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Public Utility Commission

Who watches the utility overseers?

Apparently, nobody. At least, not anymore.

Late last year, as winter approached and power companies prepared for cold weather, Gov. Greg Abbott’s hand-picked utility regulators decided they no longer wanted to work with a nonprofit organization they had hired to monitor and help Texas enforce the state’s electric reliability standards.

The multiyear contract between the Public Utility Commission and the obscure monitoring organization, the Texas Reliability Entity, was trashed. Over the next months, right up until the crippling storm that plunged millions of Texans into the dark and cold, the state agency overseeing the power industry operated without an independent monitor to make sure energy companies followed state protocols, which include weatherization guidelines.

The Public Utility Commission’s decision in November to end its contract with the Texas Reliability Entity didn’t cause the historic grid failures that this week transformed Texas into an undeveloped country, leaving large swaths of the state without power or water as temperatures dropped and stayed below freezing. A PUC spokesman said the agency still had ample protections to ensure energy companies followed state rules and guidelines.

On Thursday, Abbott called for a state law requiring power plants to be better weatherized. Yet over the past quarter-century, state leaders have refused to require the companies to prepare for severe weather, even as once-in-a-lifetime storms have arrived with increasing frequency.

Critics say the utility commission’s move to strip away a regulatory layer, especially with potentially severe weather approaching, was just the latest example of the consistently light touch Texas politicians have used to oversee the complex industry that generates and distributes power.

“It’s astonishing to me that the PUC would get rid of the independent reliability entity with no plan to replace it,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, who sits on the Texas House Energy Resources Committee. “No staff, no oversight on reliability.”

Anchía said he would demand answers from PUC brass on the independent monitor function next week when House members will hold a hearing to investigate the factors that led to the Texas blackout.

I will admit, I had never heard of the Texas Reliability Entity before reading this story. There’s a lot of nuance in this story – it’s not clear that the Texas RE was doing an adequate job, but it’s also not clear that the mandate they had amounted to much – so read the whole thing. The main takeaway for me is that the state as a whole has basically taken the reliability of the power grid for granted, partly because of the belief that we don’t have sufficiently bad weather (non-hurricane division) to worry about, partly because we believe in the exceptionalism of our lightly-regulated system, and partly because I think we’ve just never thought about it. We’re thinking about it now, and I’d say we need a top-to-bottom review of what we want out of the power grid, what responsibilities and enforcement powers the regulators will have, and how often we inspect and audit these things and report on them to the public. We should have learned all these lessons in 2011 but we didn’t, and we really have no excuses if we don’t learn them now.

We need more focus on the Public Utility Commission

Let’s start with this tweet:

Now keep that in mind when you read this.

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.”

“Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.”

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

I get that everyone is mad at ERCOT, and I’ve certainly tossed that name around quite a bit myself. But the real power is in the PUC, and the PUC is appointed by the Governor. That’s where the buck stops, and as this story demonstrates, they have a lot to answer for.

This is a long story, which goes deep into the failures by the PUC to force power companies to do anything as well as the failure of the Legislature to take any meaningful action, and I want to encourage you to read the whole thing. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that this massive screwup happened at the start of the legislative session, so not only is it all fresh in everyone’s mind, there’s also the time to do something about it if we want to make it a priority and we don’t get buried under self-misinformation. Dan Patrick does have “ERCOT Reform” and “Power Grid Stability” high on his priority list, one spot ahead of the extremely pressing matter of sports teams not playing the national anthem before games (which you just know he would have had higher had it not been for the blackouts), but note that he’s focusing on ERCOT and not the PUC. Note also his item about preventing cities and counties from hiring lobbyists, and then read this:

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn’t been previously reported, is an example of the industry’s outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC,” said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want.”

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company’s opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state’s power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system,” Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down.”

Emphasis mine. You can be sure that the Capitol will be swarming with energy company lobbyists for the rest of the session. But then, Dan Patrick is “not in the business of trying to tell everyone what to do”, so don’t be surprised when he fails to deliver any tangible results.

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.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

Some good local environmental news

Good news for Houston, in particular Sunnyside.

The old landfill in Sunnyside sat closed for 50 years, an enduring reminder of the city’s choice to dump and burn its trash in the historically Black community.

On Wednesday, Houston City Council members took a step toward re-purposing it, voting unanimously to lease the neglected site for $1 a year to a group intending to build a solar farm on it.

Research has shown that solar farms depress home values. But as Mayor Sylvester Turner saw it, the plan offered a chance to take property dragging down a community and re-imagine it for the better.

“A plus for Sunnyside becomes a plus for the city as a whole,” he said.

Charles Cave, a nearby resident involved in shepherding the project, told council members on Tuesday that addressing the property that had become a dangerous eyesore was “well overdue.”

The council will vote later on a specific development plan, but its decision Wednesday marked an important step for those involved, who say they want to see the land change from blight to a showpiece.

The agreement allows companies behind the effort to seek approval from the state environmental agency and power grid managers to build on and sell energy from the 240-acre spot. It covers at least 20 years of operation, with construction slated for 2022.

I’ll have to go read that story about solar farms not being great for home values, but it’s hard to imagine one being worse for them than a former landfill. Good for the city, and good for Sunnyside.

Also good:

When Adrian Garcia was Harris County sheriff, he wanted to rethink what kind of energy the jail used. Could the building have solar panels? Backup batteries? County leaders then didn’t embrace the idea, he said.

Now a county commissioner, Garcia doesn’t want to miss his chance to help push the county toward directly buying renewable energy such as wind and solar, a potentially significant shift in the so-called energy capital of the world.

“For me,” the first-term Democrat said, “it just makes sense.”

His fellow commissioners unanimously agreed to reconsider how they will purchase power starting in 2023. What direction they’ll take is up for debate. A county working group is looking at options, and commissioners decided to seek a consultant’s help.

[…]

County leaders don’t know yet exactly how they will change their power contract beyond RECs, but they want to be trendsetters, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. He expects that the commissioners court will come up with a strategy for buying renewables, especially with interest growing at the federal level.

Still, Ellis considers the opportunity part of what needs to be a larger approach. He has proposed the county look into drawing up a climate action plan, as the city of Houston has done, rather than pursue initiatives one-by-one.

“I think we have a responsibility in the energy capital of the world to be proactive,” he said. “Those problems with climate change don’t just vanish; they don’t disappear on their own.”

Their purchasing power matters: Big buyers such as local governments, school districts and retail store chains helped the renewable energy industry grow, said Pat Wood III, CEO of Hunt Energy Network and former chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

“It’s a vote of confidence for a new industry in Texas that’s homegrown,” Wood said. “To me, I’m a fan. It’s just as Texan as oil and gas.”

RECs are “renewable energy certificates”. As the story notes, the city of Houston already has a solar energy deal, so Harris County is just catching up. Better late than never.

The power to pay more for electricity

Deregulation really does create jobs.

When Texas deregulated electricity markets 16 years ago, the Public Utility Commission created the website Power to Choose to help consumers through the power buying experience. But what was promoted as an easy, free way for Texans to pick electricity providers has turned into a such a complex and confounding experience that it is spawning a cottage industry to help consumers navigate the scores of companies and hundreds of plans available.

At least five companies in Texas are providing both free and paid services aimed at helping consumers in Houston and other deregulated markets decipher confusing electricity offers such as free nights and weekends, multi-tiered pricing plans, and credits for high electricity use.

The companies have built computer algorithms that try to ferret out the best deals based on factors such as past electricity consumption, home size, and the number of people living there. In some cases, it’s just a matter of plugging in your monthly electricity into a website calculator. Others provide more comprehensive services, charging a monthly fee to advise customers which plan will save them the most money and then monitor the market so if prices fall, consumers can switch.

This kind of hand-holding is akin to car buying services, which save customers the time, energy and aggravation researching models, doing comparison shopping and negotiating prices. But unlike cars, there’s no difference in the electricity provided by different retailers, making the emergence of these power buying services a sure sign of the complexity of the system.

“The third party guys demonstrate the consumer is getting ripped off by the Power to Choose artificial configuration that the Public Utility Commission has rammed down the throat of Texas consumers,” said Ed Hirs, energy economist at the University of Houston.

The Public Utility Commission recently recognized the shortcomings of Power to Choose, with chairman DeAnn Walker criticizing retail electric providers for misleading pricing plans. Those plans offer rock-bottom rates at 1,000 kilowatt hours, but if consumers use just one kilowatt hour more, the price per kilowatt hour can jump as much as 10 times.

[…]

Jesson Bradshaw, a power industry veteran, saw an opportunity when his friends and family asked him which company they should sign up with for electricity. He sent them to Power to Choose, but he quickly heard complaints.

“I saw how confusing it was,” said Bradshaw, who worked as a power trader and owned the retail power company Amigo Energy until he sold it to Just Energy in 2011.

Four years ago, he and a partner launched the buying service Energy Ogre. The company charges customers $10 each month to find the lowest price plan and monitor rates to see if it makes sense to switch mid-contract. It doesn’t take commissions from power providers.

Bradshaw said his business is not exactly popular among the retail providers, many of which bet that customers won’t shop for better rates when contracts expire.

“They don’t like us informing the customer,” he said. “ If there is a better rate, we move them. We don’t care which provider.”

Mark Axford of Sugar Land signed up with Energy Ogre about three years ago. Axford said the company switches electricity providers at least once a year and makes sure Axford and his wife do not get hit with penalties. The monthly fee is well worth it, he said.

If you want to save, you have to shop, said Axford. “But who has the time to keep shopping for electricity?”

The trade association for retail electricity providers in Texas said it recognizes that the buying services may help customers sort through offers. But it’s important to note, said Julia Rathgeber, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, that these companies are not subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission. It’s still up to consumers to decide whether plans are right for them, she said.

Got that? If you’re paying too much for electricity, it’s your own damn fault. Never mind how confusing or time consuming the shopping process is. There’s no reason I can think of why the state couldn’t provide, for free, the kind of easy, at-your-fingertips information that these entrepreneurs have done. Why wouldn’t we want to do that, if the goal of deregulation was to lower prices for consumers? The answer to that is left as an exercise for the reader. In the meantime, here’s the sidebar that tells you how to find the best deal for yourself:

MORE INFORMATION
Companies that help consumers find the best power deals:

Texas Power Guide

Website: TexasPowerGuide.com

Awesome Power Texas

Website: AwesomePowerTexas.com

Geek Your Rate

Website: GeekYourRate.com

Energy Ogre

Website: EnergyOgre.com

Real Simple Energy

Website: RealSimpleEnergy.com

You might also want to go back and look at some guest posts my friend Dan Wallach wrote about picking power plans. Good luck.

Ten digit dialing comes to San Antonio

It’s the end of an era.

The era of knowing someone is from San Antonio based solely on the “210” at the start of a phone number is drawing to a close. San Antonio is outgrowing its singular 210 area code and will have to add a second code, 726, later this year.

The North American Numbering Plan Administration, which oversees national use of area codes, predicts that 210 numbers will be exhausted by early 2018.

Area code 726 will be an overlay code for the region currently serviced by 210, including the majority of Bexar County and parts of Atascosa, Comal, Guadalupe, Medina, and Wilson counties. An overlay area code means that 210 numbers will not change, but 726 numbers will be available to the same area.

The biggest immediate consequence is that San Antonio will cease to be the largest U.S. city in which seven digit dialing is possible, meaning that the old way of dialing local calls without an area code will no longer work.

“Right now we are in what is called a permissive period where you can use either a seven or 10 digit phone number in the 210 area,” said Terry Hadley, communications director for the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, which oversees area codes in addition to all electric, telecommunication, water, and sewer utilities for the State.

The six-month permissive period will end on Sept. 23, meaning that all local calls will require 10 digits, the three-digit area code and a seven-digit phone number. Long distance calls will continue to require 1 followed by 10 digits.

The activation date for the new 726 area code will be Oct. 23.

[…]

The 210 area code has been in place for San Antonio since 1992 and has become part of San Antonio’s identity for some.

“210 is really a brand for San Antonio,” said local resident Sarah Esserlieau. “There are a couple companies that reference 210 to show that they’re local companies, and I don’t know how that will affect branding.”

“Five or 10 years from now, will [210] be almost like a heritage number?” she questioned, suggesting the older area code could create a sense of pride similar to regional pride for area codes in some cities.

Yeah, well, when I was in college San Antonio was still using 512, same as Austin. It was still a long distance call, though, and you had to dial a 1 before the number. I do think 210 numbers will have a bit of prestige for them, as 713 and to a lesser extent 281 numbers in Houston do, but that may not be fully felt until there’s a third or even fourth area code that everyone else can look down on. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to the ten digit dialing thing. Hell, everyone has to do that already with cellphones, right? No big deal.

Here comes the 346

We’re getting another area code.

Starting July 1, Houston area residents might see phone numbers that begin with 346, when a new area code comes to town.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas last year announced a new area code was being added and this week cell phone companies are texting their customers as a reminder.

The new area code will create possibilities for about 8 million new numbers.

Long-time locals have no reason to grumble-they will get to keep their original area codes

The new area code will be the fourth for the nation’s fourth largest city.

[…]

When 346 is activated, it will overlay 713, 281 and 832 in Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties.

A few numbers are still left in 281, 713 and 832, according to the PUC, but the options for new numbers are dwindling.

Houston’s three existing area codes could run out by October, according to some estimates by the PUC.

The new area code might not be used immediately, but the PUC said 346 will be ready that day, just in case the other three codes run out.

I missed the PUC announcement, so I’m glad I caught this. The story reminds me that we got the 832 code, and the 10-digit-dialing requirement that came with it, way back in 1999. That was two years after the introduction of the 281 code, which at the time was based on geography. Guess they were right when they said the overlay codes would last longer. Anyway, what this all means is that when we finally give Olivia a cellphone, it’ll very likely come with a 346 area code. Good to know. Via Swamplot, and Hair Balls has more.

Three four six

Meet your new area code, Houston.

Houston area code map

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Thursday announced the addition of area code 346 to accommodate continued growth in and around Houston.

The 346 area code will overlay existing area codes 713, 281 and 832 in Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties.

A map of the affected region is at: http://www.puc.texas.gov/industry/maps/areacodes/Houston.aspx

The North American Number Planning Administrator (NANPA) assigned the 346 area code after projecting that the three existing area codes will run out of numbers by Sept. 30, 2014.

The new area code will not require any reprogramming changes to existing equipment because an area code overlay requiring 10-digit dialing for local calls already exists in the affected region.

The PUC decision allows for industry preparation and customer education from Aug. 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Beginning July 1, 2014, new phone numbers can be assigned with a 346 area code.

Unlike previous area code changes, this will not require anyone to change their own number, and as noted in the press release it won’t require a change to how we dial, since we already do ten digit dialing. You wouldn’t think this would be anything but a routine, boring administrative announcement, but apparently there’s something about area codes that get people all het up.

We’ve all seen the Seinfeld episode where the subject of area code discrimination came up, right? The 212 area code ran out of numbers, and 646 was utilized leading to typical Seinfeldian situations of existential dread.

It’s amazing to think that in 2013 when area codes largely have no consequence, that there would be pride in three little numbers. Now zip code pride I can sort of understand. 77002 has a certain cachet, since people immediately think you live at the top of a skyscraper chewing cigars and eating brisket. 77007 shows that you pay too much to live near Washington Avenue. 77006 means that we’re probably neighbors.

346 is an ugly number. 281 is dumpy. 713 is sort of sleek, like a sports car. Maybe it’s the 7. Sevens are sexy. I know people with a 409 area code and they seem to get along alright, besides the dumb Beach Boys references. You know that a 409 area code means that the person is probably adept at a number of farming tools and maybe raised an animal in high school.

My first beeper had a 713 area code, which in Pearland denoted a cosmopolitan air. A worldliness rarely found in such a ‘burb.

(No, it did not.)

Houston rap loves repping area codes. I can’t wait to hear the first 346 area code themed mix tape. Sadly Mike Jones’ 281-330-8004 is no longer a working number. Can you still hit up Paul Wall at the 8-3-2?

I have never heard a rap song that shouts out the dirty 409, have you?

I haven’t seen that episode of “Seinfeld”, actually, but as someone who grew up in New York I do remember when Brooklyn and Staten Island were spun off from the 212 area code into the 718 area code. I don’t remember having any existential angst about it, but I was in high school. I probably had other things to be angsty about. In any event, I just wonder what we’ll do when we run out of area codes.

Will we have enough power?

Maybe not. From the EDF.

It’s understandable that no one seems to have noticed a strongly worded letter to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last Monday demanding more action to ensure electric reliability in Texas, and asking ERCOT to report back to NERC by April 30 on additional actions taken.  NERC isn’t some federal boogey man either; it’s a corporation founded by the electric industry to create commonly accepted standards for electric reliability across North America, usually through voluntary compliance.  President Bush’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the corporation “the authority to create and enforce compliance with Reliability Standards,” which is where this letter comes into play.

In their 2012 report, NERC highlighted ERCOT as the only region in North America that was not maintaining adequate electric reserves to meet demand, and with this letter they made it very clear that the actions taken to date have not done enough to mitigate that risk.  In the letter, NERC President Gerry Cauley notes that the PUC and ERCOT are continuing to address energy reliability issues, but finds that “solutions have not yet sufficiently materialized to address NERC’s reserve margin concern.”

Cauley goes on to say that “it is still unclear to us how ERCOT intends to mitigate issues that may arise on the current trajectory and when new resources may be available to meet growing demand.”  So according to the corporation whose membership consists mostly of utilities, grid operators, large and small customers, and electric regulators, the actions that the PUC and ERCOT have taken at this point are not enough to ensure we’ll have reliable electric supply, risking blackouts as soon as this summer.

As lawmakers settle into Austin for the next few months they’ll certainly be paying close attention to this issue, though many have indicated they would prefer that ERCOT and the PUC develop the solutions to this problem.  Cauley’s letter serves as notice that the PUC and ERCOT need to be more aggressive if they want to ensure a reliable supply of power in Texas.  Certainly both agencies are putting serious time and effort into keeping the lights on in Texas, including effort so expand existing demand response programs, but NERC clearly thinks they need to be doing more.

This was also noted by Loren Steffy, who says that Texas is now “under more pressure than ever to encourage generation, and that’s likely to mean higher prices at a time when the deregulated market was supposed to be delivering lower prices to consumers”. (He also notes that consumer protections are likely to be weakened, because that’s how we roll in this state.) Thanks to the continued tax credit in the so-called fiscal “cliff” deal, there will be more wind projects gearing up, and ERCOT foresees $8.9 billion in electric transmission projects by the end of 2017, but neither will help in the short term, and it’s still not enough for the longer term. I don’t know what else there is to be done, so just consider this a heads up for when the crunch does hit.

West Texas wind

The wind energy business in Texas is going strong.

BP and other energy companies are funneling millions of dollars into building and operating wind farms in West Texas, helping to transform the oil country into one of the nation’s leading hubs for green energy production.

Skylines dominated by nodding pump jacks increasingly are spotted with spinning turbines. Economies tied to the ebb and flow of commodity prices are finding stability in supplying the power grid.

“We’ve been through lots of booms and busts with the oil and gas industry. The oil and gas areas deplete over time,” said Doug May, economic development director for Pecos County.

“The wind resource here is sustainable. We look at these wind farms as a long-term investment in the future of Pecos County.”

Recent energy analyses predict renewable fuels — including wind, solar and biofuels — will be the world’s fastest-growing energy source in coming decades. BP’s own outlook predicts the country’s renewable energy production will surge 252 percent over the next 20 years.

Wind and solar energy are potentially huge boons to West Texas, which is the perfect location in many ways for harvesting both kinds. There’s already a lot of investment out there, and more is to come. There are some obstacles, however.

West Texas wind farms are at the end of the state’s main electrical grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The Public Utility Commission of Texas has been working on plans to build a more robust network of power lines to bring more wind-generated power to major cities.

But those lines are still two years and nearly $7 billion away.

Meanwhile, the federal tax credit that gives wind power generators 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy produced is slated to expire at year’s end unless lawmakers approve a renewal.

“If Congress chooses not to renew, there is no hope for the wind industry next year,” [John] Graham, the BP executive, said of the tax credit. “Without it, U.S. wind projects aren’t viable.”

BP has joined the pack of wind executives fighting to keep the production tax credit for renewable energy. Graham said he has traveled to Washington five times since October.

You’d think giving an energy company a tax break would come as naturally to Congress as breathing, but that renewable energy credit was a casualty of the payroll tax cut deal. It could be revived, and again, it’s hard to imagine a world in which energy executives have to go begging for bones from Congress. The ERCOT issue has been in the works for four years already. That will be a big deal when it’s done.

New clean air rule from EPA

A new rule from the EPA that seeks to limit pollution that originates in one state but affects others as well should have a big effect on Texas.

The rule, which covers 27 states and the District of Columbia, will require aging plants to be upgraded with modern equipment to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Some companies might close their plants rather than install the pollution controls.

Gov. Rick Perry criticized the rule as “heavy-handed and misguided,” while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said it is “another blow” to Texas by the Environmental Protection Agency that could threaten jobs and the affordability of electricity.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said those fears were exaggerated, particularly in Texas, where some already have moved to clean up their coal-fired plants.

“Texas has an ample range of cost-effective emission reduction options for complying with the requirements of this rule without threatening reliability or the continued operation of coal-burning units,” Jackson said.

[…]

The Texas Public Utility Commission estimated that the standard could force 18 plants – many of which were built in the 1970s – to install expensive equipment, change fuel or prematurely retire.

Last month, San Antonio’s city-owned utility pledged to shutter its coal-fired plant by 2018 rather than install a $550 million scrubber to cut pollution. CPS Energy said the money would be better used toward newer forms of energy, including natural gas and solar.

Environmentalists said state officials and industry should not be surprised by the new standards. The Bush administration proposed a similar action, known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the EPA to revise the rule in 2008 after deciding the agency had overstepped its authority.

You know what that means: More litigation from the usual dirty-air-loving suspects. As such, I don’t know if the new rule, now known as the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, will ever be enforced. Sure seems to me to be the sort of thing for which federal authority is needed, but what do I know? Texas Vox and the Texas Green Report have more.

Illegal electrons

Hilarious.

As Texas struggles to keep the lights on, who should come to the rescue? Mexico. That’s right, Mexico’s state electricity company on Wednesday started supplying electricity to Texas, where cold weather and power shortages forced rolling blackouts across the state. Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission issued a statement saying it “was determined to support Texas with electrical energy” as its neighbor to the north scrambled to deal with its power woes.

If we can figure out some way to harness the energy from all of the heads that will explode as a result of this, we ought to be able to avoid any summer brownouts, too. You can also thank wind power for keeping the lights on. No word on whether or not it was a Mexican wind, however.

On a more serious note, you might be wondering why we experienced rolling blackouts in the winter, for a weather event that we knew was coming for days, and without any advanced notice of said blackouts. The Public Utility Commission is also wondering. Hopefully they’ll get some answers. Perhaps if Governor Perry spent more time in Texas and less time gallivanting around the country, he’d know what was going on, too. PDiddie, McBlogger, and Texas Vox have more.

UPDATE: From California to Kentucky. Our Governor does get around.

More renewable energy coming?

If the PUC says so.

The Public Utility Commission is mulling a shot in the arm to the renewables industry, as it is to energy efficiency. Sometime after a March 31 public workshop, the commission is expected to put forward a formal proposal that could require the state to develop 500 megawatts of non-wind renewables by the end of 2014. That equates to barely 5 percent of the amount of wind capacity already on the Texas grid but represents a leap for technologies that are almost invisible in the state today. “It’s a big number,” says Michael Webber, the associate director at the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas. There is less than seven megawatts of solar power in Texas right now, Webber notes.

Efforts to go big have so far fallen short. The Legislature tried to pass its own version of renewables assistance last session, and advocates got so optimistic about the dozens of bills promoting solar power that they dubbed it the “solar session.” Yet just about everything failed to pass. This not only disappointed solar installers but dashed hopes of attracting a run of solar panel factories to the state. “We’re much more likely to build a manufacturing industry for solar if we have a market for solar here,” Webber says.

The regulatory push for new renewables would use essentially the same type of incentives that have propelled wind power. Wind surged beginning in 1999, thanks to the clunkily named “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” which required Texas to get 2,000 new megawatts of electricity from renewables by 2009. Once Texas utilities and wind generators got the idea, they quickly surpassed the requirement, and the Legislature came back with a stronger goal in 2005: 5,880 megawatts by 2015. That, too, has long since been exceeded: Texas has more than 9,000 megawatts of wind already installed.

The PUC has already put forward a “strawman” proposal for promoting non-wind alternative power that would require 50 megawatts (one-tenth of the 2014 amount) to come from solar power. The “strawman” designation means that it is not yet a formal proposal but rather a placeholder that can draw early comments.

The solar option seems to have support on the PUC. “We’re going to try to do some more on sun,” Barry Smitherman, the chair of the commission, told an audience at a Renewable Energy World conference in Austin last month.

More here. The solar initiatives failed when voter ID derailed everything at the end of the session. The bills had passed in the Senate but never came to a vote in the House as the chubfest ran out the clock to kill voter ID. One hopes that these bills will get another shot in 2011, but with redistricting and the budget mess on the agenda, it’s hard to see how anything else can get enough oxygen. I hope so, but I wouldn’t count on it. This will have to do until then. More from the Statesman and from Forrest Wilder on a related matter.

Taking another step for solar power

Texas missed out in the last legislative session on a chance to take a big step forward with solar energy, but there are still some things that can be done to keep moving in that direction.

Texas already leads the nation in producing wind power, and given its sunny climate, scientists say it has the capacity to dominate solar, too.

To help make that happen, solar advocates are urging the Texas Public Utility Commission to set solar usage requirements for electric retailers.

“We actually are a perfect environment, economically and thermodynamically, as a raw resource for solar, but it hasn’t taken off,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.

“However, I think it’s about to,” said Webber, who is also associate director of UT’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy.

The PUC, an agency run by three gubernatorial appointees, is considering a plan to give solar power the same kind of boost that the state gave to wind power in 1999.

The Legislature first told the PUC to boost solar power and other nonwind renewable energy sources in 2005, and the agency is now taking steps to implement those instructions.

[…]

Although Texas leads the nation by far in the potential for solar power, it trails many smaller states such as New Jersey in putting solar power in service. “New Jersey?” Webber asked in mock disbelief. “A small, cloudy state outdoes Texas?”

Texas has done well in getting wind energy going, and its renewable energy standards are at the forefront nationwide. But it does seem strange that we haven’t done more to develop solar energy. Encouraging the utilities to do more is fine, though it will be limited by the lack of a robust transmission network in the same way wind energy has been, but there are other approaches, too. Making it easier for individual homeowners to install solar panels could also accomplish a lot. That was one of the things that the major piece of solar energy-related legislation was supposed to do, but it died in the end. Unfortunately, I fear that the budget situation is going to make a similar bill impossible to pass in 2011, but I hope someone tries anyway. The longer we wait, the farther behind we fall.

In case you were wondering why we have bad air quality in Texas

Ever wonder why we have such lax enforcement of environmental regulations here in Texas? One reason is because the people who head up the agencies that have the power to enforce those regulations are mostly charlatans and industry apologists. Go read Forrest Wilder’s account of a farcical “Cap and Trade Summit” at which the speakers and the audience was basically energy industry lobbyists, right-wing hacks, and the state officials who are supposed to be the ones responsible for making sure they all follow the law. You couldn’t make a stronger case for more federal involvement if you tried.