The initial motion presented by Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) called for the county attorney to explore the possibility of moving to an electric grid “not primarily governed by a failed regulatory body,” specifically defining the term “failed regulatory body” as the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC). He also specified moving to the power grid utilized by Liberty County bordering Harris County to the east.
Liberty, along with a string of less populated counties in eastern Texas, depends on a separate grid maintained by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) which is managed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Most of MISO’s jurisdiction includes more northerly states of the American Midwest along with the Canadian province of Manitoba, but also oversees distribution in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
According to Garcia’s motion, about 30,000 customers in the MISO region lost electricity during the 2021 winter storm.
“Do we have the power to move Harris County to a grid that actually works?” queried Garcia.
Although he acknowledged that it may not be possible, Garcia said it was important to explore the options, and blamed state leadership for not taking appropriate winterization actions after blackouts occurred in 1989 and 2011.
“The lack of action by the state will cost us billions,” lamented Garcia. “Billions in economic damage, unknown amounts in future economic damage by companies that don’t want to move to a place with fading infrastructure, and most importantly, it has cost lives.”
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) pointed out that other grids, such as that used by Montgomery County, also had failures and warned that simply moving to another source may not solve the problem. He added an amendment allowing the county attorney to expand the query to include any grid, and the measure passed unanimously.
Despite the frustration expressed by all members of the commissioners court, shifting the county onto another grid may prove difficult, if not impossible.
In addition to an estimated 4.7 million residents, the Harris County region is home to numerous refineries, petrochemical plants, and other industries.
Additionally, should the county leave the ERCOT grid, it would leave behind the nuclear facility — the South Texas Nuclear Project — which serves a large portion of the county’s base electricity load. Increasing the number of Texas customers pulling from the MISO grid tenfold would be no easy lift, especially if that baseload is also left behind.
“There’s no generation units available in the MISO southern area that would allow them to provide power to the most complex power area of all of ERCOT,” Houston’s Soar Energy CEO Don Hooper told The Texan. “The cost of creating a new grid and power sourcing is beyond comprehension.”
A shift to another grid would also require changes to state and federal laws that govern the various power grids across the nation.
In addition to his proposal to move Harris County off of the ERCOT managed grid, Garcia offered a resolution calling for investigations and the resignation of the entire PUC board, but which drew objection from the Republican members of the court since it also specifically blamed Governor Abbott and Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick.
Noting the court had only received the resolution a few hours before the meeting, Cagle said there was “a lot of subtle partisanship.”
“We are criticizing the governor, we are criticizing all these elected officials, who all happen to be Republican ones, but we are not criticizing anyone else. There are many hands that went into this failure.”
Garcia’s resolution also appears to identify the lack of winterization measures as the primary culprit and chastises the state for avoiding “jurisdiction of federal regulation.”
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) asserted that he agreed with Garcia’s passion, but as an engineer with more than 40 years of experience, stressed the importance of a full investigation before drawing conclusions.
“I want all of the information before I go and indict and shoot somebody.”
Ramsay also noted that the region had rejected the construction of another power plant in Bay City and said further discussion should explore reasons for opposition to expanding base power generation to the region. He also advocated collaboration with the Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio regions to craft a power triangle for support of urban energy needs.
Cagle offered a substitute resolution that called for aggressive investigation to seek “positive and proactive efforts to find meaningful solutions” and excluded assigning blame, but the Democrat majority on the court rejected the substitution in favor of Garcia’s.
In response, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) called the court’s action a “political resolution vote, not a serious public policy vote.”
“The legislature is holding hearings on ERCOT and PUC specifically and on the entire electrical grid performance in Winter Storm URI,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “The fact that seven ERCOT directors and the Public Utility Commission Chair herself have resigned is an indication of what a serious concern this is to all Texans.”
Four board members resigned together on February 23 citing their out-of-state residency, with a fifth member resigning on the same day but separately. At that time, an individual nominated to fill the last remaining vacancy on ERCOT’s board withdrew his name from consideration citing his out-of-state residency. And another board member resigned late last week shortly before his electric power cooperative declared bankruptcy due to a $1.8 billion bill from ERCOT.
“The three-vote majority on Harris County Commissioners Court should concentrate on real-world solutions,” he added.
Speakers addressing the court on the power issue included Baytown Mayor Brandon Capetillo and state Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston). Wu said he was drafting a bill to allow Harris County to construct a new grid or join MISO.
Recently elected county attorney Christian Menefee reported to the court that he had not yet investigated the legality of moving to a new grid since President Joe Biden’s visit to Houston last Friday had become an “emergency item” for his staff. Commissioners also approved Menifee’s participation in PUC hearings about the blackout crisis.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misstated Harris County Attorney Christian Menifee’s name.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.