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Senate panel examines utility regulator budget

Officials of the state agency charged with oversight of the state’s electric system and market told members of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday that they need to hire more staff to do their job effectively.  The Public Utility Commission (PUC) was under fire during Senate hearings on the power grid failure last week, with members expressing dismay at their failure to avoid such a severe disaster, and also their failure to impress upon the public the danger they faced.  “I’m embarrassed for the role we played in that fiasco and I apologize for not doing more to prevent it,” said Commissioner Arthur D’Andrea, one of two commissioners remaining following the resignation of PUC Chair DeAnn Walker Monday.

“I hope this hearing and others like it can be our first step in re-earning the confidence of this committee and the people of Texas.”  D’Andrea said his agency’s budget requests were intended to ensure that the days-long power outages of the week of February 15th never happen again.

PUC Executive Director Thomas Gleeson presented the request, including an additional $1.7 million in state funds to hire the staff necessary to oversee and monitor the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the industry organization that manages the state’s power grid and electric market.  Following last week’s marathon hearings into the blackouts, Gleeson said he understands what lawmakers expect out of the PUC.

“The message that I got for my staff out of that hearing was that we failed in overseeing ERCOT effectively,” he said.  “We heard that loud and clear.”  Gleeson said the agency would use the money to hire experienced and skilled engineers, administrative law judges, attorneys, and other staff he said will allow the PUC to do what the Legislature demands.

One of the major issues raised at last week’s hearings related to how the PUC and ERCOT failed to get across to lawmakers and the public just how dangerous the winter storm was and how long the outages could last.  Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton wanted to know if the PUC was prepared to address that issue.

“If not one dollar of $1.7 million request is approved by Senate Finance, do you feel like with current [staff] you could communicate effectively with ERCOT on foreseeable dangers in the future that could be so devastating as those that we just experienced,” he asked.

“Regardless of how we are resourced,” replied Gleeson. “We have to do that.”

The PUC budget request does include two additional employees dedicated to public and official communications.

Gleeson told members the job of overseeing the state’s electric system and market is complicated and difficult, and the staff needed to do that job have to be up to that task.  That the commission only asked for this staff following the grid failure, said Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner, only underlined how the PUC was “asleep at the wheel” leading up to the winter storm.

“That wasn’t an exceptional item to begin with, now it is – y’all are awake now obviously after this disaster,” he said. “I’m glad you put this in, but it just goes to the need for pronounced, significant reform regarding the regulatory agencies of our utility structures.”

The PUC will be the subject of many hearings to come as lawmakers look to figure out exactly what caused the grid failure in the face of the February winter storm and how to prevent it from happening again.  Business and Commerce Committee chair Senator Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills has a third hearing on the issue scheduled Thursday at 9 a.m.  He told Gleeson at Tuesday’s Finance hearing that he needs transparency and truthfulness out of PUC officials as they work together to enact meaningful reform.

“Things will be different moving forward,” he said.  “We’re going to provide the security and the reliability that every citizen across the state is counting on when it comes to our electric grid.”

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 9 at 3 p.m.