State of Texas: ERCOT staffing shortages could affect future deadlines to improve electric grid –

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Electric Reliability Commission of Texas officially filed its final winter readiness inspections report on Tuesday, stating that 321 of the 324 generators it inspected are compliant with the new weatherization requirements.

Power generators were required to weatherize by Dec. 1, 2021, after lawmakers passed major grid reforms in the spring following the February freeze. Between Dec. 2 and 22, ERCOT hired contractors to perform inspections at 302 generation resources and 22 transmission substations which account for 85% of the grid’s total power.

Of the 302 generators inspected, ERCOT’s inspectors initially identified potential deficiencies at only ten, which represents about 1.7% of the total ERCOT generation. Now, Tuesday’s report outlines that number is down to 3, or 0.4%.

That Dec. 1 weatherization requirement for power generators, though, was just one of the first deadlines the council is required to meet.

Last week, ERCOT outlined concerns about staffing shortages, and how that could hinder their ability to meet future grid reliability deadlines ahead of winter 2023.

The PUC, in turn, advised ERCOT hire contractors in the meantime.

“We know that you’re squeezed on staff,” PUC commissioner Will McAdams said Thursday. “We are interested in you leveraging your position with third parties moving forward.”

But Lewin noted this shortage could signal long-term hiring problems for ERCOT.

“The scapegoating of ERCOT by the governor and the legislature in the days, weeks and months after the outages are going to make it really hard for them to attract talent. I think that this is going to be a problem for years to come,” Doug Lewin, an energy analyst, said.

“All you’ve been hearing is how terrible the organization is, what a horrible job it’s done. ERCOT clearly had problems or continues to have problems, but they received a much larger share of the blame than they actually deserved. And they’re gonna have a really hard time attracting talent,” Lewin said.

ERCOT did hire contractors to complete their inspections for weatherization by Dec. 31, on time. But, the board Monday also weighed bringing those inspector jobs in-house next year, which would just add to the current hiring difficulties.

“It’s a complicated system,” Lewin said, drawing an analogy to a piece of clothing. “You pull on a thread on one side and it starts coming apart on the other. They’re pulling on all these threads at once and not taking into account what that does to the whole.”

On the day before submitting its final weatherization & inspection report, the ERCOT leaders briefed the new board of directors on weatherization progress so far.

“We found 10 potential deficiencies at dispatchable generation sites. We didn’t find any at the intermittent renewable resource sites. We found six at the transmission service providers facilities,” weatherization and inspection director David Kezell outlined.

Those generators will all be forced to update their weatherization implementations, or face $1 million dollar fines per incident, per day, according to the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

ERCOT is also working with 54 out of nearly 850 power generators that have filed good-faith non-compliance requests, which means they are working to weatherize, but ran into systematic or equipment delays before the Dec. 1 deadline.

“We expect most of them to be completed in the first quarter of 2022. There could be some that go longer due to equipment unavailability, they simply can’t get what they need to fix something,” Kezell explained.

ERCOT requires the generators to check in twice monthly, once on the 15th, and once at the end of the month.

When asked how our grid would fare if Texas faced a similar storm to last year’s this winter, Kezell replied, “That’s the $10,000 question, isn’t it?” 

“I feel very confident that it would shrink substantially. I won’t hazard a guess as to what percentage of it but I believe it would shrink substantially,” Kezell said, but would not put a metric on how many fewer outages we would see.

That’s in part due to factors outside of ERCOT’s control, like natural gas suppliers, which the Texas Railroad Commission regulates. One board member called out the more lax requirements to weatherize directly.

“I know they’ve got a little bit extra time to comply. But to me, that is sort of the big, glaring weakness right now,” he said.

Energy analysts agree that’s one of the biggest issues the grid faces right now.

“So much of the focus of the activity in the 11 months since the outages has been on power plants, and so little on gas supply, it is entirely possible that all of the work done on the power plant side really is worth very little, because gas supply is not weatherized, and you can’t get gas to the plant,” Lewin said after the board’s meeting Monday.

Rejected mail-in ballot applications bring concern for impact on elderly, disabled voters

A back-and-forth between Texas elections officials over “high” levels of rejected mail-in ballot applications has left advocates worried about the impact on elderly or disabled voters.

Molly Broadway, a training and technical support specialist for voting rights for Disability Rights Texas, said she was bracing for an influx of calls to their voter hotline after the Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir announced her office had rejected as many as 50% of the applications they had received.

In a press conference on Tuesday, DeBeauvoir clarified that after a review, they believe about 27% of applications have been rejected. She blamed the new election law passed by lawmakers last fall and slammed the new restrictions, calling them “voter suppression.”

In response, Texas Secretary of State John Scott, “Travis County made the decision to reject these mail ballot applications before contacting our office. We call on Travis County to immediately review and re-examine the mail ballot applications in question to determine whether they were processed in accordance with state law, with the goal of reinstating and minimizing any disruption to eligible voters who have properly submitted their application for ballot by mail.”

DeBeauvoir emphasized the restrictions placed on elections officials when communicating with voters in Tuesday’s press conference, and she also stated “For people with disabilities, this is a big hurdle to get over.”

In addition to the new requirements for ID numbers on mail-in ballot applications, SB1 also increases potential criminal penalties for people who assist voters. They are required to fill out paperwork disclosing their relationship to that voter and must recite an expanded oath stating they did not “pressure or coerce” the voter. They must limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

Broadway said they planned to focus on educating and empowering voters to know the rules and changes under the new law.

“We are seeing a lot of hurdles that voters need to jump through, and not a lot of tools to help individual individuals jump through those hurdles. Or our goal is just to make sure voters know that they can still cast their ballot,” she said.

She also said their group was worried about how elections workers or poll watchers might respond to actions they perceive as breaking the law, which are actually allowed.

“Different needs require different forms of assistance,” she said. “They can misinterpret a proper form of assistance as illegal assistance.

The U.S. Justice Department has sued the state over these provisions, writing in the lawsuit that limits on assistance could affect those with disabilities.

Proponents of the legislation argued the changes make Texas elections safer and more secure.

“It’s always been kind of confusing on how to properly assist someone filling out an application or their ballot. But now, I think people are just generally more intimidated about how to do that,” Broadway worried. “The difference between now and then is that there is now explicit instructions about the punitive effects of not properly helping someone.”

Joel Quade, Executive Director of an Austin retirement community called The Village at The Triangle, said they have processes in place to ensure their staff can help residents without overstepping.

“We want to help them get the tools they need and then step away, so they can privately cast their votes,” he said.

They work with residents to ensure they have the most updated documentation necessary to register to vote in person, to apply for a mail-in ballot, or to try and vote absentee if they moved from another state. His staff also will help transport residents to the polls.

“Our oldest resident is 99, so they have lived through many, many ideations of the voter rights and causes through their lives, — and so they are very passionate about that topic,” he said of the residents.

Quade said he was not worried about the changes in his community, but acknowledged how other communities with higher acuity residents might have more concerns.

“I could certainly see…folks that are dealing with more disabled and perhaps in different settings where that could be really tricky,” he said.

‘Eventually, you just can’t do it anymore’ – retention rate drops for Texas teachers

New teachers in Texas are leaving after their first year at increasingly higher rates, an issue education advocates say is contributing to workforce and staffing issues.

In 2010, there was a 100% retention rate for first-year teachers, according to a 2021 teacher workforce report from the University of Houston and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation. Since then, that number has steadily decreased — with 49.8% of teachers leaving after their first year.

The National Education Association and National Parent Teachers Association called attention to this issue in a press conference Thursday, highlighting the need for more resources and support of educators.

“This was a challenge even before the pandemic when experts projected yearly shortfalls of over 100,000 teachers — the result of low pay, high stress, crumbling schools and challenging working conditions,” said Becky Pringle, president of the NEA.

Elisabeth Meyer, a special education teacher with Austin ISD, said she and a number of her colleagues are considering pursuing a different career path as the challenges become too much to bear.

“We are having to shoulder the burden of social problems. We have students in our classrooms that need counseling and need some psychological support that we’re not prepared to take on,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see that because we want the best for our students, and we want them to be healthy.”

It’s not only new teachers weighing whether to change careers. One in four teachers in America considered leaving their job by the end of last school year, according to a survey by a nonprofit, non-partisan research group, the Rand Corporation.

“I just need people to start listening to me and to start understanding that we know what we’re talking about as teachers,” Meyer said. “Because what’s going to happen is all of the teachers that really love it and care, we just can’t do anymore. And we’re gonna be in a serious crisis in a year or two.”

Aside from burnout, schools across Texas and the nation are facing shortages due to coronavirus outbreaks, fueled by a surge of the omicron variant. Those shortages have led to school closures, forcing parents and students to quickly change plans and revert back to online learning.

“Ninety-six percent of our schools [nationwide] reopened to in-person learning right after holidays and within a week, so many of them had to close down. Not just because of the spread of omicron, but because we just couldn’t get enough staff,” Pringle said.

In addition to teachers leaving after their first year, Pringle said they are also seeing droves of educators leaving mid-year.

“This is the tragic consequence of decades spent chronically underfunding education and shortchanging students,” she said.

“When you do not pay professionals in a way that reflects the important work they do for society, that has an impact on the way they believe they are seen by society,” Pringle said.

The Texas teachers workforce report gave a lengthy list of recommendations based on the findings — many of which suggest the state invests in more data collection and analysis to better understand these trends and better inform policymaking.

One key finding of teacher mobility and retention found educators were more likely to move to more well-funded campuses with students coming from higher economic backgrounds.

“Texas teachers are more likely to transition from campuses with higher levels of economic need than campuses with lower levels of economic need. This trend is concerning as it leaves students most

in need particularly vulnerable,” the report said.

While the NEA, PTA and report all highlighted the far-ranging issues facing educators — all noted that the problems end up hurting far more than just teachers.

“If we don’t address the well-being of educators, then the well-being of our students will suffer,” Pringle said. “Their learning, their growth and development and whether or not they will thrive and become those leaders we know they must be — those critical thinkers, those problem-solvers — we know the impact it will have on our students.”

Inflation raises costs for local bond projects, changes planning process

The City of Cedar Park is considering a May bond election that would cover projects in transportation, parks and recreation and public safety, but the total dollar amount is being looked at closely as the pandemic has caused some major market changes.

“A cost escalation was applied to determine the future costs,” said Kent Meredith, Cedar Park’s director of finance. “We were able to estimate that the future cost of the bond program will be about $158.8 million.”

The cost of the projects Cedar Park is considering would be about $125.3 million on today’s dollar, but officials are having to take into account what inflation will look like with time. City officials said they are anticipating a 5% increase to the hard and soft projects’ costs.

“I think a lot of us, some of us that have done home improvement projects over the last year, have realized materials have gone up, but we’re expecting that to level off,” said Cedar Park City Council Member Jim Penniman-Morin.

At Angelou Economics, an Austin-area economic consultant, experts said they expect the pandemic cost “scaries” to go down as well.

Executive Vice President Matt Patton said once supply chain issues shore up and the labor force levels out, inflated prices are expected to go down a bit. But until that happens, some city governments and local school districts who have issued bonds in the past are having to make some decisions.

“Local government leaders are responsible for keeping the lights on and making sure those essential services are going, so there might have to be some difficult decisions as to how that’s done,” Patton said. “But, certainly we don’t want to burden property owners with additional property taxes.”

In 2017, Austin Independent School District voters approved a $1 billion bond proposal with roughly $900 million coming from construction-related costs. The district chief of operations said roughly 85-95% of the construction projects have been completed, but the district has felt the clock tick.

“Since 2017 and up until now, we’ve been seeing about an 11% to 12% annual escalation cost, which means for every $100 million in construction-related projects, about $12 million is lost if not completed that year,” said Matias Segura, Austin ISD’s chief of operations.

There’s a variety of ways the district has had to makeup for inflated pandemic costs, like procuring different parties sooner, pushing projects up and breaking up bid packages. It’s all in an effort to not touch taxpayers bank accounts, Segura said.

“We do not have the ability to increase the tax rate, that is not happening,” said Segura. “What we do have to do is take budgets that were identified in 2017 and make it work for the project that we have committed to the voter to complete.”