Ann de Rouffignac
HOUSTON, Nov. 2, 2001 — Texas lawmakers sparred over whether the Texas competitive electricity market will be ready to open on schedule in January during a Friday hearing.
But most legislators and state regulators appeared confident systems will be in place, despite some witnesses’ reservations during a hearing before the Electric Utility Restructuring Legislative Oversight Committee.
“I think Texans need to understand that competition is going to happen,” Sen. David Sibley (R-Waco) said. “If nobody comes forward with a fatal flaw that would put it off, there is no reason to delay competition.”
Tom Noel, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the Texas grid operator, said he has no concern about moving forward. “I think it can open tomorrow,” he said.
Max Yzaguirre, chairman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, also expressed confidence that systems were ready but added the final determination will not be made by the PUC until midDecember.
Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) said he was put off by the preliminary rush to judgment since ERCOT still has pending software and billing problems to solve. Because the pilot intended to test these systems got off to a late start, it’s not clear if the bills are accurate.
“I get the impression that regardless of what takes place, this market is going to open. ‘Legislators get it’. This market is opening,” said Turner. “Frankly, I find that insulting.”
CoChairman Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) said he had “utmost confidence” the market would be ready, but he wasn’t quite ready to sign off yet. “I’m not ready to say we are ready. I’m not ready to say we aren’t ready either,” Wolens said.
But Sibley said there is no reason to delay or have more contested hearings. “Why have an autopsy when nobody has died?” he asked.
The Friday hearings revealed ERCOT must still test new computer software for the new market to function. The software governs the transfer of customer metering data that is first read by the utilities, transferred to ERCOT, and then is given to the retail provider serving the customer. Testing of the upgrade will not be completed until Nov. 23, said Noel.
An ERCOT official testified the new software presented “big challenges” for the grid operator. If the new software isn’t in place, many retailers will be excluded from the market because they haven’t tested or compliant with the previous version.
Witnesses also pointed to problems with getting billing data on a timely basis. They complained of a delay between when a retail electric provider receives the meter data and when the meter is actually read by the wires company.
The process is supposed to take 2-3 days at the longest, an ERCOT official said. ERCOT testified the meter data was being sent to the retailers according to the protocols. But Suzanne Bertin of New Power Co. said the data was not being received in a timely manner.
“We are not getting (the data) within 4 days,” she said. “This means billing is delayed. The customer does not get a bill on time.” Bertin explained that a retailer has to pay for power regardless if customers have paid their bill or even received a bill.
Currently, ERCOT and one of its subcommittees are working on an alternative way for the meter data to get passed through to the retailer. PUC Commissioner Brett Perlman expressed concern about the limited experience that the retail pilot had so far with the entire billing process.
“My biggest concern is lack of billing experience,” said Perlman. “There is a limited data set to base a conclusion on.”