Bill Would Connect ERCOT to U.S. Electric Grids

U.S. Rep. Greg Casar speaks about the Connect the Grid Act (Photo by Lina Fisher)

Yesterday, U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, held a press conference at the IBEW Local 520 headquarters off Ben White Boulevard joined by myriad environmental groups, frontline workers, and labor unions, to celebrate the filing of his Connect the Grid Act.

The bill would connect the Texas grid to the Western Interconnection grid, which includes New Mexico, California, Arizona, and other Western states; bring the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) oversight; and commission a study from the Department of Energy on the potential benefits of interconnection with Mexico.

Ever since Winter Storm Uri, when 246 Texans died and the state lost up to $200 billion in damages, ERCOT’s stubborn independence from other national grids has been called into question by those who saw El Paso and Beaumont – the 10% of Texas connected to other grids – spared from the widespread power outages that plagued the rest of the state. “Millions of Texans needlessly lost power, hundreds of people needlessly died,” said Casar Wednesday. “When Ted Cruz got on a plane and went off to Cancun to escape the storm, it was people here in this community who stood up to take care of one another.”

Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, recounted harrowing stories from EMS calls during the storm, where she saw people freezing to death on the street, people who lost power to their oxygen machines struggling to breathe, families having to make the choice of whether to make the icy drive to the hospital or let their loved ones die at home, and missed dialysis appointments that had dire repercussions years later. “The reason I’m here today is because if our elected officials had seen what I did during Winter Storm Uri, they would all be here today supporting this bill.”

Despite the clear necessity of avoiding another Uri, some – including Gov. Greg Abbott – have opposed interconnection, complaining about the price tag and the necessity of federal regulation. But Casar said, “University of Texas study after University of Texas study shows we would save $20 billion over the next 13 years if we were interconnected to the other grids, because we wouldn’t have to be suffering from these massive price spikes every time that there’s a storm.” Federal regulation includes something called “just and reasonable pricing” which would disallow the opportunistic price gouging that stemmed from Uri. UT energy researcher Michael Webber backed that up last year, telling the Statesman connecting to the national electric grids “will make us money.”

“The truth is that the Texas GOP has kept us in the dark because there’s money in it,” said Ryan Pollock, the political director of IBEW Local 520. “Money from their energy corporation donors who profit from Texas’ lack of labor standards and utility rate regulations. They sold out working people on the job, they sold us out again when we got home after a hard day’s work.”

Pollock and Rick Levy, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO, both spoke to the pro-labor aspects of the bill, including job training, apprenticeship, and high labor standards.

Aside from interconnection’s positive outcomes for Texas, if the leading state in wind and solar production is allowed to sell its surplus, the entire country benefits: “We’re increasingly the renewable energy capital of this country,” said Casar. “When the sun is shining in Texas, and the wind is blowing in Texas, when we’re not in the middle of a storm – if we are interconnected, we’ll be able to sell that power, create good jobs, bring down our bills, and actually develop energy to save the planet.”

If the bill passes, it stipulates that construction should be completed by January 1, 2035. Another project, helmed by the private company Pattern Energy, could connect ERCOT to parts of the Southeastern grid by as early as 2029.