The second anniversary of the Uri winter storm disaster is around the corner, and the agencies in charge of the power grid are still scrambling to implement all the tasks and changes the state’s legislature put into place as a response to the deadly blackout. On December 7, Texas lawmakers held a hearing to discuss a recent Sunset Advisory Commission report that stated that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is “woefully under-resourced” to fulfill its critical tasks.
In the wake of the 2021 winter storm, lawmakers moved swiftly to take action and make changes to the electric industry and market to prepare and prevent another disaster. Among those actions was the overhauling of ERCOT’s and PUC’s governance structure, including the assignment of PUC as a more active overseer of ERCOT as well as other market participants.
But the report found that PUC was unequipped to implement this task. “In your estimation, does the PUC have what it needs in terms of resources and staffing to perform the tasks with which we have task them?” State Senator Nathan Johnson asked a Sunset Advisory Commission representative. The response was resounding no.
Previous to the 2021 storm, Texans remembered 2011 as the disaster year. Not only was this the hottest year in the state’s history but Texas also experienced a similar blackout during a winter storm. This still wasn’t enough for lawmakers to take action on the state’s heavily deregulated electric market.
According to the report, “With others generally managing the grid, PUC never had cause to take a step back and consider how things were working... In fact, PUC was dealing with budget cuts during this time like most other state agencies.”
So by the time the legislature’s intervention started in 2021, the PUC had been under-resourced for more than a decade and was struggling to keep up with its usual tasks. Now it was also responsible for “implementing significant changes to improve the grid’s reliability while simultaneously adapting to its new commission structure, navigating a new relationship with ERCOT… and managing multiple legal battles.”
The report also stated that having a staff of fewer than 200 employees, overseeing utility industries represented a challenge for the agency. Sunset staff reported that the agency lacked the needed expertise to perform the tasks assigned to it as well as a proper regulatory procedure and “a general inability to be more strategic and proactive, particularly in communications and data management.”
During the hearing, State Representative Travis Clardy proposed the agency focus on overseeing the electric industry specifically, instead of taking care of other utilities like water at the same time. Lawmakers seemed open to granting the PUC more resources to fix the issues brought up by the report.