Texas power debacle not likely in Georgia says Public Service Commissioner

Published 9:56 am Wednesday, March 17, 2021

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Would you like to hear an encouraging word? How about “No!”

That was the succinct reaction from Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tricia Pridemore when I asked her if what happened in Texas where hell and most everything else froze over, could happen here.

Pridemore, a member of the state’s utility regulator since 2018, gave me a short course the other day on how Georgia’s energy planning and execution is designed to withstand the kind of horror Texans went through when a massive ice storm hit the state and much of the eastern half of the country in early February.

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In Texas, some 5 million people were without power, over 8 million were having to boil their water, dozens of deaths were reported, food in short supply, fire hydrants unusable and to top it off, some customers were greeted with electric bills in the thousands of dollars.

Pridemore says that much of the problem goes back to how Texas operates its power system. “Texas is a deregulated system,” she says. “On paper that sounds great. It sounds like they are constantly giving the ratepayers the lowest possible price. The challenge with that is since deregulation in Texas in the 1990s to now, power companies have made limited to no investment into their system. There’s no incentive for the companies to constantly innovate.”

At the Public Utility Commission in Texas, there is a person whose job is to find the lowest price per watt from 19 electric generators each day. The companies are pitted against each other. “It’s a giant eBay auction every day,” Pridemore says.

A longtime Republican appointed to the PSC by Gov. Nathan Deal, Pridemore says, “People think Republicans want to be for the lowest cost, which I certainly do, but there is a balance between having the lowest cost and making investments that’s actually going to help the system perform better.”

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. that operates its own electric grid, making it difficult to get power from other regions. Georgia is a part of the Eastern grid system which reaches from Canada to Florida. Pridemore says, “We have the ability to transmit electricity from another state if we need it,” such as at times like the infamous Snowmaggedon of 2014 and Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Remember that during those times, the power companies were still generating power, it just wasn’t getting to the end user because of downed power lines. Texas wasn’t generating power at all and because their grid is intrastate-only, they had nowhere to go to get power.

Pridemore says Georgia asks its utilities – Georgia Power, which serves some 6 million customers in the state, the 41 Electric Membership Cooperatives which serve 4 million and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia with some 600,000 consumers – to do “reserve margin studies” to ensure adequate levels of power in the hottest and coldest periods of the year, like a sweltering day in August when everyone is operating their air conditioners to a frigid day in January when folks crank up the heat.

Georgia Power, the EMCs and MEAG work extremely well together, Pridemore says. “There is a tightness in how the system works with government and the three entities. We don’t pit them against one another.”

The Public Service Commission looks at power generation in a 30-year period, broken into 10-year increments. “This is how we decide how much we are going to invest in generation,” Pridemore says, “where and what kind.”

In terms of energy sources, it is diversified. Georgia Power’s capacity mix is 50 percent natural gas, 24 percent nuclear, 13 percent coal, 4 percent solar and a smattering of wind. The commissioner says the Plant Vogtle nuclear facility in Waynesboro, which is jointly owned by Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power Corporation, Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities, remains on track for completion within the PSC-approved schedule for Unit 3 this November and Unit 4 in November 2022.

In summation, Pridemore says that unlike Texas where there is plenty of finger-pointing among all parties as to who was responsible for the massive outage, “In Georgia, the ratepayers have a say in how decisions are being made on their behalf. If they think I am doing a good job representing them, they will reelect me. If not, they will find someone else to do it.” After hearing how much more efficiently our power system operates in Georgia as compared to the debacle in Texas, she has my vote.