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Texas Senate looks to move forward with House power grid reform bills

Pike Electric service trucks line up after a snow storm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Pike Electric service trucks line up after a snow storm on February 16, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
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After the February winter storms knocked out power for millions of Texans and killed potentially hundred, state lawmakers will take a key step Monday to get closer to passing reform measures aimed at the agencies in charge of the state's power grid.

The Senate Committee on Jurisprudence will discuss five bills the House passed in late March, many of which would adjust the power structure and review process of ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

House Bill 10 spells out the leadership structure of ERCOT, requiring the board to have at least three governor appointees, one lieutenant governor appointee, and one house speaker appointee, in addition to the 11 other members already outlined in current code. These members will serve staggered two-year terms, and must be a resident of the state.

During and immediately after the storms, state lawmakers expressed concerns from their constituents of ERCOT board members not being Texas residents.

"After the Valentine's Day storm and failure of our electric system, many Texans were alarmed to learn that many members of ERCOT's board were not residents of Texas, and were not experiencing the same hardships as many of our fellow Texans were experiencing at that time. Further, many legislators were frustrated by the lack of accountability on the board, especially regarding the members of the board that were the unaffiliated members," said state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who is the Senate sponsor for HB 10.

Since the storms and outages, leadership for both ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, or PUC, have resigned or were fired at the urging of state leaders.

Perhaps a bigger area of concern than the makeup of the ERCOT board was the fact many plants were not appropriately winterized. House Bill 11 outlines weatherization requirements for utility providers.

RELATED: City of Austin Winter Storm Task Force listens to public input on effects of winter freeze

The bill requires power generators and electricity providers to put measures in place to still provide generation even in extreme weather events - both hot and cold. Unlike Senate counterpart SB 3, the House bill does not have this weatherization requirement for gas suppliers. Also unlike SB 3, the House bill originally did not spell out penalties for those in violation of these requirements, but an amendment was later adopted that authorized the Public Utility Commission of Texas to hand down penalties for not complying with this law.

"We know lack of weatherization and preparedness was not the only issue in the electric failures, but it was certainly a part. This bill, HB 11, continues the legislature's work to fix our electric system," said Schwertner, also the sponsor of HB 11, as well as the author of SB 3.

Violators of the Senate bill could face fines of up to $1 million per day not in compliance. The amendment in HB 11 does not specifically state what the penalty could be.

Another House bill will address a different key component outlined in SB 3.

House Bill 12 orders the study of a statewide alert system for power outages. Senate Bill 3 establishes this kind of system.

One of the biggest complaints during the February storms was a lack of communication as to how widespread and long the outages would be, something the since-ousted president and CEO of ERCOT even admitted to while being questioned in a series of post-storm committee hearings.

"Winter Storm Uri exposed the shortcomings with infrastructure and preparedness in times of extreme weather, including widespread communication failures. Texans were left in the dark both literally and figuratively," said state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, who introduced the bill to committee in place of state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who could not make it to Monday's meeting.

Senators are also going to consider a House bill that would establish the Texas Energy Disaster Reliability Council. House Bill 13 will have this agency prevent extended power outages due to disasters, implement procedures to manage these power emergencies, maintain records of critical infrastructure facilities that need to maintain service in a disaster, coordinate fuel delivery to electric generation providers during a disaster, monitor supply chains for the electric grid to minimize service disruptions, and study and make recommendations on methods to maintain the reliability of the electric grid and gas supply networks during disasters.

This council must also submit a report every even-numbered year on the reliability and stability of the state's electric supply chain, including recommendations on how to strengthen the supply chain and decrease the frequency of extended power outages caused by disasters.

The final House power grid bill the Senate committee discussed was HB 2586, which requires a yearly audit of ERCOT to be sent to the PUC, which must be published online and sent to the state auditor and members of the legislative committees with primary jurisdiction over the PUC.

The committee unanimously approved HB 2586, sending it to the full Senate floor, but left all other bills pending for the time being.

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Power grid bills have generally received bipartisan support and unanimous approval in both the House and Senate this session, after Gov. Greg Abbott made these legislative priorities in response to last month's winter storms knocking almost half of the state's generation offline, leading to outages for almost 70 percent of Texans, according to a new University of Houston study.

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