Icy Texas Power Line 0319

Ice covers transmission infrastructure after a 2015 winter storm in West Texas. The failure to winterize power infrastructure, particularly natural gas distribution systems, contributed to extended power outages and high prices during this year's mid-February storm.

The sole remaining utility regulator in Texas resigned during a week that saw an additional bankruptcy and lawsuit, as well as endless opinions—including within the state Legislature—regarding whether or not to retroactively reprice power sold during the February blackouts, as a deadline looms that would nullify that option.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on March 16 called for Public Utility Commission of Texas Chair Arthur D'Andrea to resign. A recorded phone conversation from the previous week in which D'Andrea reassured investment professionals whose firms made millions of dollars during the crisis that he was doing his best to prevent repricing was made public earlier that day.

The independent market monitor for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said the decision to keep prices at the scarcity cap of $9,000 per MWh for a 32-hour period immediately following the crisis was an error that resulted in $16 billion worth of overcharges to Texas power providers (see CEM No. 1632).

The Texas Senate on March 15 hastily passed SB 2142, a bill that would require the PUCT to order ERCOT by March 20 to reprice power and ancillary services (which erroneously spiked during the crisis to more than $20,000 per MWh) for the period. If passed, the bill would effectively claw back about $4.2 billion in net charges after hedging and other considerations are accounted for.

However, Dade Phelan, speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, in a March 16 statement posted on Twitter said the pricing aberration was a "proactive decision" rather than an error. "Repricing based on disagreement with PUC and ERCOT's management decisions is an extraordinary government intervention into the free market, which may have major consequences for both residential and commercial consumers going forward," he said.

A spokesperson for Phelan, Cait Meisenheimer Wittman, in a subsequent statement March 16 said the speaker "will refer all proposed legislation, including SB 2142, to an appropriate committee with jurisdiction."

D'Andrea was asked to resign a week after his call with investment professionals, on the day it was made public in a news report. Abbot's statement did not mention the call, which had been declared off-limits to the press.

"Tonight, I asked for and accepted the resignation of PUC Commissioner Arthur D'Andrea," Abbott said in the statement. He said he would name a replacement in coming days to chart "a new and fresh course for the agency."

Abbott named D'Andrea chair of the normally three-member body following the March 1 resignation of former PUCT Chair DeAnn Walker in the wake of the crisis. Commission member Shelly Botkin on March 8 resigned her position at the PUCT without explanation.

PUCT business is not prevented from moving forward due to vacancies, but it is unclear how regulation would proceed with no regulators in place.

Market-rate power provider Griddy Energy, which tied retail rates to a market index, on March 15 became the third Texas entity to file for bankruptcy protection as a result of the crisis. The company made national headlines when customers reported bills in excess of $10,000 for service during the crisis.

Griddy's bankruptcy filing calls for erasing $29.1 million in customer debt as part of the company's liquidation, but in many cases the large amounts were automatically charged to customer bank accounts and credit cards. "Texas and Griddy will work in good faith to address relief for Texans who have already paid," Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement on his website.

CPS Energy, the municipally owned utility that serves San Antonio, on March 12 filed suit against ERCOT in Bexar County District Court for breach of contract, negligence and violation of the state constitution.

The Texas Department of State Health Services on March 15 reported preliminary data linking 57 deaths to the storm. The majority were associated with hypothermia, the report said. Additional causes include carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, fire, vehicle accidents and falls.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.