As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia placed an item on the court's Feb. 26 meeting agenda to explore what would need to take place for Harris County to be removed from the state's power grid, which is currently managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, an independent system operator.
However, after further investigating the option, Garcia said leaving the Texas power grid may not be a possibility for Harris County.
"It appears that we may not have the authority to move out of the Texas grid," Garcia said during the March 1 continuation of the Feb. 26 meeting. "It sounds like moving out of the grid is not likely to be an option because of the way the state has built our electric system. I’m not sure—nor was I ever sure—that moving Harris County out of the Texas grid would be the best option available to us. However, I am extremely disappointed in the situation that the state has put us in. By creating a state grid, the state took all the responsibility to maintain that grid and ... take on every feasible measure to ensure it lasts against that environment that our scientists tell us to anticipate. Without a doubt, the state failed at that."
Garcia drafted a revised resolution March 1 in support of federal investigations that "may shed further light on who is at fault for the massive power failures, what recommendations were not heeded and what could be done to prevent similar failures in the future." Additionally, the motion called for the entire Public Utility Commission of Texas—which governs ERCOT—to resign and for Gov. Greg Abbott to replace the members with "dedicated and experienced individuals who can lead the agency out of the current state of failure."
"What happened last week may have been unprecedented, but it was not unanticipated," Garcia said. "The lack of action by the state will cost us billions in economic damage, unknown amounts in future economic damage by companies that don’t want to move to a place with failing infrastructure—and most importantly, it has cost lives. It’s clear we cannot trust the state to act. While producing power may not be the responsibility of the county, we must—for our own sake—evaluate what our options can be to ensure resiliency."
One of those lives lost was that of 96-year-old Lucia Valdez, a Harris County resident who died Feb. 16 after 30 hours without electricity in subfreezing temperatures. Her granddaughter, Frances Valdez, addressed the court March 1 and advocated for change.
"Texas’ lawmakers for years have ignored warnings of the vulnerability of our power grid and people have died as a result of their decisions and inaction," Frances Valdez said. "Today I call on the Commissioners Court ... to advocate at the state level for changes that ensure that something like this does not happen again and to do everything in your power to make local changes to ensure that Harris County residents do not have to suffer like this again.Through their disgraceful decisions, the leaders of our state have caused the death of too many Texans and the time for accountability and change is now."
In a split 3-2 vote, the court approved Garcia's resolution, with Precincts 3 and 4 Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle dissenting. Cagle said that while he, too, is concerned about the failure of the state's power grid, he could not support Garcia's resolution, as he said he believes it contains "subtle partisanship."
"We’re criticizing the governor .... [and] all of these elected officials, who happen to be the Republican ones. We’re not criticizing anybody else," Cagle said. "There are many hands that went into this failure—so I can’t support this resolution."
Instead, Cagle proposed a substitute resolution, which he said eliminated those concerns. However the substitute resolution failed to move forward in a 2-3 vote, with Garcia, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis dissenting.
"The Public Utility Commission is responsible or three things: energy, water and telecommunications. All three failed and failed at the worst possible time," Garcia said. "We have seen the number of resignations from the PUC ... and from ERCOT. The cronyism has created an incredible amount of catastrophe and we need to end it."
In addition to the resolution, the court unanimously approved Garcia's motion to authorize the county attorney to represent Harris County in the PUC dockets on matters that may improve ties with all other power grids to Harris County's grid. Ellis also called for stronger regulations at the state level that are comparable to those of the federal grids, while Ramsey pushed for more collaboration with local leaders in Texas' other major metropolitan areas to assist in tackling the statewide issue.
County Budget Director Dave Berry, who has a background in energy, said advocating for winter reliability standards and investing more in the transmission links between Texas' power grid and neighboring grids are two tangible reforms that could make a significant difference in a future crisis.
"Right now, there’s only so much power that can be brought in, and if those links had been stronger, we would have been able to bring in more power from neighboring states during the crisis," Berry said. "It may not have eliminated the problem, but it sure would have helped."
While Harris County's ability to leave the state's power grid still remains unclear, state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said he is currently drafting a bill to request a study into the efficacy and ability of Harris County to connect to another grid or to switch over to the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.
"[I'm] not sure if this is a good idea, a bad idea or somewhere in between. But I think we owe it to the people of Harris County and of my district to at least look at it," Wu said during public comment in the March 1 meeting. "I’ve had calls and emails and letters from both Republicans and Democrats who are both equally upset and dismayed about what happened, and almost all of them have very directly asked if there’s an ability for Harris County to switch to a different grid—that we try to do so. I don’t know if this is possible, but that’s what the study is for."
Wu added that based on the Legislature's past performance, it would be up to local officials and representatives to address the statewide issue.
"As we talk about relying on the Legislature to fix this, ... I wouldn’t hold your breath," Wu said. "This is an issue that’s been brought before the Legislature many, many times, and after three or four times, it still has not been resolved. I think the Commissioners Court and myself—we owe it to our people to look into ways of fixing this, even without counting on the Legislature or the governor’s office fixing this themselves."