Senators question electricity pricing plan - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Texas lawmakers rip utility commission over electricity market vote

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Leaders of the Public Utility Commission faced intense questioning Monday from skeptical and occasionally incredulous lawmakers over a decision by state energy regulators to back a plan that could restructure the Texas electricity market.

As tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained without power following a bruising weekend of nasty weather in Texas, utility commission chairwoman Donna Nelson defended to a Senate committee a disputed October vote as a move to safeguard electric reliability and avert  future blackouts due to inadequate supply.

By a 2-1 vote, the three-member PUC board last month signaled support of installing mandated levels of electric capacity. The move is a possible step toward so-called "capacity payments" in which generators are paid for extra capacity and not just for electricity sold.

Supporters say that would help guard against outages, such as during sweltering Texas summers when demand peaks as homeowners crank their air conditioners. More money could also encourage generators to build more plants and meet the demands of a rapidly growing Texas population.

But Republican Sen. Troy Fraser, who once angrily cut off Nelson and accused the commission of being "dysfunctional," blasted commissioners' concerns as baseless and accused the board of stepping outside its authority.

"It's nice for us to project the sky is falling. But we have to look at the reality of what we have, and the market is working pretty well," said Fraser, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Democrats also raised skepticism about the vote, including Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who this weekend announced her campaign for lieutenant governor in 2014.

Fraser, who helped design the current market that pays only when electricity is bought, is critical of paying generators to keep reserves. He says changing the market could cost consumers up to $4 billion a year.

Nelson balked at that number but did not offer her own estimate of potential costs passed down to homes and businesses. She said it was not her goal to "overprocure" electricity and that she supported doing a cost-benefit analysis before the commission acts.

"It has always been my goal to keep the market structure that we have. As chairman of the commission, I feel responsible for reliability," Nelson said. "All we're doing is exercising due diligence."

The commission is expected to take up the idea again in January.

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