guest column

Opinion: Houston energy expert weighs in on if the state's power grid is ready for winter

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

The Winter Storm Uri, which struck Texas in February of 2021, was an unprecedented event in both severity and duration. At its most extreme, temperatures were as much as 40 to 50 degrees below their historic averages. The storm resulted in the largest controlled blackout in U.S. history, forcing the shedding of more than 23 gigawatts of load, the loss of power to 4.5 million homes and businesses for periods of one to four days, and the tragic loss of hundreds of lives.

A crisis of this magnitude has resulted in an intense re-examination of the Texas power grid. Not surprisingly, it has also resulted in record levels of finger-pointing and an ongoing search to identify the parties responsible. Among the casualties were all three Public Utility Commissioners that regulate the industry and a virtual purge of ERCOT, the organization that operates and manages the grid.

The Texas 87th Legislature filed an inordinate number of bills to address the electric system's failings, and Governor Abbott’s office has been vocal and actively working to ensure that there will never again be a repeat of the events of February 2021. The principal focus of the now reconstituted and expanded Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) has been defining and implementing changes to system rules and operations in order to extract a greater degree of reliability from existing assets and incentivize the construction of significantly more MW of dispatchable generation. Many of the changes implemented by the PUCT will provide the market with a greater cushion against shocks to the system, moving the market away from a crisis management mode and towards a more proactive footing. We can expect even more change once current policies are assessed and more aggressive proposals are analyzed to determine whether they offer more benefit than harm to the market.

Amid all the debate, discussion, and wringing of hands, only one report has come close to identifying the smoking gun at the center of the crisis: the need for weatherization. The notion that weatherizing of generating assets is the key to future reliability has been discussed ad nauseum, but the report issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on November 16, 2021, attributes an equal share of the blame to the natural gas producing, processing, and transportation sector and its inability to perform reliably under the harsh conditions of Uri.

In the areas affected worst by the storm, gas production in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana fell by more than 50 percent at its lowest point when compared to average production in the prior month. The Railroad Commission, not the Public Utility Commission, regulates natural gas transmission, and it was slow off the mark given the focus on generation. The Railroad Commission has now begun to implement weatherization requirements, with new initiatives slated to be in full effect for the winter of 2023.

It is imprudent to use “never” as a time scale, but I would place the probability at “remote” that Texas will see a recurrence of the events of February 2021 in 2022. In the unlikely event we did, the impacts would likely pale in comparison to those experienced last February. This is due both to the heightened state of preparedness with which the industry will approach the coming winter and the impact of changes put into effect by the PUCT as of January 1, 2022.

Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee. Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

------

Don Whaley is president at OhmConnect Texas and has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Small businesses need to factor in employee benefit options from day one — and this Houston expert has some tips. Photo via Getty Images

While Small Business Appreciation month has come to an end, my work in aiding small businesses achieve financial success is continuous.

In 2009, I began my career as a financial adviser recently co-founded Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning and helping clients achieve financial freedom.

After years of working with business owners, and as a small business owner myself, I have learned the importance of offering benefits that help attract and retain talent, foster improved work habits and provide a foundation for growth. According to the annual SHRM employee benefit survey, health-related benefits and retirement plans were ranked the two most important benefits for employees. Whether you are a new small business owner or an established one, it is important to be aware of the benefit options available to you and the considerations that go into mapping out a benefits strategy.

1. Retirement plan options

The most common retirement plans available to small business owners are 401(k), simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA and savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA. The SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA provide employers the ability to save on a pre-tax basis. While there are some required contributions on behalf of any full-time employees, the SEP and SIMPLE IRA’s are often recommended for the self-employed or businesses with part-time or contract employees. The 401(k) also provides employers with a pre-tax savings opportunity and the ability to save on a Roth basis. Because a 401(k) requires additional administration and ongoing requirements, it is often a valuable tool for business owners who have more full-time employees.

2. Health care benefit options

According to the Affordable Care Act, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide health insurance. However, offering a competitive health insurance benefits package is an increasingly important strategy to help boost both new employee acquisition and retention. Following the global pandemic, health benefits have become increasingly important. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 51 percent of employers now offer health care benefits to attract new employees with dental, vision, and short-term disability as the most important for job-seekers.

Not only are these benefits of importance to employees, they provide protection for business owners by ensuring good health and protection from illness-related lost productivity. Some health care benefits available to small business owners include health reimbursement accounts, where you make contributions to an account that can be used by employees to pay for individual health insurance policies acquired on their own. Consider hiring a broker, benefits consultant or financial adviser to help compare your options.

3. Life and disability insurance options

As a small business owner, you have a duty to your family, employees and business partners. It is often the unexpected that can derail the success of a business. To that extent, taking the steps to ensure you and your business are protected if you are unable to work is important. Disability insurance is a versatile product that can be used to protect you, as the owner, and your employees against loss of income due to the inability to work. Additionally, disability overhead coverage and disability buy-out insurance can protect the business and any business partners from an owner’s disability, ensuring that the business can still run smoothly. Life insurance is also important, and often required if seeking a business-related loan, to provide income replacement for your family and any business partners in the event of an owner’s death.

4. Get creative with your benefit options

The small business world is ever changing, which is why it is essential — and sometimes difficult — to keep up with benefit options. I encourage small business owners to get creative with their benefit options by exploring a professional employer organization (PEO) and a multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA). PEO is designed to help small businesses manage their administrative overhead, benefits and compliance duties. Through MEWA, small businesses are able to collaborate on group insurance benefits for a low cost. Lastly, if your family members contribute to your small business, make sure they are on the payroll and eligible for various benefits. This may allow you to increase the benefits your household takes home.

While creating a small business employee benefits plan can be tedious, it will take your small business to the next level. Consult in a CPA, business attorney, and financial adviser to help navigate what benefits are a good fit for you and your small business.

----

Jennifer Steil is principal and wealth management adviser at Volante Integrated Planning, a private client group at Northwestern Mutual.

Trending News