For the first time since Winter Storm Uri blasted through Texas last February, CPS Energy gave local media a look behind the curtain Wednesday into its plant winterization efforts — just as Texas readies to face another severe cold front this week.
Amid promises from state and city officials Tuesday that the Texas grid is better prepared for extreme weather, CPS Energy interim CEO Rudy Garza and other executives showed off the results of the roughly $2 million it has spent winterizing its plants Wednesday.
“I know that our community has a certain amount of post-traumatic stress over the winter event, especially for those who were out for multiple days,” Garza said. “For that, I would say that we have done everything in our power, within our capability and within our understanding of our operation to ensure that we’re ready for this winter season.”
About a dozen journalists toured the V.H. Braunig power plant Wednesday.
Improvements included adding more temporary enclosures around the gas steam plant, incorporating more kerosene and infrared heaters near critical structures and additional insulation.
The utility also installed more heat trace systems — electrical systems used to maintain or raise the temperature of pipes. Asked how many of these systems it added, a CPS Energy engineer simply said “a lot.”
While Braunig did experience some weather-related issues during last February’s freeze, including its automatic voltage regulator going offline temporarily, overall it fared well compared to other CPS Energy plants, said Benny Ethridge, the utility’s executive vice president of energy supply.
About a third of the $2 million in weatherization efforts went into weatherizing Braunig, Ethridge said, noting that many of the improvements are seasonal, since plants need to be cooled down in the summer rather than kept warm.
Over the past year, the utility has also increased its natural gas procurements, storage, and withdrawal capacity, meaning it should be less dependent on buying natural gas on the spot market, where prices fluctuate. The need to buy natural gas and power during last year’s freeze led to roughly $1 billion in excess fuel costs, much of which CPS Energy is still fighting.
In the wake of criticism after last February’s freeze that the utility did not equally spread the pain of forced outages across the city, CPS Energy said it has identified 155 more circuits that it can safely shut down if necessary. That could affect about 400,000 customers who may have escaped the days-long outages last year.
CPS Energy has also been making an effort to better communicate with customers ahead of and during cold-weather events, said Melissa Sorola, CPS Energy’s vice president of corporate communications and marketing, who pointed to emails and text alerts the utility sent out Wednesday.
All the improvements are part of the utility’s first phase of weatherization, Garza said. The utility is planning to perform another $150 million to $200 million in weatherization projects over the next five years, he said, and will use $31 million of the $73 million it expects to raise next year from the new rate increase for weatherization efforts.
“We’ve done a lot of things that have been required of us [under] the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT’s weatherization requirements,” Garza said. “But … we’ve got another legislative session coming up next year, and I’m sure there’ll be other things that come out of the legislature that we’ll have to pay attention to.”
On top of state regulator’s requirements, the City of San Antonio has extended its own watchful eye over CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System, Garza noted. Under the city’s Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Municipal Utilities Committee, which were formed in the wake of the storm, even more regulations and requirements have been placed on the electric utility, Garza said.
But CPS Energy feels so ready for a winter event, Garza told reporters, he believes the utility will be on the selling end of power into the Texas market during any future major event that requires load shedding.
This story has been updated to clarify what CPS Energy purchased during last year’s freeze that led to roughly $1 billion in excess fuel costs. CPS had to purchase power as well as natural gas.
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