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Greg Casar Wants to Fix Texas’ Power Grid. The Politics Make It Near-Impossible.

The Democrat’s bill to link Texas’ grid to the rest of the country’s is “DOA in Texas,” a fellow lawmaker from the state said.

Power lines are seen at dusk in San Antonio, TX.
Texas’ independent power grid is a point of pride for some politicians. Eric Gay/AP

Rep. Greg Casar wants to force the Texas grid to connect with the rest of the country, a grand proposal almost universally acknowledged as likely good policy and obviously bad politics.

Casar’s bill — which was dead on arrival in the House — would change a fact that many Texan politicians love to tout. Across the contiguous United States, the electric grid is split into three big pieces: the East, the West — and independent Texas.

Many parts of the country are embarking on the first steps toward connecting parts of the grid to ease the deployment of solar and wind generation, reduce reliability concerns and help meet the country’s expanding energy demands. But Texas has remained firmly opposed to such an idea. The politics of such a proposal are so third rail in the state that every federal proposal to improve and expand grid connections between different regions eventually excludes Texas or allows the state to opt out.

Casar’s proposal to connect Texas’ grid to the rest of the country might be making the politics of the situation worse, some experts suggested.

Texans “want a Texas agency governing Texas power with Texas rules and Texas regulations,” Rep. Randy Weber said when asked about Casar’s idea. “It’s DOA in Texas.”

It is undeniable that Texas would benefit from connections to the rest of the grid.

“They absolutely need those interconnections, just like every other state does,” said Rob Gramlich, the CEO of Grid Strategies, a major consulting firm for the power sector. “It’s like shooting yourself in the foot.”

But having an independent grid means Texas is free from national oversight. This doesn’t just carry political advantages: It also often makes it cheaper, faster and easier to build renewable generation in Texas than anywhere else in the United States, according to Joshua Rhodes, a grid scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. The state’s grid now has the most utility-scale wind and solar generation installed of any U.S. state, and it’s adding new electricity generation at a pace the rest of the country can only dream about.

But there are major downsides. In 2021, Texas faced one of the deadliest blackouts in 21st-century America when Winter Storm Uri knocked out power for about four days across large swaths of the state. More than 200 people died, mostly of hypothermia or related conditions. Many grid experts argue that if Texas’ grid had been connected to the rest of the country, the severity of those blackouts would have been greatly decreased.

The tragedy transformed how Texans think about electricity — and taught many people what Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Texas grid manager, does for the first time.

“It’s deeply ingrained in the Texas psyche now. Anytime it gets really hot or really cold, people think about the grid,” Rhodes said. “I don’t have to tell people what ERCOT is, at least in Texas. And it’s driven a lot of money and politics and campaigns for sure.”

Greg Casar
Rep. Greg Casar supports connecting Texas’ grid to the national one. Eric Gay/AP

Casar is one of the people whose views on the grid were shaped by the storm. He believes that forcing ERCOT to connect Texas with the rest of the grid could massively reduce the risk of another similar blackout. Recent research out of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research estimates that at minimum, 48% fewer households would face outages in a storm similar to Uri if Casar’s bill were enacted.

When asked about the politics of his proposal, Casar dismissed the opposition as mostly rhetoric.

“We’d heard really silly grid patriotism. ‘Texas has great barbecue and football, and we have our own power grid.’ Now that’s starting to sound really dumb,” Casar said. “It’s going to become more and more common sense as, unfortunately, we see more disasters in the state and as grid infrastructure gets upgraded all around us.”

Beth Garza, one of Casar’s constituents and the former director of ERCOT’S market monitor, called Casar’s bill “political folly.”

“It’s intended to make a point,” she added.

While connections make sense to grid experts, Garza (who voted for Casar), Gramlich and others told NOTUS that they fear Casar’s proposal is detached from the political reality. Texas likely needs to change, but proposing entrance into the federal system through a bill at the national level risks making the situation more polarized.

“Texas policymakers are not going to do anything that surrenders jurisdiction over their power system, but they can increase capacity to neighboring areas without losing their jurisdiction,” Gramlich said. “And they should. I don’t think there are really any federal actions that are going to force that to happen, but I do think that Texas should do that on their own.”

There are other options that advocates hope would be less politically fraught and perhaps make better policy. The state could approve limited ties to other places that don’t fall under national jurisdiction. One tie, called the Southern Spirit transmission line, will connect Texas with the eastern side of the national grid and has already been approved by Texas regulators and is now awaiting approval in neighboring states. Another, called Pecos West, is in the early stages of project development to connect to the Western side. Neither should trigger jurisdiction from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and both should provide some degree of increased safety net for the Texas grid.

When asked about the politics of their proposal, the developers for the Southern Spirit project explicitly cited their efforts to avoid triggering federal jurisdiction. The developers for the Pecos West project would not comment on their efforts.

“The headlines in Texas are consistent with Texas politics, but I think there are some individual entities and policymakers that are trying to do some rational things,” Gramlich said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they are moving some transmission forward. It’s a hard issue to communicate to the public, but if it’s going to happen, it will probably happen sort of quietly.”

Anna Kramer is a reporter at NOTUS.