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Texan Voters Unsure If State Can Tackle Power Grid Issues

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When Winter Storm Uri hit, many Texans lost power from February 14-20, resulting in losses of lives and economic activity, and damages to their homes that for some are still not completely repaired. Now, four months later as demand for electricity has increased at the start of the summer amid tight supply, Texans continue to prioritize improvements to the power grid, albeit with doubt as to whether the Texas Legislature and Governor can get the job done.

In a survey by the Hobby School of Public Affairs and UH Energy at the University of Houston fielded between May 13-24, 1,500 individuals in Texas aged 18 and older responded to a series of questions regarding their experience during Winter Storm Uri and their evaluation of policy proposals toward protecting the Texas electric grid from severe weather events in the future.

“Winter Storm Uri was a massive event, with widespread impact across the state” said Pablo M. Pinto, the principal investigator who serves as associate professor and director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

Two-thirds of those surveyed lost power following Winter Storm Uri, while roughly 30% of those surveyed sustained damage to their home. Additionally, the bulk of power outages for sustained periods of time were clustered near larger urban centers in Texas.

Larger urban centers had no power for more than 30 hours in several zip codes. According to the survey, in the Houston area these zip codes were more clustered than the other large metro-areas in Texas.

The impact of the February storm is abundantly clear, but Texans’ confidence in the ability of their state government to prevent another incident like this from repeating itself is less clear.

“Three months after the storm, Texans remained frustrated and blamed government officers, power generators and natural gas producers for the power outages,” Pinto said. “They signal this frustration in their demand that energy producers and the Texas governments, not consumers, should bear the costs of retrofitting the Texas grid to withstand extreme weather events, at least in the short term.”

Roughly 40% of respondents disagreed that the Texas state government will adequately tackle issues related to the electric grid. A partisan and age divide emerged within this result, namely that Republicans agreed more than Democrats and Independents, as did respondents older than 65 years old.

“A salient concern among Texans is having access to a reliable supply of electric power, which means a power system to provide uninterrupted service at an acceptable price,” said Sunny Wong, professor at the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs and one of the principal investigators of the study.

The survey showed a correlation between age and disapproval of unreliable electric service. Of those aged 45-65 years old and older than, 48% and 53%, respectively, agreed that it is never acceptable for the power to go out.

Despite some doubt, eligible voters across party lines believe that wind, solar and other renewable energy sources will make a substantial contribution to reliable and secure electricity supply in Texas in the future. Sun or solar power accounted for 56.3% of surveyed respondents selected sun or solar power as a likely to make a substantial contribution, followed by wind power at 54%. The greatest support for renewables came from ages 18-29 at 69%.

“Even among Republicans, who had the lowest level of support compared to Democrats and Independents, 42% still agreed that solar power would make a substantial contribution,” said Gail Buttorff, Co-Director, Survey Research Institute and Assistant Instructional Professor, at the UH Hobby School of Public Affairs and co-principal investigator.

“Younger respondents are much more likely to believe that climate change is happening, though a majority of respondents believe it is happening across age groups. 91% of respondents aged 18-29 believe climate change is happening compared to 76%, 73%, and 60% in the three older age groups.”

With so many affected by the storm in February 2021 and the recent request by ERCOT to conserve energy in light of supply tightness juxtaposed by increased demand for electricity to cool homes, Texans continue to keep the power grid at the forefront of their minds.

Senate Bills 2 and 3 were passed by the Texas Legislature in an effort to oversee the appointment of the Public Utility Commission of Texas and of Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), as well as require the weatherization of some of the industry’s and infrastructure. These both fall in line with voter values, which point to reliability (40%) as a top priority, followed by cost (26%). Weatherization and winterization of the electricity system also emerged as top policy preference among respondents.

“Although respondents preferred not to see the price of electricity increase, they realize that reliable access to electricity will require major investments and regulatory changes in the long run” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Chief Energy Officer at the University of Houston and Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who was one of the leaders of the study. “When offered a menu of investments and policy interventions, respondents revealed their willingness to pay modest increases in electricity prices to shorten power.”

Time will tell whether legislation passed in the Spring will satiate Texas voters’ demands for more reliable and affordable electricity. One point is certain, a majority of surveyed voters have pointed to renewables as a preferred path forward in Texas for diversifying the energy mix and improving reliable and sustainable electricity. Texas is the leading state in wind power already and among the top leaders in solar, and it appears Texas voters are in agreement to continue leading the pack.

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