A report on how San Antonio’s utilities coped with a historic cold-weather crisis in February won’t likely bring major revelations, its authors say. But the document will expose new details about the storm that left hundreds of thousands without power, many for multiple days.
The report has been in the works since late February, when Mayor Ron Nirenberg appointed a seven-member committee led by former District 8 Councilman Reed Williams. Other members included retired Air Force Gen. Edward A. Rice Jr.; Lisa Tatum, a former assistant district attorney; and City Council members Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Ana Sandoval (D7), Manny Pelaez (D8), and Clayton Perry (D10).
The committee held 14 public meetings, posting its questions and responses from CPS Energy, San Antonio Water System, and city staff on its website along the way. City Council will get its first full briefing on its conclusions at an 11 a.m. special meeting Thursday.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of surprises, if you’ve been paying attention,” Williams told the San Antonio Report on Monday, before the final draft was complete.
The report will touch on what Williams called “a bad regulatory structure we’ve got to change.” In Texas, the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) oversee a power grid that serves 26 million Texas customers, with limited connectivity to neighboring states. Yet another agency, the Railroad Commission of Texas, oversees the natural gas industry.
Williams is among those criticizing the structure of Texas’ power market, in which power generators such as CPS Energy basically only get paid for the power they sell. In some other states, generators are compensated for keeping excess power plant capacity on standby in case of emergencies.
“For the past 20 years, there’s been no incentive to put in excess capacity,” Williams said.
Not everyone agrees that a capacity market would have prevented the February blackouts. A recent analysis by researchers with the University of Texas and other institutions stated that it’s “not clear that a capacity market would have helped in this crisis.” The extra plants might not have made up for gas supply issues or power plants that broke down in the cold, they wrote.
Following similar winter blackouts in 2011, the Texas Legislature failed to pass strict winter preparedness rules for power plants and natural gas systems. When even more severe cold blanketed the whole state in February, natural gas and coal underperformed even ERCOT’s most extreme outage forecasts by 20%, according to one researcher.
CPS Energy experienced a similar fate as many Texas power companies, with one of its coal plants and its nuclear plants suffering freeze-related mechanical issues that required taking them offline when they were needed most.
“CPS has got to run their plants better,” Williams said, adding that the utility must also distribute power more effectively when ERCOT hits the utility with requirements to throttle down their customers’ demand during grid emergencies such as the one in February.
One product of the committee’s investigation was a CPS Energy map showing which neighborhoods were shut off and for how long. Some areas on the same circuits as critical sites such as hospitals and fire stations saw no outages; others saw outages lasting more than two days.
“The system was designed to treat all areas equally,” Rice said at the committee’s June 11 meeting. “In a perfect world, this map would have been much more homogenous in color. We didn’t live in a perfect world during the storm.”
The report also will discuss local officials’ communications with residents during the grid catastrophe. CPS Energy in particular has been criticized for not explaining how long customers might be without power.
“They’ve got to communicate better,” Williams said.
CPS Energy officials say they’re already making strides on many of these issues, including on managing blackouts during any emergencies.
At a special board meeting Tuesday, CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams discussed a four-year project between the utility and consultant Burns & McDonnell to consider adding more switches, called “reclosers,” to the local grid to help break it down into more manageable networks.
“The [outage] durations won’t be as long,” Gold-Williams told board members.
The report’s meatiest material centers on CPS Energy rather than on SAWS. Most committee members agreed that the loss of water service to wide swaths of northern San Antonio came only after power was cut to key pumping sites, leading to a loss of pressure in the SAWS system.
“While SAWS certainly has opportunities for improvement, like all organizations do, I think our report is going to be shorter” for SAWS, Pelaez said at the committee’s June 4 meeting. “Simply because I think SAWS is dependent upon CPS, whereas CPS is not necessarily as dependent on SAWS.”