Now that the lights are back on in Texas, the state has to figure out who’s going to pay for the energy crisis that plunged millions into darkness last week. It will likely be ordinary Texans. The price tag so far: $50.6 billion, the cost of electricity sold from early Monday, when the blackouts began, to Friday morning, according to BloombergNEF estimates. That compares with $4.2 billion for the prior week.
If prior U.S. power market failures are any guide, Texans could be on the hook for decades. Californians, for example, have spent about 20 years paying for the 2000-2001 Enron-era power crisis, via surcharges on utility bills.
CPS Energy, which is owned and run by the city of San Antonio, said on Twitter it was looking into ways to spread costs for the last week over the next 10 years. That didn’t sit well with its customers, who railed against the company’s proposal during a board meeting on Monday.
“Spreading the cost of this event over a decade is unacceptable,” said Aaron Arguello, an organizer with Move Texas. “Customers are already in debt with student loans, mortgages and other payments.”
Gas utilities usually pass the costs onto customers at the end of the monthly billing cycle, said Toby Shea, a senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service. Municipal utilities, co-ops and regulated power providers have the ability to spread out costs over a longer time-frame. “It’s very easy for a government to spread this out for many years and even a few months,” he said.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Paula Gold-Williams said last week the company may also issue bonds to help pay for the natural gas it bought at inflated prices. Some utilities are looking to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in liquidity to spread out costs for 10 to 20 years, said Scott Sagen, an associate director in U.S. public finance at S&P Global Ratings. Rayburn Country Electric Cooperative Inc., for example, has fully drawn its $250 million syndicated line of credit and has recently entered into a $300 million bilateral line of credit with National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp. for one year, according to an S&P report published Monday.
A number of utilities are in talks with their banks to get liquidity to pay off their current debts so they can then take out a bridge loan that they’ll convert to long-term bonds. “They’re trying to smooth out these costs as much as possible and provide cover for their customers,” Sagen said.