Bexar County voters chiefly blame the Texas electrical grid operator for the power crisis caused by the February winter storm, though public regard for CPS Energy has also dropped since the disaster, survey results show.

The latest Bexar Facts poll released Tuesday included multiple questions related to the February 14-19 storm, which left millions of households across Texas without power and water in freezing weather. More than 200 people lost their lives in the crisis.

Pollsters with FM3 Research surveyed 618 Bexar County registered voters via phone (both landline and mobile) and online. The surveys were conducted March 23-29.

A majority of those surveyed held the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) most to blame for the winter weather catastrophe. Asked who was chiefly responsible for the catastrophe, 52% said ERCOT, followed by 13% for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and 10% for CPS Energy.

Only 8% singled out the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), the state agency that regulates ERCOT and the power industry overall.

Texas elected officials have focused their blame chiefly on ERCOT and the PUC, focusing in part on decisions to keep the price of wholesale electricity at the upper limit of $9,000 per megawatt-hour throughout most of the storm. Electricity usually trades at $50 per megawatt-hour or less.

Seven of ERCOT’s 14 board members resigned in the wake of the disaster, including five who live outside Texas, and its CEO was fired. DeAnn Walker, Shelly Botkin, and Arthur D’Andrea, the PUC’s three commissioners at the time of the storm, have also resigned. Last week, Abbott appointed former Texas House aide and construction trade group president Will McAdams to the PUC board.

Spokeswoman Leslie Sopko said ERCOT is “committed to working with the Texas Legislature on reforms to ERCOT.” ERCOT released data Tuesday that broke down power plant failures by cause, including cold weather, equipment failures, and natural gas shortages.

ERCOT did not release outage data on individual power plant failures at the request of power generators who wanted to keep the information confidential, Vice President Woody Rickerson wrote in a letter to the PUC Tuesday.

CPS Energy was among those generators that saw power plants fail to perform in cold conditions. A unit at its shared South Texas Project nuclear plant went offline during the freeze, and the utility converted one of its coal plants to run on natural gas after problems with frozen equipment. The utility also struggled to obtain enough natural gas to run its gas generators at full capacity.

That left CPS Energy on the hook for wholesale electricity charges that as of mid-March had mounted to $365 million. The utility sued ERCOT and the PUC last month, arguing they improperly kept prices sky-high during the storm. CPS Energy has so far avoided raising its customers’ rates to pay for high natural gas and electricity costs.

Public regard for CPS Energy has declined compared to a Bexar Facts poll conducted last fall. The March survey showed 49% of respondents disapproving of CPS Energy’s overall performance, with 46% approving. In September 2020, respondents answered that same question with 69% approval and 23% disapproval.

On the other hand, a majority of respondents who answered the survey in March said they are satisfied with CPS Energy overall. Asked whether they are “satisfied or dissatisfied with the job being done by CPS Energy in providing power service to San Antonio residents,” 58% said satisfied and 41% said dissatisfied.

CPS Energy officials didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the survey results.

Only 2% of respondents chiefly blamed Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a CPS Energy board member in his official capacity, for problems stemming from the storm. Another 2% blamed City Council, which regulates CPS Energy because of it status as a municipally owned utility with a monopoly in its service territory.

In an interview Tuesday, Nirenberg said San Antonio residents “are rightly skeptical of the handling of February’s winter storm at the state level.”

“We know where the chief responsibility lies – ERCOT and the PUC,” Nirenberg said. “But this is exactly why I’ve assembled our storm preparedness committee. We need every answer at every level, including locally, to ensure all is done to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Mario Bravo, a project manager for the Environmental Defense Fund and a City Council candidate in District 1, said focusing the blame only at the state level avoids acknowledging CPS Energy and the City’s role in the disaster.

“This poll shows that CPS Energy and City Council are winning the PR blame game,” Bravo said. “Come back and run this poll after the election and once San Antonio residents have received their increased bills. You will get a different result.”

Survey results indicate Bexar County voters have nuanced views when it comes to paying higher electricity and natural gas bills.

Pollsters asked whether they would rather “make significant investments in improving our energy infrastructure, even if it means higher rates” or “keep electric and gas rates low, even if means not making investments in improving our energy infrastructure.” Approximately 63% said they’d pay higher rates to make these investments, with 32% saying they’d prefer to keep rates low.

But respondents were less keen on paying higher rates to transition away from fossil fuels. A majority – 56% – said they’d prefer to “keep electricity and gas rates low, even if it means relying on coal and natural gas for longer,” with 40% saying they’d prefer to “speed up the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, even if it means increasing electricity and gas rates.”

Reporter Jackie Wang contributed to this story.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.