AGENCY PARTNER: PUBLIC UTILITY COMMISSION
WHAT ASSETS DOES THE PUBLIC UTILITY COMMISSION BRING TO THE TABLE?
The Public Utility Commission (PUC) has an Emergency Management Response Team of 13 members who help manage emergencies involving power and phone outages. Its Homeland Security Director, Emergency Management Coordinator and members of the Emergency Management Team communicate regularly with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and all utilities to help relay information about utility outages and restoration plans.
WHAT DOES THE PUC DO FOR THE STATE BEFORE, DURING AND FOLLOWING DISASTERS?
The PUC preparedness efforts include requiring electric and telecommunications utilities to file an Emergency Operations Plan. The plan includes service restoration priorities according to national standards, a process for contacting the public and a list of all current emergency staff contacts within the utility. During a disaster, which almost always involves electricity and phone outages, the PUC works to coordinate efforts among utilities, emergency workers and the public. The PUC has an Emergency Management Team that helps coordinate the PUC’s response to events during large emergencies. The team is led by the PUC’s Homeland Security Manager and Emergency Management Coordinator. Work continues after a disaster event until all power is restored. In some cases, the PUC will launch projects after events to get more information and determine if new regulations are needed to provide better service in future disasters.
HOW DOES THE PUC COORDINATE WITH TDEM IN AN EMERGENCY SITUATION?
During a severe outage event, the PUC maintains 24/7 staffing during activations at the State Operations Center and serves as a liaison between utilities and emergency service providers. The PUC also works to coordinate activity among utilities in addition to ensuring the flow of information from utilities to state emergency workers. The PUC has developed and maintains a database that allows utilities to submit and update outage and restoration information on a secure system. Reporting is required at least twice daily and more frequently if needed by TDEM.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LESSONS LEARNED FOLLOWING THE 2011 WINTER STORM IN TEXAS?
One lesson actually was more of a reminder. When large-scale outages occur, they can cascade rapidly, almost instantaneously. A rapid response is essential. The cold snap in February 2011 also prompted the state’s major electric grid operator, ERCOT, to enhance communications regarding outages. It developed a more sophisticated and far-reaching outage notification system that can include any emergency agency in the ERCOT region. ERCOT also is now using social media including Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone texting to deliver information about power emergencies. Power plant operators learned what improvements are needed at their facilities to avoid cold-weather breakdowns and strengthened their severe weather preparedness plans.
WHAT OTHER ROLES DOES THE AGENCY SERVE DURING NON-DISASTER TIMES?
The PUC serves as the state regulator for the electric and telecommunications industries by developing regulatory rules of the road based on state law. The agency also determines electricity rates in regulated jurisdictions, maintains a customer protection division that resolves complaints, and enforces state rules and law through the Oversight and Enforcement Division and its penalty authority. In addition, the PUC has budget authority over ERCOT. The Homeland Security Director and Emergency Management Coordinator are the PUC’s designated liaisons to the TDEM and groups such as the State Emergency Management Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Drought Preparedness Council as well as various other meetings and committees. PUC staff helps TDEM to update Annex L of the Texas Emergency Management Plan, provides input to the Texas Implementation Plan, and participates in the development of other plans and policy as it relates to critical infrastructure and electric utility information.