Gail Buttorff, Renée D. Cross, Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Pablo M. Pinto, Kirk P. Watson
Beginning February 13th, Winter Storm Uri brought the state of Texas to a standstill. At its peak, the storm left 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, killed at least 111 people and cost at least $195 billion. In response, several bills were introduced this legislative session to address problems facing Texas’ electric grid and reliable electricity service. But only one – SB3 which passed on May 23rd – seems likely to become law.
To understand Texans’ preferences for reliable electricity and future power generation in the state, as well as their willingness to pay for both, the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston together with UH Energy conducted an online survey between May 13-25, 2021. The survey is the second conducted in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri; the first was fielded between March 9-19, 2021. Texas residents aged 18 years and older participated in the most recent survey for a total of 1,500, of whom 68% reported interrupted power service during the winter storm and 30% reported damages to their homes due to the outages.
Three months after the blackouts, Texans remain frustrated and ready to attribute blame to power generators and policymakers. When asked about which factors or entities were responsible for the electricity grid failure during the winter storm, 62% of respondents blamed the lack of weatherization or winterization of power generators. While respondents also attributed blame to severe weather (58%) and the lack of oversight over power-generation plants (51%), ultimately the lack of weatherization or winterization of natural gas industry equipment (50%) figured prominently in their responses.
Less than a quarter of respondents said that Texas’ reliance on renewable energy was to blame. In fact, a majority of respondents agreed that solar and wind power – 56% and 53%, respectively – would make a substantial contribution to reliable and secure electricity supply in Texas in the future. While 45% of respondents agreed that onshore conventional natural gas would contribute to secure and reliable electricity in Texas, just over a third of respondents agreed that onshore unconventional natural gas typically produced via hydraulic fracturing (fracking) or onshore natural gas produced without flaring or venting would make substantial contributions.
It is clear that Texans want action. A majority of respondents agreed that current laws and regulations in Texas are insufficient to tackle issues related to electric failures as experienced this past February; only 17% disagreed. Texans were also split in their confidence as to whether the state government would adequately tackle issues related to electric failures, as experienced this past February, whereas a third said they were confident, 40% were not and 28% remained neutral.
A salient concern among Texans is reliable electricity, which means “the ability of a power system to provide service to customers while maintaining the quality and price of electricity at an acceptable level.” Thirty-six percent of respondents said that is it never acceptable for power outages to occur and another 27% said only once a year is acceptable. Further, the vast majority of respondents said that a power outage lasting more than two hours poses a significant problem.
Two-fifths of respondents also said that reliability of electricity supplies was one of two important factors in deciding which methods of electricity production should be used in Texas in the future. The second most common factor was cost (26%), followed by helping to prevent climate change (20%) and efficiency in production (19%).
However, when it comes to paying for reliable energy supply respondents are unambiguous. Forty-five percent said energy producers should bear the cost to protect the Texas electric grid from effects of severe weather, another 18% want the government to collect extra sales or property taxes and 14% prefer consumers pay extra costs in their electricity bills. When asked if they were willing to pay an extra cost per month to keep power outages to 4=four hours or less, few respondents (11%) approved and 20% were uncertain.
Despite their frustrations, Texans are aware of the cost to mitigate the impact of severe weather events on the reliable supply of electricity. Although frustrated with regulators and electricity companies, Texans seem to understand that the cost of reliable electricity supply would eventually fall on them. Moreover, when offered a menu of policy options and power outages Texans entertained the possibility of paying a few extra cents per kilowatt hour of electricity consumed.
The survey provides important lessons for the future of the electricity system in Texas: recurring severe weather events will continue to pose threats to the reliable supply of energy, creating disruptions and human and material losses. Addressing these problems is costly and will require regulatory changes and massive investments. Consumers value access to cheap electricity but are ready to blame producers and policymakers for systematic failures in the supply of electricity.
In the short-run, consumers would prefer producers pay the bill for reliable electricity, but in the long-run the cost of needed investments must be recovered. Smart public policy solutions should aim at aligning the incentives of all actors involved by encouraging electricity producers and distributors to prepare the grid to withstand the impact of severe weather, incentivizing the development and adoption of new technologies to mitigate climate change and reducing the costs to a tolerable level for consumers.
Gail Buttorff is an instructional assistant professor and co-director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs.
Renée D. Cross is the Senior Director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. Renée worked as the district director in the office of a state representative for two years before joining the staff of the University of Houston Center for Public Policy as a researcher. Now with the Hobby School of Public Affairs for 21 years (the Center for Public Policy is one of several entities housed within the Hobby School since 2016), Renée serves as the School’s senior director. Her academic interests include Houston and Texas government, politics, and history; urban politics; and civic engagement and voting. In addition to serving as the course instructor for the School’s internship programs, Renée teaches upper level political science courses such as Texas Politics, Urban Politics, State and Local Government & Politics, Campaign Politics, and Participation & Democracy in American Politics at the University of Houston and the University of Houston-Downtown.
Ramanan Krishnamoorti is the chief energy officer at the University of Houston. Prior to his current position, Krishnamoorti served as interim vice president for research and technology transfer for UH and the UHSystem. During his tenure at the university, he has served as chair of the UH Cullen College of Engineering’s chemical and biomolecular engineering department, associate dean of research for engineering, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering with affiliated appointments as professor of petroleum engineering and professor of chemistry. Dr. Krishnamoorti obtained his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and doctoral degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1994.
Pablo M. Pinto is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, and the co-editor of the journal Economics & Politics. Pinto is a UH Energy Faculty Fellow, a non-resident Scholar in the Latin America Initiative of the Baker Institute at Rice University, and adjunct research scholar for the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Pinto’s areas of expertise are international and comparative political economy, comparative politics, and quantitative methods. Pinto holds an M.A. from Aoyama Gakuin University in Japan, and a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Affairs from the University of California, San Diego. He received a Law Degree from Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina. Prior to joining the University of Houston in 2014, Pinto was a member of the faculty of Columbia University. He taught at the Escuela Nacional de Gobierno in his native Argentina, and the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, where he founded and directed the Department for Asia-Pacific Studies. He also worked as Chief Counsel for Toyota Argentina.
Kirk P. Watson is the Founding Dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs and began his position on May 1, 2020. Watson’s policy experience spans local and state government. As Senator, he championed education, health care, transportation and government transparency. During his tenure in the Senate, he served as a member and vice chair of multiple standing and special committees. Most recently he was Vice-Chair of the Senate Committee on Nominations and also served on the committees overseeing State Finance, Education, Higher Education and the Sunset Advisory Commission. His peers elected him President Pro Tempore of the Senate in 2019.
Senator Watson graduated from Baylor University and graduated first in his law school class at Baylor Law School. He has been named an outstanding young alumnus of Baylor, Young Baylor Lawyer of the Year, and the Outstanding Young Lawyer of Texas. He was most recently of counsel at the law firm Husch Blackwell LLP.
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