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Troubled Texas retail pilot shut down for 2-day computer fix


By Ann de Rouffignac
OGJ Online Staff

HOUSTON, Aug. 16, 2001—The Electric Reliability Council of Texas shut down the troubled retail electricity pilot for 2 days this week to fix computer problems that have plagued the program for months. ERCOT Thursday said the glitches were fixed, but retailers said the error rate associated with processing customers who chose an alternative electric provider persist and are, in fact, worsening.

“We tested the systems and now we are very optimistic about the fixes,” said Heather Tindall, spokesperson for ERCOT, the grid operator. “We concluded 1,000 test switches yesterday.”

The retail pilot was supposed to start June 1. In the interim, a huge backlog of customers who signed up to participate but who have not been “switched” to new suppliers has accumulated. So far about 92,000 individuals have signed up for a new electric provider, but only a few hundred have actually been successfully switched to the new supplier.

ERCOT said earlier the backlog would be accommodated by mid-August, and the retail pilot would be fully functioning by September in anticipation of the market opening to full competition in January. Dogged by continued delays, ERCOT has stopped publicly setting dates for when the backlog will be worked off and when it will increase the rate at which it will accept new customers for processing from retailers.

Up to now, ERCOT has accepted 10 customers/day/retailer/utility territory. There are no plans to increase to 100/day as ERCOT previously promised.

“We don’t have a number of switches or a date of where we will be,” said Tindall.

Sources close to the new retailers said ERCOT is attempting to avoid political heat by not releasing a new schedule. They said it would show the pilot will not be fully functional until late September or early October, and the delay might set off a backlash.

These sources said ERCOT officials are evaluating the results of the switch requests processed Aug. 16 and Aug. 17 to determine if the rate can be stepped up Aug. 21.

Some retailers continue to be wary of accelerating the rate and have called for another suspension to eliminate the backlog and insure the computers are functioning correctly. Shell Energy Services, a unit of Shell Oil Co., Houston, complained to the Texas Public Utilities Commission error rates have risen instead of falling as hoped.

“This trend is significant because the statistics include the first week results of the ramped up switching rate of 10 customers per day per service area,” it said. “It is clear that even these low transaction volumes are proving too much for ERCOT or the TDSP [transmission and distribution utilities] systems to handle on a timely basis.”

Shell said ERCOT should consider another “suspension” or at the least, ramping down the number of switch requests permitted. The problems will soon become “unmanageable” at a 10/day rate, the company said.

Shell also expressed alarm over lengthy delays it has experienced in getting data needed to serve and bill new customers accurately. Of the 257 total switches submitted by Shell Energy, 108 are “missing” and 231 are still “pending” at ERCOT, the company reported. The retailer received initial meter readings for 26 customers but 70 are already receiving power.