Last year was hot. We have to go all the way back to 1789, searching through the tree ring records, to find evidence of a drier summer.  And because power plants depend upon water in order to operate properly, the high heat wreaked havoc on the transmission grid. As lake levels dropped, our risk of blackouts increased.

Next week a key committee in the Texas Senate will hold a public hearing on reliability issues and the drought.  There will be plenty of expert testimony, public comments, white board charts and maybe a few reporters. A representative from ERCOT, the operator of the Texas power grid, will make a presentation. The chairwoman of the Texas Public Utility Commission also will address the senators.

If the drought is putting system reliability at risk, then what should be done about it? Some have proposed artificial price supports for wholesale energy. That is, some believe that without bigger profit margins for big electric companies, those companies won’t have sufficient financial incentives to build needed generation plants.  But consumer groups are discouraging efforts to intentionally increase prices — especially when there’s no clear pay-off in terms of reliability.  Any money used to enrich these deregulated generation companies ultimately comes from the pockets of ratepayers. But generation companies offer no guarantees that they’ll resolve or even address the state’s reliability concerns.

It’s a tough issue to be sure, and one that’s begun to attract welcome attention from the media. Both the Texas Observer and National Public Radio’s Impact Texas recently have weighed in, with both outlets noting that Texans are at risk for paying higher electricity prices. Reports in the Texas Tribune and the San Antonio Express-News also help to frame the debate. The hearing, to be conducted by the Committee on Business and Commerce, begins at 10 a.m. on Tuesday,  January 10th. You can find a link to the Business and Commerce Committee website here. Separately, the House State Affairs Committee also is expected to consider these issues during a meeting on Feb. 9th.  Both hearings will be conducted in Austin.

— R.A. Dyer