On Tuesday’s Ballot: Can New Gas Power Plants Fix a Fragile Texas Grid?

Texas voters will decide today whether to allocate billions of taxpayer dollars to build new gas-fired power plants. The referendum, which is likely to pass, is reigniting a debate over the role of clean energy in Texas and its passage will most certainly result in additional greenhouse gas emissions.

Supporters of the measure—known as Proposition 7—say it’s needed to reinforce the state’s power grid against extreme weather events, such as the devastating winter storm of 2021 that resulted in nearly 250 deaths and caused millions of Texans to lose power for up to three days.

“After Winter Storm Uri, it was clear for all to see that Texas needed more reliable dispatchable power because renewable energy sources failed to keep the lights on for millions of Texans,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement earlier this year.

But environmentalists and other critics of Prop 7 question whether it will truly improve grid reliability. They point to multiple expert analyses, including a joint investigation from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which found that the failure of gas power plants was a leading factor in those outages—not just frozen wind turbines.

Specifically, Prop 7 would create the “Texas Energy Fund.” The Republican-controlled legislature passed the measure this summer and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law. It allocates $7.2 billion in low-interest loans for “dispatchable” generation such as gas power plants, $1.8 billion in grants and loans for creating microgrids and another $1 billion for power infrastructure outside the jurisdiction of the state’s main grid operator. The law also explicitly excludes battery storage, which is also considered dispatchable, making it likely that the money will predominantly go to gas infrastructure.

Some energy experts say the measure actually limits the state’s ability to respond to extreme weather, and that the funds would be better spent on batteries and energy efficiency efforts that help lower overall electricity demand, which skyrockets on hot days as residents crank up their air conditioning.

“In a complex situation, you want every tool in the toolbox,” Michael Webber, an energy policy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the San Antonio Express-News. “But the Legislature saying you can only use a wrench when you need a hammer, pliers or a screwdriver seems silly.”

Voters will ultimately decide whether to implement Prop 7 when they cast their ballots Tuesday. As the Washington Post reported, such referendums in Texas have rarely failed to pass. Houston Public Media also reported that a recent poll found that 68 percent of likely voters plan to vote in favor of Prop 7, while just 15 percent oppose it.

Texas has a history of issues with its grid, and public scrutiny of those problems has only grown in recent years as extreme weather, made worse by climate change, has increasingly highlighted the state’s vulnerabilities. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s main grid operator, narrowly avoided rolling blackouts this fall and summer amid record-breaking heat waves. In fact, renewable energy and battery storage played a critical role in keeping the lights on during those hot spells as gas, coal and nuclear power plants strained in the triple-digit heat.

In June, when a coal-fired plant went offline, battery storage helped restore 75 percent of the lost electricity in minutes, Texas-based energy consultant Doug Lewin told me in an interview that month. 

The state leads the nation in clean energy capacity and has also made impressive gains in terms of installing utility-scale battery storage. Yet Texas Republicans have repeatedly blamed renewable energy for the state’s grid problems. And many top GOP lawmakers, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott, have been openly hostile to anything related to clean energy and climate change.

While clean energy advocates largely criticized Prop 7, some also saw a silver lining in the funding for microgrids, which studies have shown can help prevent widespread outages by limiting grid issues to smaller regions.

“I think the microgrid piece will be the most impactful thing that the legislature has actually done for the grid,” Lewin told the Post. “But it’s not a super high bar because they haven’t done all that much.”

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Today’s Indicator

10 million

That’s how many homes could have been powered by two large offshore wind farms in New Jersey before their developer Ørsted canceled the projects last week, citing supply chain issues and high interest rates. It’s the latest in a series of setbacks for the nascent U.S. offshore wind industry.

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