In the age of expedience-over-quality media and armchair Twitter “experts,” the struggle for veracity in public discourse has claimed another victim: the cause and fix for the blackouts sweeping the country. Confirmation bias is on full display, as different industry and political segments claimed their preferred power generation fuel performed best and warrants expansion, often while throwing fuels they deem undesirable under the bus. Let’s not forget that this fuel-picking framing produced some of the worst policy pursuits in energy sector history, including President Donald Trump’s coal bailout agenda and the nuclear bailout scandals in Illinois and Ohio.

The preliminary data shows all major fuel classes—wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, hydroelectric and coal—had performance problems. In Texas, the most adversely affected region, the grid operator reported 28 gigawatts of thermal power generation and 18 gigawatts of renewables were forced offline by extreme cold. But the narrative should reflect the suppression of customer preferences for reliable service as much as deficiencies in supply.

In an effort to clean up false narratives and redirect discussion toward productive frames, stakeholders should keep in mind the following:

States and federal authorities have already launched investigations to get to the root causes. Let’s hope they frame the fact-finding exercise and policy recommendations better than similar exercises did after cold weather outages in 2011 and 2018. In particular, the new joint inquiry of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) should dig into the state and regional institutional contexts that affect supplier and customer behavior, and reconcile the appropriateness of reliability standards with the role of wholesale market design and state prudency mechanisms. One key difference between this week’s events and those of the prior decade is that the deficiencies in natural gas supply were more prevalent, which may require as much conversation about natural gas industry reform as that in the electric industry.

On February 18, the FERC serendipitously closed its stale grid resilience docket. Although it had roots in the “baseload bailout” agenda, the importance of the theme could not be better illustrated than this week’s events. Hopefully, the FERC will choose other vehicles to rejuvenate grid resilience consistent with economic principles. Also, ironically, the FERC simultaneously announced a technical conference series that might nudge the Mid-Atlantic market, PJM, toward a model that closer resembles the ERCOT of all things. After this week, the political desirability to emulate the ERCOT seems challenging, to put it mildly. But let’s not forget that the ERCOT was the consensus gold standard before among consumers and economists. And when this blackout dust settles, it may well be that the ERCOT’s key shortcoming is that it restricts market forces—especially on the demand side—and not that it over-relies on market mechanisms.

In the meantime, armchair grid “experts” may want to give it a rest and retweet information from credible sources. The most colorful advice came from Commissioner Neil Chatterjee of the FERC who, after noting all fuel sources faced issues in the extreme cold, suggested that “[e]veryone just shut the f— up, and let the experts sort out what’s happening”. Enough said.

Image credit: gunawand3570

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