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San Antonio’s Winter Storm Report Calls For Better Communication Between City, Utilities And Combined Legislative Action For Energy Reform

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams listens to the committee's report as it's delivered to the city council. In the back, SAWS CEO Robert Puente sits with Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse.

A report analyzing the February energy crisis found the City of San Antonio and its utilities need improved resiliency and communication to better handle devastating winter storms in the future.

The long awaited nearly 50-page report drafted by a special committee was released to the City Council on Thursday with dozens of recommendations for improvement ranging from weatherization to coordinated communication plans and coordinating legislative reform attempts with other cities.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg created the Committee of Emergency Preparedness almost immediately after the winter storm with the task to determine how the City of San Antonio, CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System responded to the winter storm. District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval was one of four council members assigned to the committee.

“What we saw in February wasn’t just a winter storm, it’s what we call a cascading disaster that is we had one major disruption — in this case weather — that resulted in disruptions to other infrastructure direct and indirect,” she said during Thursday’s special council meeting to review.

The storm left millions of Texans without power as The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) called for rolling blackouts to keep the grid from being overwhelmed and in San Antonio close to 400,000 homes and businesses lost power for over 60 hours in some cases, and thousands lost water services during more than 100 hours of below freezing temperatures.

After four months and more than 100 requests for information from the city’s Emergency Operations Center and both utilities, the committee drafted more than 60 recommendations for all three agencies. Some go beyond the scope of their own purview and would involve other cities and utilities in attempting to reform the Texas energy market.

The report points a stern finger at the State of Texas and ERCOT over deregulation.

“Deregulation of electric power in Texas by the Legislature has degraded the resiliency and reduced the reliability of the Electric Regulatory Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid over the last 20 years,” the report said adding that the misgivings subjected, “CPS Energy customers to a greater risk of extended power outages during a crisis.”

Beyond the local utilities pur view, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Gov. Greg Abbott can’t claim everything that was needed to fix the energy grid was done in this legislative session.

“Even from the considerations of the public and now our expert committee, the Texas system of energy and quasi-deregulation has set us all up for failure,” Nirenberg said.

Those sentiments were echoed by SAWS CEO Robert Puente, who said the legislature did not take enough action for substantial reform during the session.

“They did a lousy job, they did not at all address the concerns that needed to be addressed,” Puente said, noting ERCOT made a similar call for conservation for several days this month due to high heat and certain power generators being offline for unannounced repairs.

Committee Chair Reed Williams highlighted the power sources within CPS Energy that field pointing to the utility’s coal plant only operating at 1% of it’s capacity and the South Texas Project, a shared nuclear plant, not operating at its full potential during the cold.

“This is our biggest single problem as far as generation, the Spruce 1 (coal plant) went down … and while it recovered some — it never fully recovered,” he said.

Power failures and load shedding — what meant to start out as short term rolling blackouts but turned into days-long prolonged outages — lead to the cascading decline of other services like losing power to SAWS pumping stations and water shortages.

One of the reports recommendations for improvements includes the two utilities coordinating to determine which SAWS locations must have power generators and/or fuel storage for load reduction events and consider shared uses for generators.

CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold Williams acknowledged the difficulties faced by the utility’s different energy generators and said it will take system wide reform to meaningful impact.

“We’re all connected, this is one grid, and what we do here matters, but what happens everywhere else matters so we’re going to continue to talk across our industry in Texas to make sure that we all know what’s happening but it’s going to take some effort for us to work together,” Gold-Williams said.

The three entities must now implement the recommendations amid the prospect of resuming disconnections that were paused during the still-lingering pandemic and proposed rate increases from CPS Energy that could take place in the Fall all while attempting to retain public faith in the utilities.

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