CPS Energy has completed about a third of all the winterization recommendations made to it by an oversight committee created by the city in the wake of February’s winter freeze, a CPS Energy official told the utility’s board members Monday. 

Chief Grid Optimization and Resiliency Officer Paul Barham said the electric utility has been steadily addressing the list of 37 recommendations given to it by the city’s Committee on Emergency Preparedness in the summer, as well as requirements from the state’s Public Utilities Commission, which were issued in October.

The utility has also been making improvements based on recommendations from Black and Veatch, an engineering firm the utility hired to help improve its network reliability and security. 

“We feel we are fully prepared for a Uri-sized event,” Barham said. “We believe we’re in very good shape to manage load shedding in a severe event.”

During the February freeze, CPS Energy’s inability to shed sufficient load, or briefly shut off power to customers to help the state avoid a total collapse of the grid, forced the utility to move from brief rotating outages to extended blackouts for tens of thousands of customers, many of whom were left in the freezing dark for days.

By increasing the number of circuits that can be rotated into outages, CPS Energy hopes to avoid a repeat performance.

CPS Energy, like all utilities across the state, will be required to submit a report of its improvements to the Public Utilities Commission and the ERCOT by Dec. 1, Barham said.

Of the emergency preparedness committee recommendations, Barham said about a third of them have been completed and 18 more are in progress. 

Winterization of CPS Energy’s coal and natural gas plants are on track to be completed before the winter season — which interim CEO and President Rudy Garza described as the “January and February timeframe” — and will “significantly increase load shed capacity” when ERCOT directs CPS Energy to implement rotating outages, Garza said. 

“The winterization that needs to be done in the coal yard, we’re done with that,” Garza said. “The winterization that needs to be done at our Rio Nogales power plant, we’re about 75% of the way through, and pretty much on all the other units, we’re at 95% or better. So we’re making really good progress.”

CPS Energy Interim President and CEO Rudy Gonzalez speaks with board member Janie Gonzalez before a board meeting at CPS headquarters on Monday.
CPS Energy interim President and CEO Rudy Gonzalez speaks with board member Janie Gonzalez before Monday’s board meeting at the utility’s headquarters. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

CPS Energy has also increased its natural gas procurements, storage, and withdrawal capacity, and has increased its capacity to shut off power when required by ERCOT by 155 more circuits, Barham said. It also has been working closely with SAWS to make sure both utilities’ communications and operations will be in alignment during the next emergency event, he added. 

Barham pointed to a text alert about cold weather the utility sent out to more than 470,000 customers earlier this month, and to a town hall meeting it held last week to show how the utility is communicating with its customers. The city has run several exercises with both CPS Energy and SAWS to practice for emergency events, Barham said, and is better connected to the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

“In reviewing our customer information … about 92% of those have information in our system to be able to contact them,” Barham said. “That might be a phone number or via email, but we are looking at how we can really leverage that tool to be able to reach out to every customer in an emergency situation.”

State-level challenges

Utility officials are also in contact with state legislators about addressing four issues identified by the Committee on Emergency Preparedness at a state and federal level, he said.

Those include increasing the state’s generation reserve capacity, gaining state support for supply during emergencies, addressing price manipulation, and how Texas interconnects — or doesn’t — with neighboring grids. CPS Energy spokeswoman Christine Patmon told the San Antonio Report that while the utility has taken steps to winterize, it is essential for all other power generators operating within the ERCOT market to do so as well. 

“We see this as critical to drive resiliency of the overall ERCOT grid and to ensure a level playing field where all generators are being held to the same high standard,” Patmon said. 

The utility is working to comply with Senate Bills 2 and 3, which were passed in June, and which aim to overhaul the state’s power grid following the February freeze, Patmon said.

But utility officials worry about a possible loophole in Senate Bill 3, which directs the Railroad Commission of Texas to develop rules around weatherization of “critical” natural gas facilities. The new law includes a provision that allows operators to exempt their natural gas facilities from being designated as “critical” — meaning they will not be “prepared to operate during a weather emergency” — by simply paying an administrative processing fee of $150.

“CPS Energy is concerned that the proposed … rule does little to incentivize operators of pipeline and other gas facilities to properly designate such facilities as critical in nature,” Patmon said. “Additionally, the rule does not specifically impose any weatherization requirements on critically designated gas facilities and the penalties for rule violation are insignificant.”

CPS Energy’s dependence on reliable gas supply is significant, she said: Twenty percent of CPS Energy’s total generation comes from gas-fired generation units, while its local distribution gas system covers over 5,700 miles of mainlines delivering natural gas to homes and businesses.  

The entire ERCOT grid is highly dependent on the reliable supply of natural gas, which makes up more than 50% of the state’s total generation capacity, she said. While CPS Energy has taken winterization measures to increase its natural gas storage capabilities and improve its load-shed capacity by adding more circuits to its system, the utility can only hope others do the same. 

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

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.