Power providers on hot seat over rolling blackouts

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on February 15, 2011 at 8:36 PM

State senators grilled electric company executives Tuesday for leaving hundreds of thousands of Texans in the dark during the recent cold snap as they sought assurances that it won't happen again.

Among those in the hot seat, the CEO of Luminant, the Dallas-based company that operated some of the more than 80 generating units that could not handle the cold weather on February 2.

Senators seeking answers about the rolling blackouts learned that Luminant — the biggest power provider in the state — lost 11 coal and natural gas generating units that day.

Some of the outages were at new coal-fired plants that Luminant chief David Campbell called a learning experience.

"Even though it's designed to withstand the weather, you have vulnerability in these plants and you do learn when you go through the hard weather to do it," he told lawmakers at the Tuesday hearing. "Thousands of pipes — for better or for worse — that are outdoors."

But senators — frustrated with rolling blackouts without warning on a winter day when bitter cold was in the forecast — wanted to hear more than it was a hard lesson.

"We have a day where it hits 20 degrees and everything just blows up and goes to hell in a handbasket?" asked Sen. Mike Jackson (R-LaPorte).

Luminant says, knowing what it does now, it will improve the weatherization of its generating plants.

But with limited state oversight in the deregulated electric market, some senators wanted a commitment that Luminant will follow through.

"We as the owner and operator have to make sure we've got thorough and effective weatherization plans," Campbell said.

Oncor, the power delivery company that carried out the blackouts ordered by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told senators more than 1.3 million customers in North Texas were impacted by the blackouts.

"So no fire, police, hospital... they're not notified before they're cut off? You just cut off?" asked Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston).

"That's correct," said Brenda Pulis, Oncor's senior vice president of distribution. "In the load shed process, we are trying to keep the system from collapsing."

Under questioning from senators, Oncor said in the future it can issue e-mails and calls to law enforcement to prepare them when it learns that ERCOT might call for rolling blackouts.

Beyond the lawmakers, several state and federal investigations of the sudden blackouts are under way.

E-mail bwatson@wfaa.com

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