A mobile home park is covered with snow as a massive winter storm engulfed Texas, causing widespread power and water outages across the state in February. The Texas Legislature is considering several bills aimed at preventing power outages in the future.

Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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The Texas House on Monday gave initial approval to a series of bills aimed at preventing another massive power failure, including one that would require state officials to adopt rules designating certain gas facilities as critical during an energy emergency.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s main power grid, ordered utility companies to cut power during the February winter storm because demand was outpacing supply so much that it threatened the entire grid. But when utility companies complied, they shut off electricity to natural gas facilities preventing them from delivering fuel to power plants.

That exacerbated ERCOT’s problems during the storm and exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed. Currently, there is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.”

House Bill 14 would create the Texas Electricity Supply Chain Security and Mapping Committee to designate priority electricity service needs for extreme weather events.

“This is establishing a committee that will map the critical infrastructure and force them to be identified so that their electricity is not turned off,” state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who is carrying the legislation, said during Monday’s debate.

More than 4.8 million customers in Texas were left without power during the winter storm that plunged large parts of the state into single-digit temperatures. At least 111 people died — more than half of them from hypothermia. Texas lawmakers are working on several bills aimed at preventing more power outages in extreme weather. Some proposals have drawn criticism for not going far enough to prepare electricity infrastructure for increased risks posed by climate change.

The measures the House gave initial approval to Monday come days after ERCOT asked Texans to conserve power on what was a relatively mild spring day. And experts and company executives are warning that the power grid is at risk of another crisis this summer, when demand for electricity typically peaks as homes and businesses crank up air conditioning to ride out the Texas heat.

The committee created by HB 14 would be composed of the executive directors of both the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, and the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry; the president and the CEO of ERCOT; and the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Members would have to submit a report to top state officials and the Legislature on their findings by Jan. 1.

State Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, raised concerns that HB 14 does not substantively address the state’s infrastructure ahead of future weather emergencies.

“I just feel like this bill does not actually do anything for our infrastructure other than look at it,” Rosenthal said.

The House on Monday also gave initial approval to House Bill 3648, which would require the Railroad Commission to work with the Public Utility Commission and adopt rules to designate certain gas entities and facilities as critical during an energy emergency.

“Had these facilities been designated as critical natural gas facilities, this problem could have been avoided,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who authored the bill.

Members also gave preliminary approval to House Bill 1520, which aims to address high gas costs for consumers as a result of the February winter storm. The bill would allow local distribution companies to securitize the cost of gas during the winter storm and spread that cost over several years. Critics of the measure have said it amounts to a bailout for gas companies. But state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, who authored the bill, denied that portrayal and called it a “common sense solution” for Texas gas consumers.

“Currently, if we do nothing, numerous consumers will receive gas bills that are many, many multiples of their normal bill, as the cost of natural gas is simply passed through from the local distribution companies and gas costs were greatly elevated during the winter storm,” he said.

The Texas Tribune

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