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Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

SCoTX punts on ERCOT lawsuit question

Wimpy.

The Texas Supreme Court punted Friday on a question dogging millions of Texans affected by last month’s catastrophic power failure: Can ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, be sued?

The state’s highest court ruled 5-4 that it won’t decide — at least not now — on closely-watched case between Dallas electricity generator Panda Power and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The $2.2 billion case filed by Panda Power in 2016 raised the question whether ERCOT is a governmental agency that has sovereign immunity protecting them from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country that has received such protection.

Five justices led by Justice Jeff Boyd said the Texas Constitution prohibits them from ruling on the case after the trial court issued a final judgment dismissing the case. Based on a finding of sovereign immunity by an appeals court, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the dismissal by the lower court made the case moot and that it no longer had the authority to rule in the case.

“Because the trial court’s interlocutory order merged into the final judgment and no longer exists, we cannot grant the relief the parties seek,” the majority opinion written by Boyd stated. “As a result, any decision we might render would constitute an impermissible advisory opinion, and these consolidated causes are moot.”

Four dissenting justices led by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, argued they should rule on the case because the public has an interest whether ERCOT can be sued in the aftermath of last month’s storm. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state grid manager, including over the deaths of an 11-year-old boy and a 95-year-old man, who were both found dead in their freezing Houston-area homes.

“The answer to the immunity issue in this case has become perhaps more important to the public than even to the parties,” the minority opinion, written by Hecht stated. “The parties want to know. The public wants to know. The court refuses to answer.”

The ruling by the high court has widespread implications in the wake of last month’s deadly and devastating blackouts, which contributed to more than 50 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage.

David Coale, an appellate partner with Dallas-based law firm Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann, said the Supreme Court could still decide on ERCOT’s immunity as appeals from the Panda Power case come up through the legal system. In the meantime, ERCOT’s immunity — upheld by a Texas appeals court in 2018 — remains intact, but the state grid manage faces an onslaught of legal cases without any guidance from the Supreme Court.

“The court may have punted, but it didn’t walk away,” Coale said. “It acknowledged that another appeal involving the same parties is on its way up to them, and it can revisit these issues then.”

See here and here for some background. I guess I can understand the “let’s do this all in the correct order” idea, but as the story notes the question about whether ERCOT has sovereign immunity or not is very pertinent right now. Maybe if the ultimate decision is that ERCOT cannot be sued it would be nice to let all those folks who are now suing them know, so they won’t waste a bunch of time and money pursuing their cases. I’m not a lawyer, what do I know? You can find all the relevant opinions and concurrences and dissents here if you need a little light reading for the weekend.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Harris, Fort Bend, and Travis Counties submitted amicus briefs urging SCOTUS to find in favor of ERCOT not having sovereign immunity. This Bloomberg article, which is behind their paywall but which you might be able to see if you haven’t exceeded your monthly allowance, details those filings.

Griddy files for bankruptcy

Live by market disruption

Griddy Energy, a California-based retail power company, filed for bankruptcy on Monday citing financial woes brought on by the power crisis in February.

Griddy’s business model exposes consumers to the wholesale market, which in normal times could mean savings, but when the grid crashed many customers had exorbitantly high bills in the thousands.

The power company’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Fallquist said the bankruptcy plan would provide financial relief to it’s customers, and also took aim at The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager.

“Prior to Winter Storm Uri, Griddy was a thriving business with more than 29,000 customers who saved more than $17 million dollars since 2017. The actions of ERCOT destroyed our business and caused financial harm to our customers,” Fallquist saod. “Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices.”

Two weeks ago, ERCOT barred Griddy from participating in the state’s wholesale power markets, effectively shutting down the company.

See here and here for some background. This doesn’t mean Griddy is going away, just that it’s working through some tough times. It also apparently means that may of their customers may be off the hook for the ridiculous prices they had been charged.

Griddy’s approximately 29,000 customers were charged $29 million for energy during the winter storm, according to court documents. The wholesale electricity retailer, which has recently been forced out of the market, charged a $9.99 monthly fee and, in turn, passed along wholesale prices to customers.

When wholesale energy bill prices skyrocketed during the storm as temperatures plunged below freezing, Griddy customers were subject to the same costs with no buffer. Some reported bills over $15,000. Most Texas customers were shielded from the rising prices because they pay a fixed rate for electricity, although they could see prices increase in the near future to offset the added costs incurred by the power companies.

Houston-based Griddy’s Chapter 11 filing outlines a plan to wipe out its former customers’ debt during the company’s liquidation if approved in bankruptcy court.

“Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices,” Griddy CEO Michael Fallquist said in a statement on its website. He emphasized Griddy did not profit from increased prices and only made money off of the fixed monthly membership fees.

However, thousands of dollars have already been automatically drained from customer’s bank accounts and charged to their credit cards.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that Griddy and his office are “engaged in ongoing good faith negotiations to attempt to address additional relief for those Griddy customers who have already paid their storm-related energy bills.”

Not perfect, but it’s a start. Here’s the longer version of the Chron story for more.

The opening bid on power outage response

Not bad, but there’s a long way to go and not a lot of detail just yet.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the winter weather crisis last month that left millions of Texans without power.

The proposals include overhauling the governance of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; mandating “weatherization” of power facilities and establishing a statewide disaster alert system. There is also legislation to ban variable-rate electricity pricing plans such as were offered by the company Griddy, which was recently effectively shut down in the state after customers were hit with bills in the thousands of dollars.

Phelan’s office called the proposals the “first phase” of the House’s proposed reforms in the wake of the winter storm. Not all the bills have been filed yet, so the specifics of some proposals have not yet been made public.

“We must take accountability, close critical gaps in our system, and prevent these breakdowns from ever happening again,” Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

[…]

House Bill 10, for instance, aims to reform ERCOT by restructuring its board. The legislation would replace the board’s “unaffiliated” members with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. The bill would also mandate that all board members live in Texas. And it would add a new board member to “represent consumer interests,” according to Phelan’s office.

Some other ideas could prove challenging. House Bill 11, for instance, would order the Public Utilities Commission to require power generators to implement measures to avoid service outages during extreme weather events, including winter storms and heat waves. But retroactively equipping power plants and the state’s energy system to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be difficult and costly, energy experts have said. Building energy infrastructure that from the start is designed to perform in winter conditions is easier and cheaper, they have said.

Phelan’s office described another bill, House Bill 14, which hasn’t yet been filed, that would require the Railroad Commission of Texas to require pipeline operators to update their equipment to ensure reliability during extreme weather. It’s unclear how much either bill would cost the state or the power generators. Abbott has indicated in the past that he is interested in funding at least some of the weatherization.

These fall under the emergency items declared by Abbott, so they can be taken up ahead of other legislation. Once they’re written and filed, of course. I don’t have any immediate complaints – the general direction is good, and they seem to have hit the high points – but it’s very early in the process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for shenanigans and just plan resistance, so as always we will have to keep an eye on it. The pushback from the energy industry seems to be that the power outages themselves were the main driver of the natural gas shortage, not the wells and pipes freezing up. There’s probably something to that, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to take their word for it. At least three of the bills will be carried by Democrats – Reps. Richard Raymond, Ana Hernandez, and Joe Deshotel. We’ll see what we get, and we should very much remember that a lot of this is about undoing or at least mitigating the effects of Republican deregulation, but this is a decent start.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

Suing Griddy

This is going to be interesting.

A Chambers County resident filed a class-action lawsuit against electricity retailer Griddy on Monday, accusing the provider of price gouging customers during last week’s freeze. She is seeking $1 billion in relief for affected customers.

Attorneys for Lisa Khoury said in the lawsuit that her bill spiked to $9,340 the week of the storm, compared to her average monthly bills that range from $200 to $250. Griddy drafted payments from Khoury’s bank account several times, according to the lawsuit, pulling $1,200 before she blocked further charges from her bank. She still owes thousands.

Griddy passes wholesale electricity rates directly to customers, who in turn pay the company $10 a month. This differs from fixed-rate electricity plans which offer a consistent rate regardless of market conditions.

But because of a price hike fueled by a shortage of supply and skyrocketing demand, some customers were faced with bills charging tens of thousands of dollars. While electricity bills are likely to rise across the board, Texans on variable rate plans faced immediate and alarmingly high prices.

Texas’ Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9 per kilo-watt hour — a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour — in response to rising demand. The hope was power generators would be enticed to produce more electricity.

“Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply,” the order stated.

Representatives for Griddy could not immediately be reached for comment. The electricity retailer addressed concerns of price gouging on its website and firmly placed the blame on the Public Utility Commission. The company states that it did not profit from raised prices.

A quick perusal of Griddy’s Twitter shows that they are blaming the PUC, and that they did suggest alternate electricity providers for their customers to switch to during freeze days; there are several news stories, including this one that ran in the Chron, about that as well.

This is one of those situations where the system is working exactly as designed – here are a couple of stories that explain the mechanics of this. I guess the courts could rule that what the PUC did violated the state’s laws on price gouging, but that seems like a stretch to me. I Am Not A Lawyer, so if you know better than me, please speak up.

More likely, there will be some kind of legislative solution to this. This Trib story goes into that option.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas lawmakers are promising relief for Texans hit with massive electric bills after a winter storm bludgeoned the state’s power grid, leaving millions of residents freezing without electricity.

But how they’ll accomplish that remains unclear. The state’s deregulated electricity market not only allows for staggering price spikes, but effectively compels them for some customers.

While many Texans are on “fixed rate” electricity plans that insulate them from market swings, others pay rates tied to the spot price of wholesale electricity, which skyrocketed during the storm.

As the bad weather bore down, it froze natural gas production and wind turbines, choking off the supply of electricity as demand skyrocketed. In response, the Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, let the wholesale market price of electricity rise to $9 per kilo-watt hour, a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour.

The rate hike was supposed to entice power generators to get more juice into the grid, but the astounding costs were also passed directly on to some customers, who were suddenly being billed more for electricity each day than they normally pay in a month.

[…]

Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the costs would be passed on to customers one way or another.

“If they [the electric provider] don’t have a mechanism that allows them to do that in the immediate — like on the next bill or the next several bills — it’ll end up getting rolled into the overall cost of service,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to get passed on in an immediate way, in a shocking way … or spread out over time.”

Tim Morstad, associate state director with the Texas AARP, said “prices are going to rise” but with a delay for those not on variable rate plans.

“Forgive me for stepping back to say — this system is truly designed to have high prices and huge fluctuations. And putting consumers through that by design is a bad process. It’s setting people up for pain,” he said.

Texas has an unusually deregulated electricity market that’s touted for offering customers the ability to pick from hundreds of plans offered by dozens of electric providers. Parts of the state are carved out, including cities like Austin, that get energy from a municipally owned utility, or people served by cooperatives. Those too could see cost increases down the line.

Lawmakers and Abbott have pledged to protect consumers from the big bills, and excoriated the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the outages last week. The reliability council, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, is overseen by a Public Utility Commission.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about what options were on the table.

Lawmakers have demanded that the utility commission roll back its decision to allow the huge rate increases, or suggested cobbling together some package of emergency waivers or relief money to buffer Texans’ from the high bills.

“We cannot allow someone to exploit a market when they were the ones responsible for the dire consequences in the first place,” said state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa.

I have no idea what Abbott will suggest. He’s nobody’s picture of a creative thinker, and “solving problems” is not in his skill set. I’m hardly an expert either, but it seems to me that the first order of business is to prevent people from getting multi-thousand-dollar electric bills, and the simplest way to do that is probably just to order everyone’s bill capped at some value that relates to their usual experience, and have the state pick up the difference since the providers do in fact have the legal right to charge these amounts. That’s the easy part. The much harder question, at least for the leadership we are stuck with, is what to do about it for the future. That either involves some form of re-regulation that puts limits on how “free” the electricity market is, or ignoring it and hoping you survive electorally. I know what I’d do, but I’m not a Republican. Good luck with that.

One more thing, as long as we are talking about freeze/blackout-related lawsuits:

The family of an 11-year-old boy who died last week in Conroe during power outages while Texas endured a freezing winter storm is suing Entergy Texas and operator of the state’s power grid for a total of $100 million.

In the lawsuit filed Saturday, the family said Cristian Pineda died of hypothermia after the temperature in his house plunged due to the forced blackouts. Pineda’s family of five shared a single room for warmth, and Cristian shared a bed with his younger brother, the lawsuit states.

His family found Cristian unresponsive in the morning. The Houston Chronicle first reported news of the lawsuit.

The family is suing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the decentralized electrical grid system. The Texas grid is not governed by federal regulations.

As the story notes, our old buddy Tony Buzbee is filing this lawsuit, along with at least seven others, against ERCOT. Whether or not he can do that is an open question.

ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

The ruling by the high court will have widespread implications in the wake of last week’s blackouts. It would not only determine whether Texans can use the legal system to hold ERCOT accountable for power outages that led to more than 48 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage, but also the future of ERCOT and the state’s power markets if the court opens the door to the likely flood of lawsuits.

[…]

“The political rhetoric around ERCOT and the weather emergency has embraced transparency and accountability,” Rottinghaus said. “A ruling that holds ERCOT immune from such lawsuits may run against that. It could be a political liability.”

Panda Power filed suit in 2016 against ERCOT, alleging the grid operator issued “seriously flawed or rigged” energy demand projections that prompted the Dallas power company to invest $2.2 billion to build three power plants early last decade. The plants ended up losing billions of dollars, with one forced into bankruptcy.

ERCOT’s reports calling for more power generators came in the aftermath of a major ice storm in February 2011, which crippled Texas power plants and forced rolling blackouts across the state.

Panda Power’s case was halted in 2018 when an appeals court in Dallas asserted ERCOT was protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The Texas Supreme Court in June 2020 said it would review the appellate court decision, heard the case in September 2020 and is expected to render a decision before it recesses in June.

We’ll see about that. There’s definitely some pressure, on the courts and on the Lege and on Greg Abbott, to Do Something about all this – and again, I remind you, that the “all this” in question is what was supposed to happen based on existing laws. How long that pressure lasts, and what happens if there are no legal or legislative outlets for it, that’s the big political question.

UPDATE: Multiple ERCOT board members have resigned. All are folks who did not live in Texas, which yes is one of the weirder things about ERCOT. Not directly related to this story, but this is as good a place as any to note it.