Last Standing PUC Commissioner Resigns Amid Controversy

Texas Governor Gregg Abbott speaks to the press after attending the public viewing for George Floyd … [+] at the Fountain of ...


How do you run a state commission with no commissioners? The state of Texas is about to find out, at least for a while until Governor Greg Abbott can find some Texans who are eager – or at least willing – to serve in what have become three of the hottest seats in the state’s government.

That’s because the last standing member of the Public Utility Commission – Chairman Arthur D’Andrea – resigned late Tuesday after Texas Monthly magazine published a recording of a telephone conversation he conducted in early March with executives from various out-of-state power trading firms. D’Andrea’s two former colleagues on the three-member appointed commission, Shelly Botkin and ex-Chair Dee Anne Walker, had already both resigned during the aftermath of the blackouts. Governor Abbott had made D’Andrea the new Chairman in late February after Walker resigned under pressure from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick.

During the recorded call, D’Andrea promised to work to protect the windfall profits the companies had gained as electricity rates allowed by the PUC and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) skyrocketed during the tragic arctic freeze event in mid-February that resulted in the deaths of 57 Texans and saddled some ratepayers with gigantic utility bills.

During the call, which was hosted by Bank of America Securities, D’Andrea is quoted as “promising to put ‘the weight of the commission’ behind efforts to keep billions of dollars from being returned to utilities that were forced—thanks to decisions by the PUC—to buy power at sky-high prices, even after the worst of the blackout had passed.”

“I took that first step to tip the scale as hard as I could in favor of it being resolved … to provide some calming force,” D’Andrea said during the call. “It’s a contentious political issue. The best I can do is put the weight of the commission in favor of not repricing.”

Even more disturbingly to Texans who remember the lack of any real action taken by Texas policymakers in the wake of the very similar freeze/blackout event of February 2011, D’Andrea went on to predict that, as was the case ten years ago, the Texas legislature would run out of time in its current 140-day biennial session and would once again fail to produce any meaningful legislation that might threaten corporate profits by forcing real fixes to the system. Ironically, he also asserted that his job is safe for the foreseeable future, saying “I went from being on a very hot seat to having one of the safest jobs in Texas.”

Things have a way of changing quickly in the wake of a major disaster.

Now the ball falls into Governor Abbott’s court to start the job of rebuilding the three-member PUC with appointees under his executive authority. Contrary to D’Andrea’s do-nothing expectations expressed on the call, the Governor has been quite clear in his public statements in the aftermath of February’s calamity that he expects the legislature to act to correct flaws in the state’s power grid that have left power stations and pipelines vulnerable to winter freeze events and resulted in an inadequate amount of reserve baseload generating capacity available during periods of high demand. The Governor has even promised to call the legislature back into 30-day special sessions until he deems its work on the issue is complete.

D’Andrea’s expressed confidence on the call that legislative efforts that would re-price some of the exhorbitant power prices authorized by ERCOT during the freeze event would fail due to time constraints appears to have now come true. House Speaker Dade Phelan announced that the House would not even consider a bill for that purpose that was rushed through the senate last week. Lt. Gov. Patrick, who functions as the Senate Majority Leader under the Texas system, is at odds with Governor Abbott on the repricing issue, while Speaker Phelan supports the Governor’s position.

After telling the audience on the call that he thinks the legislature would focus on addressing the issue of winterization of key power grid infrastructure, D’Andrea also predicted that the legislature would do nothing to reform the grid’s de-regulated system in order to promote the building of additional baseload capacity because doing so is “too complicated.”

“We haven’t had a real plant in years,” he said, echoing concerns I raised in the midst of this latest freeze/blackout event. “It’s nothing but wind and solar. I like our wind and solar fleet, and I’m trying to protect them from some criticism.”

All of which basically misses the point. The question at hand is not whether wind and solar deserve criticism – their role in the grid is what it is, and arguing about that is a waste of time. Rather, the question is whether or not the Texas grid has adequate baseload reserve capacity on hand, a question in which neither wind nor solar play a role. Clearly, the Texas grid lacks adequate reserve capacity during major freeze events thanks in large part to lack of action on the part of officials at ERCOT, the PUC and the legislature. The question is whether lawmakers should finally act to correct the obvious shortage that has been growing for years.

Just saying it’s too complicated is not a valid excuse.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Last Standing PUC Commissioner Resigns Amid Controversy
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