Panelists voice doubt about Texas-style grid failures in Virginia

Texas’ catastrophic winter crisis has become a political flashpoint linked to deregulation and renewables debates

By: - October 20, 2021 12:02 am

Workers on power lines in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Panelists at a conference on clean energy in Virginia Tuesday voiced doubts about whether Virginia could see the same kind of electrical grid failures Texas experienced during an unexpected deep freeze last February. 

Virginia is in a “unique position” in that it has a regulated electricity market with vertically integrated utilities that own the plants that produce energy, but also requires utilities to participate in the regional electric grid known as PJM, said Brad Viator, vice president of external affairs for the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents investor-owned utilities. 

“Dominion can go out when they are short supplied and they can purchase power from the PJM marketplace,” said Viator. 

John Hanger, a former Pennsylvania utility regulator who now works as an energy consultant for clients including Direct Energy, which has been lobbying in Virginia for increased competition in the state’s electricity market, said that the implication that the Texas failure could occur in Virginia is “a reckless statement” that’s “basically akin to yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater.” 

Compared to Texas’s electric grid, which is not connected with any other electric grid in the country and is not under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, “things are taken much more seriously in terms of reliability” in the PJM grid in which Virginia utilities participate, said Hanger. 

PJM “has a capacity market. It has weatherization rules. It has penalties. It has interconnection. And by and large, if there is a problem in these systems, then there are indeed rotating blackouts for 15 minutes,” said Hanger. But, he added, “that has not happened in PJM since 1994.” 

The panel discussion — “Can Texas Happen in Virginia?”— was part of the third Virginia Clean Energy Summit, which this year is being co-hosted by the Virginia Department of Energy, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Renewable Energy Alliance, Virginia Advanced Energy Economy and Chesapeake Energy Storage and Solar Association.

Besides Hanger and Viator, the panel also included Charles “Richard” Ross, a policy director for American Electric Power, Appalachian Power’s parent company. 

Grid failures in Texas and California have become a political flashpoint in Virginia over the past eight months. In one gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin alluded to California’s grid problems and warned that if Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe were elected, Virginians should “get ready for blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable energy grid.” 

Power for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that advocates against deregulation of electric utilities and is supported by Dominion Energy, has also spent more than $300,000 on advertising campaigns in Virginia warning that Texas-style grid failures could result from any deregulation of the state’s system. 

Dominion has adopted a similar stance: “More than anything else, it was the inherent shortcomings of electricity market deregulation which led to the tragedy in Texas — the latest in a series of failures everywhere this policy has been tried,” wrote Katharine Bond, Dominion’s vice president of public policy and state affairs, in an email to General Assembly members this June. 

Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said in a text Tuesday that Bond’s view was “absolutely still our position.” 

Hanger strongly disputed the view that the Texas blackouts were driven by deregulation while sharply criticizing the linkage between the two drawn by Power for Tomorrow and Dominion. 

It’s pretty clear it’s not competition or monopoly by themselves that determine reliability,” he said. “It is the rules and the regulators and the policymaking and the policymakers as well as the operators that determine reliability.” 

Viator took a more cautious approach, pointing to discussions that have occurred in Virginia about deregulation. Most notably, in 2019, a wide-ranging coalition including former Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and advocacy group Clean Virginia, which was founded by Charlottesville millionaire Michael Bills to counter Dominion’s influence in Richmond, proposed deregulating Virginia’s electricity markets under the umbrella of the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition. And in 2020, Dels. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, put forward a bill that would replace the current regulated system with a competitive one. 

“If Virginia is to become a fully restructured state, if policy were to take it there, I do think it introduces new and different challenges like the Texas challenge,” said Viator. “I don’t think it’s as severe as some might suggest, but that sort of market change does leave a very real problem, which is how do you create appropriate incentives to ensure generation is there when you need it and when you need it most.” 

Viator and Hanger agreed, however, that claims that renewable energy sources were responsible for the days-long blackouts in Texas were “pretty bogus.”

Practically speaking, and I guess empirically speaking, it’s just not true,” said Viator, who repeated several times that, during the freeze, 40 percent of gas resources were not available. 

A recent joint report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation found that more than half of all generating units that experienced outages, failures or other problems during the freeze were fueled by natural gas. 

Ross of AEP said Tuesday that he struggled “with being as harsh as saying it’s bogus” that renewables were responsible for the blackouts, but added that “the blame that got laid at wind’s feet was unfair and uncalled for.” 

Planning for increasingly severe weather will be essential for electricity operators to ensure reliability, Ross said. 

“We need to recognize that the climate change and the severity of weather events is more severe than we’ve seen in the past, and so the sensitivities, the planning scenarios that we consider in our activities need to reflect that,” he said.

Similarly, asked by a panel attendee for a 20-word response to the question “Can Texas happen in Virginia?” Viator wrote that “Virginia(’s) electric grid is well managed and well invested, but climate challenges put everything in question. And more investment is needed.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.