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Wendy Davis joins PUC criticism over market vote

 

PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Skepticism over major possible changes to the Texas electricity market spilled into the governor's race Thursday when Democrat Wendy Davis joined bipartisan scolding of state energy regulators who haven't shown signs of backing down.

Davis said the Public Utility Commission overstepped its authority by recently signaling support of Texas shifting to what's called a capacity market. Critics say the change could cost ratepayers $4 billion without any assurance that the power will stay on during sweltering summer or frigid winters.

PUC Chairwoman Donna Nelson has disputed those cost estimates. She defends the idea as a sensible way to ensure that rapidly growing Texas will continue having enough power to serve millions of additional residents.

Davis joins the opposition more than a week after Republicans and Democrats pointedly questioned Nelson in what was a sometimes tense hearing at the Capitol.

"This is for the Legislature to decide. Not them," Davis said in a phone interview.

Power companies currently only make money when electricity is sold. Capacity payments give additional money for keeping mandated reserve power, which supporters say would guard against blackouts and promote construction of new plants.

Lawmakers say it would lead to higher electric bills without any guarantee the lights will stay on.

By a 2-1 vote in October, the three-member PUC board last month signaled support of installing mandated levels of electric capacity. The vote didn't implement any actual changes to the market, and the agency is scheduled to take up the matter again in January.

PUC spokesman Terry Hadley said Thursday the commission is in the process of answering lawmakers' questions and preparing for next month's meeting.

Under intense questioning last week from Republican Sen. Troy Fraser, Nelson said she wasn't trying to "over procure" electricity or create an impression that the state was running out of electricity. She said it has always been her goal to maintain the current market structure but said she also had a responsibility when it comes to reliability.

The swing vote in October was cast by Commissioner Brandy Marty, who was appointed two months earlier by Gov. Rick Perry and is his former chief of staff. She suggested to senators at last week's hearing that an unreliable electric system could impact Texas' ability to recruit businesses.

"I don't believe our system is failing," Marty testified last week. "But simply because something has never happened doesn't mean we shouldn't look at it very closely and make sure it never does."

Davis, a Fort Worth state senator who doesn't serve on any committees with direct oversight of the utility commission, questioned the need to create more capacity in Texas.

"The other aggravating piece of it for me is, the PUC's approach doesn't even necessarily solve the problem if there is one," Davis said. "There's no guarantee as they've proposed it that the new capacity would actually be built."

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