TX Senate Committee Blackout Hearings Begin

Some 82 electric power generators were affected by freezing weather earlier this month when those statewide rolling blackouts were ordered. A joint Senate committee in Austin has been hearing from the state’s grid operator, as well as from the Public Utility Commission and other agencies. Ed Mayberry reports.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas ordered rolling blackouts on February 2nd when electric generators, including new coal-fired plants, went offline due to ice storms. Some officials are calling for better weatherization by power generators, like in northern states. But Public Utility Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman says things are different in Texas.

“When they build their units up there, they build them for a particular type of winter weather and a particular type of summer weather. If you tried to insulate and surround our units like they do up there, then on that boiler platform in the middle of August, it’s going to be 175 degrees.”

The outages were blamed on frozen and broken equipment at several generators, coming at a time when demand spiked. ERCOT chief executive Trip Doggett says improved interagency communications are needed for better emergency response. Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville says there are others who need better information.

“There was a few issues that I was obviously concerned with — public information was one. Try to get the information necessary for them to be informed, and that’s basically what my concern is — an informed public.”

Sheri Givens of Round Rock is with the Office of Public Utility Counsel, representing Texas residential and small business consumers in utility proceedings that come before the PUC, ERCOT, the courts and federal regulatory bodies. She agrees that better public information is needed in events like the rolling blackouts.

“With my other fellow board members, we’re going to be working on steps going forward to make sure this doesn’t happen again, to make sure we let customers know what’s going on as we know the information as it becomes available, to let folks know, if there’s an emergency situation. Because next time it might not be a rolling blackout. Next time it might be a hurricane, and we just need to get the information out to them.”

ERCOT says it’s trying to improve an automated email alert system, as well as develop a phone bank to get more staff able to field media calls. The joint Senate committee is looking into whether current rules are sufficient, or if legislation is needed to prevent future blackout problems.

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