During the winter storm in February that left tens of thousands of CPS Energy customers without power, the utility’s chief customer engagement officer Rudy Garza argued internally that the utility should take a “less specific” approach to communicating with the public.
In the weeks that followed, CPS Energy was roundly criticized for its communications failures, to the public and city officials. The power outages and the lack of thorough communications have led to multiple wrongful death lawsuits filed against the utility.
Now, Garza, who was announced as the utility’s provisional president and CEO earlier this week to replace outgoing CEO Paula Gold-Williams, will lead CPS Energy through the coming winter, a possible audition for dropping “interim” from his new title. In an interview with the San Antonio Report this week, Garza acknowledged his approach during the storm wasn’t the right strategy.
“We’ll absolutely be more specific,” Garza told the Report. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the community that [being less specific] wasn’t the right approach.”
Garza said he and other officials at the utility felt their messaging was clear at the time, but understand it’s not up to them to say if it truly was.
“It’s not the sender of the message,” he said, “it’s the receiver that determines whether communication is effective or not, and our customers have told us we’ve got to do a better job.”
Garza told the Report the utility’s approach came from existing protocols set by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which encourages utilities not to panic their customers.
In the future, Garza said CPS Energy will work with community leaders to give San Antonians more concrete information about the conditions of the grid and where resources are available.
Garza said the most difficult part about public communications during the winter storm was that CPS Energy didn’t have the whole picture, since they too were getting live and constantly changing information from ERCOT. He said next time, utility officials will take real-time information from ERCOT and put “it out into the community.”
He added that CPS Energy is now more aligned with SAWS on what equipment is critical to keeping water flowing — CPS Energy was forced to cut power to some pump stations, causing widespread water outages, further exacerbating the crisis.
“The exercises that we’ve done with SAWS and the City’s Emergency Operations Center have taught us a lot,” he said. “We’ve got to be aligned on exactly how we’re going to facilitate” getting information out to the public, Garza said.
However, many local officials say details on exactly how CPS Energy has improved its infrastructure, communications plans, and emergency procedures remain frustratingly vague.
Since the storm, both CPS Energy and SAWS have been grilled for specifics on how they will better communicate with customers, council members, and each other in the city’s next weather crisis. Just last month, at the city council’s Municipal Utilities Committee — formed in the wake of the storm — council members once more asked for more details on how the utilities have improved their infrastructure, communications plans, and emergency procedures.
Both the city and state have also pushed Texas utilities, including CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System, to winterize and prepare for any other major events by bettering their plans as part of new state legislation to better prepare the state’s power grid for another major event.
The city’s seven-member Committee on Emergency Preparedness submitted recommendations to both utilities in June. Both have said in recent weeks that they are working on implementing those recommendations, although again, only in broad strokes rather than the granular detail city officials say they are seeking.
After asking for updated specifics Wednesday, the San Antonio Report was sent the same presentation given to the Municipal Utilities Committee and CPS Energy board of trustees at the end of last month.
The utility did offer the Report some specifics on communication efforts this week.
The utility will now send out detailed text alerts to stakeholders, such as council members, county commissioners, and emergency personnel; putting out physical signage to help residents without access to internet or cellular, and sending out email and text alerts to residents, Garza said. He added the utility has spent time trying to get as many residents to update their email and cell phone information with CPS Energy as possible.
CPS Energy has been encouraging customers to update their contact information and “alert preferences” via the Manage My Account platform, said CPS Energy’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications Melissa Sorola. “This will help us reach them to help them prepare for incoming weather, outages, and energy emergencies.
Sorola pointed to a text alert that went out to more than 470,000 CPS Energy customers Wednesday, in English and Spanish, as an example of how the utility has adapted its communications since the storm. The alert noted the utility was closely watching storms and cold weather as it moved into the area earlier this week for any effects it may have on local utilities.
CPS Energy will also host a public virtual town hall on Tues., Nov. 9 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., to discuss actions the energy company is taking to prepare for winter. The event will feature Garza; Chief Power, Sustainability, and Business Development Officer Frank Almaraz; and Chief Grid Optimization and Resiliency Officer Paul Barham, according to a CPS Energy press release. Participants can listen on their phone by pre-registering or can watch online.
Municipal Utilities Committee member Councilwoman Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6), who has been a leading voice in demanding more transparency from the utilities as winter approaches, said while she was glad to hear about CPS Energy’s updated text messaging systems and a campaign for residents to update their contact info, she hopes their beefed up plans will be more adaptable during an actual emergency.
“I appreciate a text but I think it needs to be more,” she said. “I would like to have a more flexible plan in place that may be more immediate. Maybe they are going to be, I don’t know.”
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.