Public Utility Commission grills ERCOT top exec on rolling blackouts

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by BRAD WATSON

WFAA

Posted on February 10, 2011 at 8:48 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 11 at 1:30 AM

The Public Utility Commission began flexing its regulatory muscle Thursday in Austin over ERCOT and those rolling blackouts in North Texas last week.

ERCOT is the agency that manages most of the state’s power grid, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

ERCOT's top executive admitted the agency failed in adequately telling the public and top state officials what was going on when the grid faced the risk of power demand overwhelming supply.

The rolling blackouts left thousands in North Texas in the cold and those customers did not know their electricity would be shut off.

The PUC, that oversees ERCOT, wanted to know why, too. So the committee went straight to the top and questioned ERCOT's top executive, Trip Doggett.

"Do you believe that ERCOT's handling of communications to the media to the officials to the public for this last event could be termed as successful or adequate?" asked Donna Nelson, PUC Commissioner.

"No, no I do not," replied Doggett.

Doggett said as power units across the state tripped off from the cold weather the agency's control room operators talked. Those operators allegedly talked to executives who talked to ERCOT media relations people about what to tell the public about the rolling blackouts ordered at 5:43 a.m. on Feb. 2.

By 6:13 a.m. power providers put out their own news releases before ERCOT told the PUC or the public.

There were a series of questions to point out the haphazard way information crept out as the rollouts started and after.

"So all of the conversations with the three of us (PUC commissioners) took place after the City of Austin had already released its press release about the rolling blackouts?" asked Nelson. "Do you have any reason to believe that's not accurate?"

"No, I don't have any reason to believe that's not accurate," Doggett said.

Information released to PUC commissioners, staff, top state officials local law enforcement and the media were set out in a matrix written after rolling blackouts startled the state grid in May, 2006.

Doggett acknowledged his responsibility is to notify PUC commissioners which he testified he did after the rolling blackouts began.

ERCOT didn't put out its own release until 6:54 a.m. that morning, more than an hour after ordering the managed interruptions.

Doggett said it has made changes to put out information sooner including automated phone calls to officials and training 50 employees to handle media calls.

Radio and TV stations were left with only terse ERCOT emails or news releases from which to pass on information to listeners and viewers.  Calls who wanted a spokesperson to go live to explain what was happening were directed to an ERCOT voice mail.

"Have someone out to speak to the media earlier in the process when we're going through the event," Doggett promised.

The PUC also questioned if ERCOT should have known trouble lay ahead when it sent an email at 3:21 a.m. that morning forecasting demand would outstrip supply but expressed only minor concern.

Doggett said he would not second guess his operators.

He got a stern warning from Nelson.

"If in fact they were wrong it's your job to second guess," Nelson said. "You're the CEO of ERCOT.  If they're wrong and they made a mistake you are the one who's ultimately responsible."

Doggett better be ready for more scrutiny. The ERCOT board looks at the blackouts Monday. Two senate committees have hearings Tuesday in Austin.

Email: bwatson@wfaa.com

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