Texas Power Struggle: Greg Abbott, Beto O'Rourke Know Outages Could Be Key This Winter

The reliability of Texas' power grid has the potential to become a major issue in the upcoming 2022 gubernatorial election as Republican Governor Gregg Abbott seeks a third term in office.

Failures of the state's grid during a particularly bad winter storm in February this year left millions of Texas residents without power in subzero temperatures, while hundreds of people died.

Former Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke, who is hoping to defeat Abbott next November, highlighted those power failures in a recent interview as state officials have sought to assure Texans the incident won't be repeated.

In a keenly watched gubernatorial race, both candidates have appeared to publicly acknowledge the importance of the power grid, with Abbott reassuring Texans that he has taken the necessary steps to weatherize the state's energy facilities ahead of a potentially harsh winter.

While a recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Abbott with a double-digit lead over O'Rourke, the power grid remains a key electoral vulnerability for the governor.

Polling suggests that Texas voters aren't happy with how Abbott and other state leaders handled the winter power outage.

The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin tracks Abbott's approval rating and its analysis shows a notable increase in disapproval for the governor following February's events.

Abbott's disapproval stood at 39 percent in February compared to 48 percent approval, but the Republican's disapproval rate rose to 43 percent in March and increased again to 45 percent in April. It topped out at 50 percent in August and had fallen back to 48 percent by October.

Abbott's approval rating in October was 43 percent, according to the Texas Politics Project.

Texans' Views on the Power Grid

Separately, an October YouGov poll conducted for the University of Texas-Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 60 percent of respondents disapproved of how state leaders and the legislature had handled the reliability of the power grid.

That was the highest level of disapproval on any issue polled in the survey, followed by abortion policy at 46 percent.

In February, freezing temperatures and significantly increased demand for power led the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to order power transmission utilities to cut power to homes and businesses in order to avoid a general collapse of the grid.

However, in some cases this led to the electricity going to power plants being cut, exacerbating the problem.

Abbott moved this year to require the weatherization of the Texas power grid in an effort to prevent a repeat of the February outages, signing almost a dozen laws to do so.

Keeping the Lights on

Abbot also promised things would run more smoothly this winter in an interview on November 26

"I can guarantee the lights will stay on," Abbott told Fox 7 Austin.

On Wednesday, Texas energy officials also moved to reassure the public about the energy supply. The Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) regulates electrical utilities and oversees ERCOT.

PUC Chair Peter Lake addressed the mandatory winterization of power plants and transmission equipment at a press conference, saying: "The ERCOT grid is stronger and more reliable than ever."

"We are going into the winter knowing that the lights will stay on," Lake said.

Brad Jones, interim CEO of ERCOT, reported that 97 percent of Texas' 855 power generators had submitted the required readiness reports by the December 1 deadline. There will also be inspections at more than 300 facilities this month to make sure the necessary upgrades have been carried out.

Potential Vulnerabilities

However, the grid may still have its vulnerabilities. Natural gas facilities are not required to weatherize their equipment at this time and may not do so until at least next winter.

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry, is expected to create rules for weatherization after a committee maps the state's gas infrastructure by September 2022.

O'Rourke addressed that issue in an interview with KENS 5 published on Wednesday.

"If you do not weatherize the gas supply, it's like having a new truck without any gasoline in the tank," O'Rourke said.

He said that if he's elected governor, he would require natural gas companies to weatherize equipment.

"Ensure that the lights are on, the heat is running and the water is flowing," O'Rourke said. "That's the least that you should be able to expect from your government. But even on that most basic level, the State of Texas Governor Abbott failed the people in February. We cannot let that happen again."

ERCOT's Role

During his November 26 interview, Abbott said: "I have talked to some of the natural gas pipeline transmitters, and they've also have been doing winterization that most people don't know about."

"Most importantly is the approach ERCOT has taken this year, unlike last year," the governor said. "Last year they were reactive, and waited until a crisis mode before they summoned more power, more energy, now the way ERCOT works, is they work days in advance in summoning that power to make sure they will have enough power to keep the lights on."

ERCOT's own assessment also highlights three potential high risk scenarios where there may not be enough power to meet demand. Those scenarios may not play out, however.

This coming winter may be a real test for the Texas power grid and that could have serious political implications.

Photo Composite Shows Abbott and O'Rourke
A composite photo shows Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and former Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke. The reliability of the Texas power grid could become a key issue in the governor's race. Getty Images