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Editorial: Two big lessons for SC from the Texas power grid massacre

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Winter Weather Texas

South Carolina has lessons to learn from the Valentine's Day snow storm that crippled Texas, the result of extreme cold the state’s electricity grid wasn’t prepared to handle and policy decisions that enabled that lack of preparedness and prevented utilities from responding quickly. Here, an Oncor Electric Delivery lineman crew in Odessa, Texas, works four days later on repairing a utility pole that was damaged by the winter storm. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP)

The lights went out in Texas — and stayed out, and stayed out, causing frozen water pipes, ruined homes, lost livelihoods and even deaths — because of extreme cold that the state’s power grid wasn’t prepared to handle and because of policy decisions that led to that lack of preparedness and prevented utilities from responding quickly.

There are significant lessons here for South Carolina, on both preparedness and policy.

So it’s encouraging that the state Office of Regulatory Staff — recognizing that polar vortexes have become more commonplace and that temperature spikes are on the rise in both directions — has launched a review to determine how prepared S.C. utilities are for cold-weather emergencies, backed by Gov. Henry McMaster.

On Monday, the agency asked power companies to provide very specific information about potential threats, costs and measures they have taken “to mitigate the negative impacts of potential ice storms and other dangerous weather conditions and to ensure peak customer demands on the utility system can be met during extreme weather scenarios.”

That information will be essential to determine if officials should require power companies to do what Texas officials refused to do despite warnings after a massive snowstorm a decade ago that caused rolling blackouts that left millions without power: spend more money to prepare power stations and supply lines to withstand temperatures outside of what used to be the norm.

It also should help illustrate the need, as the Coastal Conservation League’s Eddy Moore explained in a guest column on Wednesday, for utilities to take the cheapest and easiest step to avoid blackouts, by helping customers save electricity through weatherization projects and more efficient heating systems and appliances.

Global changes to our climate mean it’s likely only a matter of time before South Carolina experiences deadly cold snaps as well — along with hotter heat waves and deeper floods — and our electric grid needs to be up to the task. There’s a real cost to making a power grid more resilient, but there’s also a cost for not doing that when you needed to.

Any power system would have trouble keeping up when temperatures plunge as far below the normal lows as they did in Texas and stay below them for so long.

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But the cascading emergencies were triggered by the addition of Texas' extreme experiment in energy-market deregulation and its decision two decades ago — driven by reluctance to submit to the requisite federal regulation — to boycott the two regional power grids that the 47 other contiguous states all belong to. That meant when the power went out in Texas, there was nowhere to turn for backup.

That in turn was an outgrowth of Texas lawmakers’ fierce sense of independence, their tendency to bow to their homegrown special interests and their faith in the infallibility of the free market and certainty that government, and particularly government regulation, is the root of all evil.

Sound familiar?

After the V.C. Summer debacle helped all of us recognize how badly our state has failed to put the “regulate” into regulated monopolies — and better understand how those monopolies operate — South Carolina is appropriately exploring electricity deregulation.

The big takeaway from Texas isn’t that deregulation is inherently evil. It’s that Texas-style, no-holds-barred deregulation is inherently evil. Or at least dangerous. (And, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis, also expensive: The 60% of customers who are forced to buy energy from retail electricity providers — so much for consumer choice — pay 21% more than customers who are allowed to buy from traditional utilities.)

The takeaway for us is that there are different ways to deregulate and different degrees of deregulation — that there’s a big difference between Texas deregulation and California deregulation and Maryland deregulation and all the other deregulated markets in between. 

Texans might not admit that the Valentine’s Day storm demonstrated that their extreme version of deregulation is broken; that’s their problem. What’s important for South Carolina is that we add their experience to the growing trove of evidence about what works and what doesn’t work.

What’s important is that we understand that whatever we do needs to be pragmatic rather than philosophical, led by independent experts, consumers and interests beyond energy interests. Yes, utility companies and other energy interests need to be at the table, but we don’t need to let them carry the table off for their own private buffet, like Texas lawmakers did.

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