corporation President and CEO Jim Robb told senators during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. "Because having a great winterized plant with no fuel in front of it isn't very valuable. And that's where our authorities right now stop."
Some Republican senators used the hearing to question witnesses on whether the outages indicated a danger of bringing more renewable energy onto the grid, though the Texas outages were caused primarily by natural gas issues. Democrats questioned why Texas had not learned lessons from previous winter storm events.
Though the hearing focused on electric reliability, gas's increased role in the power sector and its culpability in last month's widespread outages has become a greater focus for those trying to untangle the web of issues that led the Texas grid operator to trigger days-long blackouts.
Republican Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., focused largely on criticizing President Joe Biden's plan to bring the power grid to 100% clean power by 2035, and said last summer's outages in California as well as the ones in Texas are evidence that fossil fuels need to be kept online.
"Would the blackouts that we witnessed in California last August, would they have been avoided if California had simply installed more solar panels?" asked Barrasso.
"With the blackouts that we witnessed in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas last month, would they have been avoided if these states had simply installed, say, more wind turbines?" he asked later.
Democrats focused more intently on whether there was a role Congress could play on in preventing such outages in the future. Chair of the Committee Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., questioned why the state's grid operator was resistant to coming under federal control — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas does not trade significant amounts of energy across state lines, so it is not governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — and whether the state's competitive market model was prudent.
"The bills consumers are receiving sound like price gouging to me," said Manchin, referring to high costs some Texas ratepayers incurred due to the state's scarcity pricing model.
Ultimately, on the question of what Congress itself could do in order to prevent such disasters in the future, stakeholders came to some agreement that the gas supply side would be a good area to target.
NERC and FERC have authority over bulk power system reliability, and are currently investigating ERCOT, the Southwest Power Pool and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator to see how future events could be prevented, and whether power providers and grid operators took their recommendations seriously following a similar event in 2011. FERC also has broad jurisdiction over the gas side, including supply markets, pipeline transmission and infrastructure permitting. But the commission's authority does not necessarily allow it to set weatherization standards for the supply side, for example.
"[T]here isn’t an equivalent set of mandatory reliability standards for gas pipelines like there is for the bulk electric system," said Jeff Dennis, who spent over a decade at FERC and is now general counsel and managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, in an email.
A large part of Texas' outage problems last month, according to generators and others, was on the gas supply side: including frozen wellheads and pipelines that prevented power plants from getting the fuel they needed to operate. Therefore, Robb and Mark Gabriel, CEO and administrator of the Western Area Power Administration, suggested congressional power could be useful in that area.
"I couldn't agree more with [Robb]," said Gabriel. "Natural gas is really the fuel that we use in these emergency situations."
Former FERC Chair and Texas regulator Pat Wood III, however, pointed out that the state itself may require more stringent rules on weatherization, and legislative considerations of stricter winterization requirements are ongoing.
"I expect, in light of what happened last month, those will be adopted and they will be stout," he said, adding later, that unlike the guidelines adopted in 2011, the rules will "be compulsory, and there will be performance penalties."