Energy utilities and regulators detail financial fallout from winter storm in Texas Senate hearing

Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar)— State lawmakers continue learning more about the lasting economical effects of the widespread power outages that left millions in the dark during February’s winter storm.

Thursday’s Texas Senate Business and Commerce Committee focused on the financial fallout.

“This is significant to every single household, but also extremely significant to the economy of the state,” State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who chairs the committee, said.

Leaders from energy companies, electric utilities, and utility regulators were among the people who testified.

“ERCOT as a market is under a lot of financial duress,” Kenan Ögelman, vice president of commercial operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), said.

ERCOT kept the price of electricity at or near the cap set at $9,000/MWh for more than a day after it ended rolling outages, which market watchers say inflated costs for too long.

“Tell me whether you think it was the correct or incorrect decision to keep that cap in place for those last 30 hours of the storm,” State Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, asked Ögelman.

“I think in hindsight, it would look like that wasn’t needed, but in real time it appeared that was needed,” Ögelman replied.

Joe Hegwood, the chief financial officer for the City of Bryan, testified as a result of changes to the market, Bryan Texas Utility has been placed on credit rating watch, which may affect the ability to get loans.

“The net impact to BTU of this loss, is the loss of precious funds that would be used and better serve our local citizens and customers than support customers that didn’t pay their bill or whoever the market winners were, or might have been, in this unprecedent event,” he stated.

On the House side, Speaker Dade Phelan said lawmakers are mulling how to pay for long-term fixes.

“The funding source, that’s meant to be debated,” he said, citing the Economic Stabilization Fund (or Rainy Day Fund), which the state can tap into for one-time expenditures like weatherizing or modernizing the electric grid.

“A lot of these are private entities, and so they’re gonna have to figure out, you know, if we mandate this, how they’re going to pay for it, and sometimes that is an investment decision they make,” Phelan said.

“There’s ways that they can incentivize businesses to be more reliable, obviously, and be more modernized,” Phelan added. “So there’s different ways to do it. I don’t see obviously any tax increases or fee increases.”

Phelan also said state leaders would consider using federal funding coming to the state relating to the storm.

“We just have to look those funds and see if that’s a reasonable and good avenue to use for our electric grid,” he explained.

This hearing comes a day after ERCOT’s board of directors voted to terminate CEO Bill Magness’ contract. According to his contract, his severance package included a year of his $800,000+ base salary for being terminated without cause. An ERCOT spokesperson confirmed Thursday evening Magness informed the board of directors he “will not seek or accept severance pay.”

Another ERCOT board member, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, resigned Feb. 27, according to a letter obtained Thursday by KXAN News. She represented the municipal segment. More than half-a-dozen other board members submitted their resignations in the wake of the storm, and the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, resigned this week.

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