WEEK IN REVIEW
HEAD REGULATORS OUT AFTER WINTER STORM DEBACLE
(AUSTIN) — The top officials at the state and industry power regulators have lost their jobs following the failure of the state electric grid during February's massive winter storm. Public Utility Commission (PUC) Chair DeAnn Walker resigned after a number of state officials, including Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, called for her to step down. Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was fired by the organization's board of directors Wednesday. Patrick tweeted a reaction to the news: "2 days ago, I called on ERCOT and PUC leaders to resign. Good news - now they are both gone. Next — one of my top 31 priorities — reforming ERCOT and fixing what went wrong." Walker and Magness' departures follow the resignation of several of ERCOT's board members in the days following the winter storm.
Both individuals sat for hours of questions about what went wrong on February 15th that led to 4.5 million Texans losing power, some for days. Magness told members of the Business and Commerce Committee at a hearing last Thursday that his organization wasn't prepared to lose so much of the state's generation capacity so quickly. “What we understood we were facing based on the weather forecast and the generation we had available, we were probably going to have rotating outages – but manageable ones,” Magness testified Thursday. “What we did not anticipate was losing up to 48 percent of the generation available Monday night.” Several members of the committee said they were blindsided by the extent and severity of the blackouts. "It does not resonate with us, as laypeople that are not in your business, that the grid could be at risk," Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton told Magness.
Lt. Governor Patrick cited that lack of warning in his Monday statement calling for Magness' resignation. "From their testimony it is clear they also did not consider the harsh freeze could shut down electricity generating power plants or that crews would not be able to make emergency repairs because roads would be impassable," he said. In that same statement, Patrick called for the resignation of PUC Chair Walker, for failure to adequately regulate ERCOT. She resigned just hours following the release.
One of the two remaining PUC commissioners appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday night as the panel considered the agency's budget. “I’m embarrassed for the role we played in that fiasco and I apologize for not doing more to prevent it,” said Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea, the day before he would be named commission chair by Governor Greg Abbott. “I hope this hearing and others like it can be our first step in re-earning the confidence of this committee and the people of Texas.”
The PUC presented a request for $1.7 million in funds above their original budget request in order to hire sixteen additional staff to help with oversight and communications. Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner said that to him, this only reinforced the argument that the PUC was "asleep at the wheel" in the days leading up to the February storm. “That wasn’t an exceptional item to begin with, now it is - y’all are awake now obviously after this disaster,” he said. “I’m glad you put this in, but it just goes to the need for pronounced, significant reform regarding the regulatory agencies of our utility structures.”
Much of that reform will be developed in the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, led by North Richland Hills Senator Kelly Hancock. “Things will be different moving forward,” he said at Tuesday's Finance hearing. “We’re going to provide the security and the reliability that every citizen across the state is counting on when it comes to our electric grid.”
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 9 at 3 p.m.