Texas Is Having a Once-in-a-Lifetime Cold Snap. Could That Impact Legislative Debate in Md.?

A cycad tree is seen covered by ice and snow on Tuesday in Houston. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather, power outages and traffic accidents to Texas as storms have swept across 26 states with a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images.

Texas is suffering under its worst winter storm in history, and millions of homes are without power this week. The images are stark, the tales of woe of frozen residents with no heat or electricity scary and disturbing.

With Maryland lawmakers about to launch multiple debates over energy and climate policy and the regulation of electric utilities, could the failure of Texas’ electric grid to meet the demands of ratepayers during record-setting cold temperatures become a factor?

It’s entirely possible.

At the request of Sen. Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel), the Senate on Tuesday laid over for one day a bill by Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) that would elevate climate change on the list of factors state regulators consider when evaluating power plants and electric utilities. A motion to lay a bill over in the Senate is automatically granted, with no debate, so it wasn’t clear what Reilly was up to.

But a colleague of Reilly’s, Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore), may have offered a hint later in the afternoon, as the Senate Finance Committee considered a bill by committee Chairwoman Delores B. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) concerning the extra costs and savings electric utilities see during official state emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Jason M. Stanek, the chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission, testifying on Kelley’s bill, Hershey asked if he could go off-topic to question Stanek about grid reliability. Finance Committee Vice Chairman Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who was presiding over the hearing, reluctantly agreed.

Citing the failure of the Texas electric grid this week, Hershey observed, “There appears to be an overreliance on intermittent power sources,” and asked Stanek whether the Kramer bill now on the Senate floor ought to be amended “so we’re not over-reliant” on alternative fuel sources when it comes to powering the Maryland grid.

Intentionally or not, Hershey introduced national conservative talking points into a wonky legislative debate on power generation and utility finances.

Since the Texas deep freeze, conservative politicians in the Lone Star State ― and an array of talk show hosts and pundits on Fox News and other conservative media outlets ― have sought to blame the grid collapse on renewable energy.

“This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source,” U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (R) was even more withering, posting on Facebook: “Those ugly wind turbines out there are among the main reasons we are experiencing electricity blackouts. Isn’t that ironic? … So much for the unsightly and unproductive, energy-robbing Obama Monuments. At least they show us where idiots live.”

But that picture isn’t entirely accurate.

Yes, a few wind turbines in Texas have snapped in the cold, according to multiple media outlets. But the Texas Tribune reported Tuesday night that lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the state’s reduced generating capacity. An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas told the Tribune on Tuesday afternoon that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly from wind power, was offline. Thirty gigawatts had been lost from gas, coal and nuclear energy.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was quoted as saying.

Overall, wind accounts for just 10% of the energy generating in Texas during the winter.

In Maryland, there are multiple efforts to mandate more clean energy in the power generation sector.

Stanek, who was appointed to the Public Service Commission by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) after a stint working for Republicans on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, did not directly answer Hershey’s question about the Kramer bill the Senate is set to resume debating on Wednesday morning. But he did say that while “climate change issues are a major concern of mine…days like today remind us that we can’t make the transition to renewable energy overnight.”

Stanek added that “we [will continue to] need baseload power to get us through the transition.”

The Kramer bill would require the Power Plant Research Program within the state Department of Natural Resources to include an evaluation of the impact of electric power plants on climate change as part of its ongoing research. The bill would also require the Public Service Commission to track climate effects and greenhouse gas emissions as it regulates electric utilities.

Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery) is the sponsor of an equivalent measure in the House.

Kramer’s bill was one of several that senators decided to put off during their floor session Tuesday. Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told his colleagues that they would have to buckle down and tackle many of the bills on Wednesday.

“We’re going to take these bills up, just so you know,” Ferguson said. “They’re coming.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.