Some angry members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources took turns Monday verbally beating on state utility commissioners for contemplating fundamental change in the way the Texas electricity market operates.
They’re right to be upset. If the kind of changes contemplated by the three-member Public Utility Commission are needed, the Legislature should be part of that decision. Lawmakers deregulated the market for electrical power in Texas in 1999.
Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, is the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and co-authored the deregulation bill. He said the PUC is “dysfunctional” and that the deregulated electricity market is “working pretty well.”
The online Texas Tribune quoted Fraser as saying the Legislature gave the PUC “broad authority to keep the lights on” but not “unbridled authority to do an entire redesign.”
The action under consideration by the commission is a radical departure from what the Legislature designed.
Last month, the commission voted 2-1 to move toward requiring electrical suppliers to maintain specified levels of reserve power that would be tapped during times of peak demand, usually hot summer days when Texans’ air conditioners are running full blast.
The next step would be a shift from the current “electricity only” market design, wherein power suppliers are paid only for the amount of electricity their customers decide to use, to a “capacity” market, in which those customers must pay suppliers extra to build extra generating capacity for peak times.
The PUC has been discussing changes for several months, saying that the state runs the risk of allowing power reserves to fall too low. If demand peaks at a time when some generators are off-line for maintenance, that could mean some large power users could be taken off the grid temporarily or the state could face rolling electricity blackouts.
PUC commissioners are scheduled to take up the discussion again in January, and the agency expects to have the results of a major outside study to help guide its work.
It’s clear that some powerful lawmakers want to take part in these important decisions. Absent a pending emergency, putting off action until after the 2015 legislative session seems smart.