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Public Utility Commission of Texas Announces Investigation Into Power Failures, Will Examine Its Own Actions

CPS Energy crews repair equipment damage after three days of controlled blackouts February 18, 2021.
CPS Energy | Provided
CPS Energy crews repair equipment damage after three days of controlled blackouts February 18, 2021.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas has opened a wide-ranging formal investigation into the deadly power failure that left millions of Texans in the cold and dark during an unprecedented winter storm.

The investigation was opened during a Friday-evening emergency meeting. Commission Counselor Stephen Journeay kicked off the call with a joke and a chuckle: “Do you want my resignation now?”

Commission Chair DeAnn Walker said the commission hasn’t done enough to show sympathy for the plight of Texans.

“I don't think that I have done a good job, and I don't think we have done a good job to portray and send out that message. And it has made it appear like we don't care. And we do,” she said. “It also appears that we have not because we haven't done this until now: Opened a type of true investigation into what has occurred, so I wanted through this open meeting for us to go ahead and open up a formal investigation into everything that has occurred through this storm.”

The three-member commission, appointed by the governor, regulates water and electric utilities in Texas. It also has oversight of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT has faced the fury of the public and policymakers, with many calling for reforms.

But ERCOT CEO Bill Magness has described ERCOT as a “traffic cop” or “air traffic controller” that merely manages the flow of electricity, as opposed to regulating industry players. The Public Utility Commission is the agency tasked with actually regulating electricity utilities.

The commission’s investigation is expected to examine a range of issues: the persistence of so-called “rolling blackouts,” the lack of certain changes following the power outages during the harsh winter of 2011 as well as the commission’s own actions — or lack thereof.

Because the investigation will, at times, look inwards, the commissioners considered bringing in a third party to assist. But Walker explained that might not be possible.

“I don't even know if we have the money to do it,” she said. “But I also don't think we have the staff to be able to do a heavy lift on this.”

Doug Lewin, an energy and climate consultant, wasn’t surprised by the statement.

“They are massively under-resourced, and they have been under-resourced for a long time,” he said. “But that's true for a whole lot of agencies in the State of Texas, right? When you have folks in charge of government that often don't believe in what government can do — that ‘government is the problem, not the solver of problems’ — you end up with these kinds of situations where your state agencies are just vastly under-resourced.”

The commission expects to face additional investigations by state and federal officials.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony