AUSTIN - Texas should have more than enough electricity to meet demand this summer despite the rolling blackouts prompted by last week's unseasonably hot weather, members of the state's Public Utility Commission told a Senate panel on Tuesday.
But the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the organization that runs the state's electricity grid, needs to communicate better with government officials and the public to prevent problems when rolling blackouts are needed, PUC Chairman Paul Hudson said in a meeting of the Senate Business and Commerce committee.
Thousands of Texans unexpectedly found themselves without electricity on April 17 when the demand for power exceeded the supply as temperatures climbed to the upper 90s and the low 100s.
Up to 15 percent of the state's power supply was already off-line for seasonal maintenance when five power generators shut down unexpectedly in less than half an hour. That forced ERCOT to impose the state's first rolling blackouts since 1989 to prevent longer and more widespread power outages.
Sam Jones, ERCOT's chief operating officer, said he's never seen so many generators go down at once at a peak hour in his many years as a utility operator.
"We experienced what I consider to be an extremely unlikely event," he said. "It was truly the straw that broke the camel's back."
But both he and Hudson insisted that Texas has plenty of power when all of its suppliers are online and said blackouts shouldn't be a problem this summer.
"You can never 100 percent rule out something like that because they are mechanical systems," Jones said. "But it [is] very unlikely that we would see another event like that going into May."
ERCOT is a quasi public agency that is funded by a surcharge on consumers' electric bills. The Legislature gave the PUC total oversight over the organization's operations last year.
in the wake of a scandal involving former managers who eventually pleaded guilty to setting up bogus companies that charged ERCOT for fake work.
While the senators applauded ERCOT for taking quick action last week, they chastised its leaders for failing to warn the governor or police departments that the rolling blackouts were coming. Instead, officers had to scramble to direct rush hour traffic when stoplights quit working.
And committee chairman Sen. Troy Fraser said the PUC should have been told much earlier that demand was spiking more than expected.
"You can't be out there cowboying, operating on your own," said Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay. "We want to offer you help, but we can't offer help if we don't know about it."
Fraser said he would ask the attorney general to clarify what responsibilities ERCOT has to the Legislature and what oversight rights lawmakers and the PUC have. Lawmakers may consider limiting ERCOT's autonomy by making it a state agency if its top managers don't lose their "cavalier attitude," he said.
"We created ERCOT ... we also have the right to take it away if we choose," Fraser said. "That's not our intention, but we want to get this problem resolved."
Thomas Schrader, ERCOT's president and chief executive, told the senators he respects the PUC's authority and only pushes back when he believes it is in his organization's best interest.
"I believe that through the healthy dialogue when we disagree is the way that we'll come to better decisions," he said.
But Fraser told Schrader he needs to realize that the PUC's decisions are final.
"If the commission tells you you shouldn't do it, you don't have a vote," he said.