New Texas rule aims to reduce the pain of power outages

In a bid to curb massive power outages, the Texas Public Utility Commission has approved a new rule requiring electric utilities to file detailed plans for dealing with severe weather such as the record snowfall that blanketed the Dallas-Fort Worth area Feb. 12.

As a result of that storm, Oncor Electric Delivery -- the major transmission and distribution company serving North Texas -- faced the task of restoring power to about 500,000 customers over five days. Some residents went several miserable days without power -- shivering in the dark, going without showers for lack of hot water, and being forced to bear extra costs for eating out as food spoiled in their disabled refrigerators.

The new rule, announced Monday, "represents a big step forward," PUC Chairman Barry Smitherman said. "Utilities in Texas must continue preparing themselves and the electric grid so that reliability before, during and after bad weather is maintained."

Utilities must file the new reports no later than May 1. Information must be included about vegetation management plans (primarily tree trimming), pole construction standards, post-storm procedures to assess damage and improvements in data collection.

The rule requires utilities to provide annual progress reports and a complete plan update every five years. The PUC's action follows last year's passage of a bill that directs utilities to report annually to the commission all measures undertaken to lessen the impact of severe weather.

Quanta Technology, a consulting firm hired by the PUC, said power-restoration costs from storm damage in Texas have totaled $1.8 billion since 1998. Hurricanes Rita and Ike -- along with tornadoes, heavy winds, and ice and snow storms -- have caused big outages in recent years.

Oncor has said it spent about $25 million for power restoration as a result of the February snowstorm. The outage was worsened as a result of large, snow-laden tree limbs falling or sagging onto power lines, although Oncor said it spent $69 million in 2008 alone on vegetation management. The company's efforts have been made more difficult by residents who plant trees near power lines and fail to keep them properly trimmed.

The new rule applies not only to Oncor and other regulated transmission and distribution companies within the grid operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, but also to regulated investor-owned utilities outside the ERCOT grid. The rule does not apply to municipally owned utilities and electric cooperatives.

JACK Z. SMITH, 817-390-7724