The Public Utilities Commission needs more government funding to ensure the Texas power grid doesn’t go down again, as it did during the devastating 2021 winter storm, the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission said Wednesday.
The commission, which regularly reviews state agencies and recommends potential improvements or abolishment to state legislatures, voted Wednesday to propose lawmakers increase PUC funding and staffing.
“Primary among the PUC’s needs are additional resources, especially for the agency to conduct independent analysis of electricity data and support its regulation of water and wastewater utilities,” Emily Johnson, Sunset’s project manager, told commissioners at a hearing in December.
The Sunset review did not look at how prepared Texas electric utilities are for extreme weather or how the grid is performing. According to the report, the Texas Electric Reliability Board, the non-profit organization that operates the grid and is overseen by the PUC, was generally well resourced.
On Wednesday, the commission also voted to give the PUC until May to develop a standard for what a reliable electrical grid should look like. And they voted to recommend that legislators require the PUC to allow public testimony at their agenda item meetings. The agency currently only allows public comment on items not on the agenda.
According to a Sunset staff report, the PUC has been short of resources for over a decade and has struggled to retain institutional knowledge. Lawmakers then gave the agency significantly more work to do after the state’s power grid nearly collapsed in February 2021 when days of freezing weather caused system outages that left millions of Texans without power or heat and killed hundreds.
The beleaguered agency, which had about 200 full-time employees at the end of last year and also regulated the telecommunications industry, was tasked in 2013 with regulating water and sanitation. A report from Sunset staff states that the PUC did not receive adequate funding. when its mission was expanded.
The report said that the PUC faced “significant challenges” due to its small size, “including a lack of necessary experience, cumbersome regulatory processes that can increase costs for consumers, and a general inability to be more strategic and proactive, especially in communications. and data management.
Johnson, project manager at Sunset, said in December that commission staff were “surprised to see that PUC has only about 200 employees who not only regulate the three industries, but also implement significant changes to improve the network, as well as navigate their new structure management and relationship with ERCOT. ”
The report said the agency needed funding for an industry data analysis team and advanced data management tools to analyze its own data.
The result was overburdened staff. Employees worked long days and also worked weekends, skipping birthday celebrations and vacations to make important progress on compliance, PUC chairman Peter Lake told Sunset commissioners in December. They knew they were responsible for keeping the network running, but Lake said they were working at an unsustainable pace.
“I really appreciate the comments about the staggering increase in responsibility that has been given to this agency, which is very appropriate, in the aftermath of that storm,” Lake said. “But the lack of resources, as you all have identified, and the Sunset Commission has identified, has made it very, very difficult to accomplish all the tasks that you all have given us.”
As of February 2022, just over half of employees had been with the agency for less than five years, and almost a third for less than two years, according to the report. Between 2020 and 2022, turnover in the legal division reached approximately 40%, raising concerns from regulated industries that PUC lawyers lack experience and knowledge.
Various associations and advocacy groups have said they support an increase in the PUC budget. But they highlighted shortcomings that they say require attention.
Cyrus Reid, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club, said PUC and grid operators need to better plan for extreme climate events when planning and forecasting electricity demand, and gain additional capabilities to monitor natural gas supplies. for example, through an independent market monitor.
“They’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s not enough,” Reed said in an interview on Wednesday.