Our current electricity governance structure provides neither.
Most Americans don’t think much about electricity – where it comes from, how it is made, and what it takes to keep the lights on. We flip a switch and expect light, warmth, and working appliances. It’s only when the power is gone, and we are sitting in the dark, without charged cell phones and with food starting to spoil, that we start to wonder about what it takes to keep the lights on. And so it is with the disastrous events in Texas last month, for just a moment, all eyes are on the grid. As important as it is to assess the physical infrastructure that failed Texas –, nearly half of the state’s generating capacity went offline – we also must examine the decisions that govern those plants and wires.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has a hearing today: “POWER STRUGGLE: EXAMINING THE 2021 TEXAS GRID FAILURE.” Grid accountability cannot be assigned to after-the-fact investigations at the state and federal level, as is happening in response to the Texas blackout. That is not a solution that protects people or plans for the future. We need to fundamentally rethink how the organizations planning and running our grids make decisions, and ensure that stakeholders – not just those who buy and sell power – are included in those decisions. That is true grid accountability: accountability to the public interest to ensure effective, legitimate, and fair decisions.
Many stories have focused on what’s unique about the Texas grid: that it is separated from the rest of the Lower 48, lightly regulated by the Texas legislature and Public Utilities Commission, and coordinated by a private non-profit organization, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. But we have seven regional grid operators in the United States which manage, plan, and sell 70 percent of wholesale electricity sales. Each has its own set of rules and decision-making processes. In other parts of the country, the grid is managed by vertically integrated utilities and state regulators. The result is a hodge-podge of authorities and decision-makers, working together to keep the grid working and the power flowing at the right frequency to meet in-the-moment demand.
It is remarkable that our power is as reliable as it is, given all the players, overlapping jurisdictions, and often conflicting policies. But as the Texas crisis revealed, reliability is not enough. We need a resilient grid, one that can respond nimbly to changing conditions and return to normal operations after being knocked by extreme climate events. Scientists warn we’ll see stronger and more frequent storms and extreme weather due to changing climates.
Utility and wires regulation used to be a narrow technocratic business. Regulatory proceedings were small affairs attended by the same cadre of experts. But to achieve greater resilience, we need deliberation among diverse interests to discover how to better advance collective concerns and system needs. Today, environmental groups, energy efficiency and renewable companies, state policymakers, large retail and manufacturing companies, and low-income advocates want a seat at the table. Historically, those seats haven’t been made available, and the regional market operators vary markedly in opportunities for non-utility participants. But as we ask more of the grid, we need broader participation to inform and shape the choices and illuminate the risks of decisions.
States, cities, businesses, and consumers are demanding a cleaner, affordable and reliable grid but are also running into roadblocks, often regional grid operators. Arguments about whether regional electricity market rules should bend to state clean energy policies (or vice versa) have led to tensions between grid operators and prompted states to threaten leaving the markets entirely. But these arguments largely miss the point –markets and regional grids need to evolve and adapt to the world we are moving into: changing technology and a changing climate.
The builders of the legacy grid and market rules – the utilities and marketers who still dominate today – created a system that made sense two decades ago. Now, new technologies and priorities are requiring the old grid models to change. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, state public utilities commissions, and policymakers must ensure the grid and energy markets’ governance is responsive to the needs of the future and to further grid accountability.
The lack of preparedness in Texas was not just about the weather – it was the result of years of deliberate decisions on how the grid should be planned and run. We are moving into a world with more climate and weather variability. And a world where people are more dependent than ever on electricity. We can choose to make decisions that will create a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable electricity system. But doing so requires a wider view of grid governance beyond the legacy utilities and their regulators.
Elizabeth J. Wilson is a Professor of Environmental Studies and the inaugural Director of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society at Dartmouth College.
Seth Blumsack is a Professor of Energy Policy and Economics and International Affairs, and Director of the Center for Energy Law and Policy at Penn State University.
Kate Konschnik is the Director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
Stephanie Lenhart is a Senior Research Associate with the Energy Policy Institute, and is faculty in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.