CPS Energy tries to assure customers it's ready for this winter at Tuesday virtual town hall

click to enlarge San Antonio neighborhoods suffered through intermittent power during February's winter storm. - SANFORD NOWLIN
Sanford Nowlin
San Antonio neighborhoods suffered through intermittent power during February's winter storm.
Top officials at embattled CPS Energy fielded questions from the public at a virtual town hall on Tuesday evening, insisting they learned from last February’s “unprecedented” freeze and are ready for this winter. 

“I can sit here and tell you that CPS has been focused and on the job,” said Rudy Garza, interim president of San Antonio's municipally owned utility. “We’ve been doing the things we need to do to ensure that our system is ready for at least as harsh a winter season as we saw last year.” 

The pressure is on. CPS Energy was excoriated for its handling of Winter Storm Uri, when the failure of energy utilities and the state’s power grid left millions of Texans without power and hundreds dead. The Dallas Fed has estimated the financial damages as high as $130 billion. 

The fallout has been unremitting since. CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams was the latest of a number of executives to resign in recent months, and the utility has faced further fire from environmental groups for its failure to close its dirtiest coal plant. 

To make matters worse, experts say the state hasn't taken the necessary steps to prepare for a similar storm. They also caution that climate change-induced conditions make it likely Texas will continue to experience severe winter weather.

Tuesday’s town hall gave San Antonians the opportunity to speak directly to CPS officials, which they did with with a surprising lack of verbal fireworks. The event also gave those officials a chance to talk up what they’ve done to prepare.

According to Chief Power, Sustainability and Business Development Officer Frank Almaraz, CPS has focused on making small, pragmatic upgrades to generator facilities and contingency plans. Among those upgrades are resealing insulation, adding heating equipment and lining up more natural gas storage. 

As another safeguard, CPS will eliminate January and February from its planned outage schedule, a change from past years when the system did maintenance work during typically mild winter months.  

Garza cited Mayor Ron Nirenberg's committee on emergency preparedness and the city's new municipal utilities committee as sources of input guiding the CPS's preparedness work. The utility also coordinated with the San Antonio Water System. 

While many questions from the virtual event's audience focused on preparations for the coming winter, one harkened back to the fallout from February’s storm. That attendee asked whether CPS customers would be forced to bear the cost of the disaster.   

Garza said CPS has paid $450 million of the roughly $1 billion it owes natural gas companies from the storm, adding that the organization is fighting alleged rice gouging by natural gas suppliers in court and at the state legislature. 

“We continue to fight the outrageous, extremely high, in some cases, we believe, illegal prices for natural gas that we saw during winter storm Uri,” Almaraz said. 

Garza said CPS's added costs from the freeze will be “spread out” in a bid not overburden customers on a monthly basis. 

Communication, lacking last winter, is another area of focus, CPS executives also said. At several points during the town hall, officials encouraged participants to update their contact information with the utility and engage in emergency planning. 

“We will be on much firmer footing this winter,” Almaraz said.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.