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Texas Legislators Work to Address Skyrocketing Energy Bills

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he and other state leaders are working quickly to address reports of many customers receiving bills for thousands of dollars for just a few days’ electricity service while the state was gripped by frigid temperatures. After the deadly winter storm that caused widespread blackouts, Abbott called an emergency meeting with state lawmakers on Saturday to find solutions for home owners and renters facing steep electricity bills. “We have a responsibility to protect Texans from spikes in their energy bills that are a result of the severe winter weather and power outages,” Abbot said in a statement following the meeting.

Likewise, the Public Utility Commission met on Sunday, signing two orders for energy providers. One order directs providers to temporarily stop disconnecting customers from power or water because they have not paid. The other order stops companies from sending invoices or bill estimates to customers “until we work through issues of how we are going to financially manage the situation we are in.”

Some providers sell electricity at wholesale prices that rise in sync with demand, which skyrocketed as the record-breaking freeze gripped a state unaccustomed to extreme cold, killing at least two dozen people and knocking out power to more than 4 million people at its peak; some 30,000 people were still without power on Sunday, Abbott said.

The wholesale price of electricity flew up to the maximum allowable rate of $9,000 a megawatt hour for five days last week. This means that homes were charged $9 per kilowatt-hour compared to the usual cost of just 12 cents. In one extreme case, a homeowner received a $16,752 electric bill.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg condemned the idea of residents having to be stuck with the high costs. “It would be unconscionable for bills to go up and bills to be put on the backs of residents of the state that have been suffering and freezing in their homes for the last week through no fault of their own. This was a total failure by the state’s energy management and they need to be held accountable and in doing so, certainly not put the cost of this crisis on the backs of Texans,” Nirenberg told CNN. “You know, as far as I’m concerned that bill should be sent to ERCOT and there will be hell to pay if there is any notion that the residents of this state should pay for this disaster.”

Later this week, House and Senate committees will convene to investigate how outages happened and what roles entities like the Electric Reliability Council of Texas played in those power failures. “Thursday begins the questioning of the stakeholders involved to find out if anything went wrong, what went wrong, who’s to blame, and more importantly, what solutions moving forward we can do as a state Legislature … to make sure this absolutely never happens again,” said state Rep. Craig Goldman, a Fort Worth Republican who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee.

Whether or not ERCOT can be held financially liable remains to be seen. ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

One lawsuit filed over the weekend claims ERCOT–as well as the retail provider Entergy Texas–is liabile in the death of 11-year-old Christian Pavon. In the suit, the two entities are accused of failing to protect the state’s independent power grid from a historic deep freeze that left millions without electricity, heat and water for days.

“The power providers, long before any of us, knew that they would not have sufficient power to protect us and they didn’t tell us that,” said Tony Buzbee, the attorney who filed the $100-million suit on behalf of Pavon’s mother. “You have people that died because of that. It’s just not acceptable. We’re going to hold people accountable.”

So far, at least 58 people have died in the two major winter storms since Feb. 14. More than half of the deaths — 32 — have been reported in Texas, where President Biden has since declared a major disaster. Authorities say the death count could rise as wellness checks in coming days reveal the full magnitude of the disaster.