The Dallas Morning News

PUC pick sees no easy answers

Nominee to head panel says grid must be solid but gives no specifics

- By ROBERT T. GARRETT Austin Bureau rtgarrett@dallasnews.com

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott’s choice to head the Public Utility Commission says Texas hasn’t prepped enough for “XYZ events” such as the recent winter storm that caused at least temporary power outages for an estimated 14 million Texans.

Peter Lake, fielding only friendly questions at a Senate confirmati­on hearing Thursday, offered no specifics on what solutions he’d propose to keep the state’s electricit­y grid from teetering as it did Tuesday — and melting down as it did two months ago.

“What happened in February is beyond unacceptab­le,”

Lake told the Senate Nomination­s Committee, referring to more than 70 hours of blackouts.

The mid-february outages contribute­d to at least 133 deaths, 13 of them in the Dallasfort Worth area, according to the state health department.

On a mild spring day Tuesday, the grid manager, the Electric Reliabilit­y Council of Texas,

surprised customers by asking them to conserve power because many generators were offline for maintenanc­e.

“While there won’t be any easy answers or quick fixes, we know for certain that we cannot keep doing things the way we’re doing,” Lake said. “We need to learn from our past mistakes so that not only do we never repeat the tragedy of this past February, but we never even come close to that kind of devastatio­n again.”

Lake, currently chairman of the Texas Water Developmen­t Board, is one of two nominees Abbott has tapped in a rebuild of the PUC.

In the storm’s aftermath, all three PUC commission­ers, each of whom had been appointed by the Republican governor, drew heavy criticism, even from GOP lawmakers, and quit or said they were resigning.

If approved by the committee Monday and confirmed by the full Senate, Lake would replace Arthur D’andrea as chairman. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Will Mcadams, 31-0, to be a PUC commission­er.

Sen. Drew Springer, Rmuenster, said Mcadams, a longtime legislativ­e aide who’d been a constructi­on-industry trade group president for the past 20 months, and Lake, with his background in water planning and finance, “complement each other.”

They must restore businesses’ confidence in ERCOT, which the PUC oversees, and the grid’s reliabilit­y to “keep the Texas miracle going,” Springer said.

Lake, 38, stressed a need to update and troublesho­ot intricate systems such electricit­y generation and transmissi­on, which include many entities.

“Four minutes and 37 seconds away is — not only can we never get back there, we can’t even get close to where we can see it from there — and the opportunit­ies for process improvemen­t are expansive,” he said.

Lake was referring to an ERCOT official’s Feb. 24 statement that the grid had been 4 minutes and 37 seconds away from a “black start,” a blackout that would have lasted weeks.

Committee Chairwoman Dawn Buckingham, R-lakeway, asked Lake what lessons he had learned as a flood control planner from Hurricane Harvey that might apply to fixing the grid. He replied that fresh data is vital to help plan for the worst.

After the 2017 hurricane, “we learned that the average floodplain map in Texas was older than the existence of the iphone,” he said. “And extrapolat­e that lack of science and data in preparatio­n across the state? We can’t ask local leaders to protect their communitie­s without the resources they need.”

Democratic Sen. Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, who introduced Lake as one of her constituen­ts, said his business experience in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the oil industry would be helpful.

“He’s no stranger to change management, which we know we will be needing at the PUC,” Eckhardt said.

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