A Proposal to Buy the State’s Largest Electric Utility is Collapsing. Here’s Why.

Written on: April 12, 2017

An out-of-state company’s $18 billion bid to buy the largest electric utility in Texas could be considered again by state regulators on April 13.

But the Texas Public Utility Commission already has signaled its opposition once — and given current realities, don’t expect that to change. [See update, below.]

At issue is a bid by Florida-based NextEra to buy Oncor, which serves about 10 million electric customers in the north and central parts of the state. Because Oncor is a public utility and a monopoly, any change of ownership must meet regulatory approval.

But late last month the PUC unexpectedly found that NextEra’s proposal to buy the Texas utility was not in the public interest. For the state regulators, their staff and a host of interested parties, the proposed partial dismantling of the Oncor “ring fence” by NextEra became a bridge too far.

That is, the NextEra proposal called for the weakening of several financial covenants that help protect Oncor from any economic instability of its unregulated affiliates. These covenants are known generically as the Oncor “ring fence.”

Two key provisions of the Oncor’s ring fence — that the Texas utility maintain a board that is truly independent from its unregulated parent, and that a clear separation of debt exists between Oncor and its unregulated parent — were lacking in the proposed NextEra deal, according to critics.

“Unfortunately, these are the issues on which NextEra is not willing to budge,” said Donna Nelson, the PUC chair.

Geoffrey Gay, general counsel for the Steering Committee of Cities Served by Oncor, told the Dallas Morning News that he doesn’t expect the NextEra deal to go forward — at least not anytime soon. Mr. Gay said the only way ahead now was for the company to drop many of its key demands, and also to obtain unanimous approval from other involved parties.

“Both those possibilities are so remote that it’s safe to call this deal (over),” he said.

UPDATE: As expected, the commission rejected the deal during its April 13 meeting.

— R.A. Dyer

What is the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power?

R.A. Dyer is a policy analyst for TCAP,  a coalition of cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.

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