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Before Texas Builds Expensive Power Plants, Why Not Save Electricity?

By Jose Medina

This piece was first published in the Houston Chronicle

The cheapest megawatt of electricity is the one you don’t use.

You did not hear this on the steps of the Texas Capitol when our state’s top elected officials were inaugurated.

On Jan. 17, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick each raised his right hand and took the oath of his office for a third time. In the speeches that followed, both men expressed an intention to address the state’s shaky electric grid during the session of the Texas Legislature that began a week earlier.

Unfortunately, the inauguration remarks by Abbott and Patrick sent the message that their version of grid stability is to sell Texans more electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

For them, the strategy is all gas, no brakes.

Missing from both inaugural speeches was mention of doing anything to reduce our state’s demand for electricity. It was an alarming omission. Texas just marked the second anniversary of Winter Storm Uri, an extreme weather event in which high electricity demand combined with low supply forced the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to order days of power outages for millions of Texans.

The grid’s failure during Uri was a devastating, deadly event. Reducing energy demand is a common-sense strategy to ensure a grid collapse does not happen again. Abbott, however, seems only concerned with increasing supply.

“We all know that increased demand will be placed on the grid as Texas continues to grow,” the governor said in his speech. “So, we will build a grid that powers our state for more than just the next four years, but for the next 40 years.”

Patrick was more specific.

“We will add more megawatts of thermal power this session and strengthen the grid,” the lieutenant governor said. A few weeks later, Patrick announced that adding more natural gas plants would be a legislative priority.

This one-sided approach to stabilizing the grid is misguided because it ignores the enormous opportunity to reduce energy demand. While it is true that Texas’ ever-growing population will demand more electricity, we can reduce demand at the same time by using energy more efficiently. This will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which makes sense in a state already walloped by changing climate. From Hurricane Harvey to Winter Storm Uri, Texas may be one extreme weather event away from another round of catastrophic power outages.

But you don’t have to go back to February 2021 when Uri hit to underscore this point. Last summer, triple-digit heat translated into record electricity demand as Texans struggled to cool their homes and businesses. Texans set 11 new demand records.

The grid, thankfully, held despite some close calls. But one day our luck will run out.

Abbott, Patrick and state legislators have had two years since Uri to fix the grid. During the regular legislative session in 2021, and three subsequent special sessions, lawmakers made only marginal progress with legislation that required some power generators to weatherize their equipment.

We have demand-side solutions that we should embrace. They include energy efficiency, weatherization and demand response programs.

State programs to improve energy efficiency could help us to use less energy and reduce our bills. Weatherization can make our homes more comfortable — cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter — requiring less energy. And demand response programs would allow energy consumers to receive money for voluntarily reducing their energy use during peak periods of demand.

Focusing only on building expensive plants that will run on fracked gas, as Patrick wants, will cost Texans and leave them vulnerable to outages as demand keeps going up and the climate keeps changing.

Increasing supply by building new fracked gas-fueled power plants will benefit fossil fuel interests. But it will not make our grid more reliable. (After all, during Uri, the failure of natural gas-powered plants accounted for most of the grid’s shortfall.) And it won’t ease demand. Nor will it ease Texans’ fears whenever they see a winter storm like Uri or a summer heat wave heading their way.

Abbott and Patrick and the fossil fuel industry that funds their campaigns know that the cheapest megawatt of electricity is the one you do not use. But they don’t care about you — they care about their industry backers.

Texas must lay off the gas and pump the brakes on demand.

Jose Medina is the press officer for the Texas office of Public Citizen