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AARP Texas Letter to Legislators Regarding Joint Hearing on Electrical Blackouts

AARP Texas sent a letter to the members of the Texas House State Affairs and Energy Resource Committees today ahead of an expected Feb. 25 joint hearing. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan called the hearing to consider the factors that led to statewide electrical blackouts during the Winter Storm Uri.

Texas State Captol

The unprecedented weather event left millions of Texans without power and heat in subfreezing temperatures, and many went without essential services for days. Among the millions of Texans left to struggle without power and heat are the elderly and medically vulnerable.

“Without power and heat in their homes, and in many cases, also without water and food, millions of Texans are enduring a many-days’ arctic blast that is proving disastrous and deadly,” AARP Texas Director Tina Tran wrote. “Prolonged outages of electric and water service are an immediate and major threat to public safety.”

The letter urges legislators to seek answers to not only why the electrical grid failed, but also why the state did not have failsafe systems in place to ensure that older and medically vulnerable Texans had reliable access to heat and power during the crisis.

“Texans expect and deserve reliable, safe and affordable utility service, which is essential to health, safety and economic welfare,” the letter states. “Clearly, Texans are not getting what they expect and need. AARP Texas urges this Joint Committee to vigorously explore solutions, from structural to granular. Your examination must include input from a wide swath of experts and everyday Texans who depend on affordable, safe and reliable utility systems.”

 

The text of the letter follows:

Dear Committee Members:

Without power and heat in their homes, and in many cases, also without water and food, millions of Texans are enduring a many-days’ arctic blast that is proving disastrous and deadly. Prolonged outages of electric and water service are an immediate and major threat to public safety.

AARP Texas, on behalf of our 2.3 million members and all older Texans, is writing to voice deep concern about this life-threatening emergency and is calling for action, answers and accountability.

Such a widespread disaster must never happen again.The failure of our state’s electrical grid, and problems that erupted in getting certain generators to function, along with water system failures, have imperiled lives and failed to meet the demands of critical facilities, such as nursing homes, hospitals and dialysis centers.

Texans deserve better.

There’s much to be learned about this crisis, but it’s apparent that our utility system has failed in many ways and on many levels. This devastating situation clearly did not occur because of any single action nor can it be solely attributed to the forces of nature. As such, AARP Texas encourages your close examination on several fronts, including but not limited to the failure of systems in place to protect vulnerable Texans who are dependent on power:

·         There are many vulnerable Texans living in their homes who need electricity for oxygen and other life-sustaining equipment. These are seniors, adults, and children with complex medical conditions being cared for in their own homes. The state recognized the importance of electricity for this population and put in place certain protections, including notification of interruptions of service to Critical Care or Chronic Condition Residential Customers (PUC Subst. Rule 25.497 (c)(2)).  However, it is unclear if required notifications were made during this electricity emergency.  Further, the Legislature should explore whether these medically fragile Texans should also receive priority for restoration during power loss.
 
·         Nursing homes and assisted living facilities who care for vulnerable individuals should be prioritized for having electricity restored. Nursing homes are required to have generators, but they are only required to keep four hours of fuel on hand. Assisted living facilities with more than 16 beds are only required to have 90 minutes of auxiliary power. Smaller assisted living facilities (16 beds or less) have no requirement for an alternative power source. According to press reports at least one in five nursing homes reported emergencies during this crisis. It’s our understanding that state law requires that these facilities be prioritized for power restoration. It appears that notifications and prioritization did not occur; why wasn’t that happening?

·         The State of Texas hosts the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR) which is a registry that is intended to provide emergency planners and emergency responders with information on the needs in their community during an emergency. How local emergency planners and responder uses the list varies across the state. Registering on the list is encouraged for: people with disabilities, people who have limited mobility; people who have communication barriers; people who require additional medical assistance during an emergency event; people who need help with personal care; and people who require transportation assistance. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are required to register and home health agencies are encouraged to register their clients. How was this list utilized during this electricity emergency? Were those registered on the list contacted by anyone? Was it used to do welfare checks, prioritize restoring of power, or identifying individuals who may need help getting to a shelter?

PUC Subst. Rule 25.53 requires transmission and distribution utilities, power generation companies, retail electric providers, ERCOT and electric cooperatives to create and maintain emergency operation plans.  Among other items, these plans contain:

o    a registry of critical load customers,

o    the process for providing assistance to critical load customers in the case of an unplanned outage,

o    the process for communicating with critical load customers,

o    a plan for communicating with the public, media, customers and critical load customers at the onset of an electricity emergency,

o    curtailment priorities, procedures for shedding load, rotating outages and planned interruptions, and

o    priorities for restoration of service.  

Further, an electric utility that operates an electric generation facility or a Power Generating Company shall, among other things, include in its plan:

o    a plan that addresses severely cold weather or severely hot weather,

o    a plan that addresses any known critical failure points, including any effects of weather design limits,

o    Priorities for recovery of generation capacity.

Given the systemwide failure and widespread confusion around many of these emergency operation plan elements, each entity required to develop these plans and the regulatory body overseeing them – the Public Utility Commission – should be held to account for plan shortcomings.  Especially given the relatively weak resource adequacy role regulators currently play in ERCOT, tools like emergency operations plans must be effective help ensure grid reliability.

Texans expect and deserve reliable, safe and affordable utility service, which is essential to health, safety and economic welfare. Clearly, Texans are not getting what they expect and need.

AARP Texas urges this Joint Committee to vigorously explore solutions, from structural to granular. Your examination must include input from a wide swath of experts and everyday Texans who depend on affordable, safe and reliable utility systems.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this grave matter.

 

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