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Governor Enlists Department Heads, Energy CEOs to Protect Power Grid

4 min read

On the eve of the meteorological start of winter, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed executive orders Monday to help avoid an electrical grid crisis like the one that crippled Texas and spilled into surrounding states last February, when record cold and snow killed dozens of people and left millions shivering without power.

Hutchinson’s orders will help earmark federal infrastructure money, coordinate the state’s executive-branch auditors and create a statewide Energy Resources Council made up of utility experts, state officials and other stakeholders. The goal is better planning “during extreme weather and other emergencies that threaten the state’s power and communications grids,” the governor’s office said Tuesday morning.

“Each of these executive orders will improve coordination and help guide resources within state government,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “The Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee will recommend how to best use our portion of the federal money that is being returned to the state.”

The infrastructure committee, which is separate from the Energy Resources Council, will be led by Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment Secretary Becky Keogh. Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor and state Game and Fish Commission Director Austin Booth are also on the panel, along with a dozen other state officials.

The committee will review the $4 billion the state expects to receive under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden last month and make suggestions on how to prioritize and spend the money. Final spending decisions will be made by the legislature.

The grid crisis, experienced in Arkansas in the form of brief rolling blackouts, killed between 111 and 200 Texans, according to public safety agencies, including some people who froze to death without heat. Others died in accidents, or after medical equipment lost power in the blackout.

A future disruption of such severity appears far less likely in Arkansas, officials said in the weeks after the thaw, because the state is home to two vast regional transmission organizations with far more options to import power than Texas had: Southwest Power Pool and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator, both with operation centers in Little Rock. Officials in both systems told Arkansas Business that while they can never say never, they don’t expect a similar event – in part because experts analyzed February’s event and reacted by putting new plans in place. One key reality is that in Arkansas, the grid is more regulated and power generation sources more diversified.

Hutchinson’s announcement reflects the state government’s analysis and outlines a path forward without costly changes in infrastructure and electricity transmission that some experts believe necessary.

Keogh, the energy secretary, will also lead the Energy Resources Council, created at the recommendation of the Energy Resources Planning Task Force, which Hutchinson created in March. Members will include state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge; Division of Emergency Management Director A.J. Gary; Empire District Electric Co. President Brad Beecher, Entergy Arkansas CEO Laura Landreaux; Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. CEO Buddy Hasten; Oklahoma Gas & Electric CEO Sean Trauschke; Southwestern Electric Power Co. CEO Albert Smoak; Black Hills Energy CEO Linden Evans; and Summit Utilities CEO Kurt Adams.

Also on the council will be Rodney Baker, executive director of the Arkansas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association; MISO CEO John Bear; SPP CEO Barbara Sugg; Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce CEO Randy Zook; Steve Cousins representing Arkansas Electric Energy Consumers Inc. and Arkansas Gas Consumers Inc.; as well as representatives of the Arkansas Municipal Power Association and the Arkansas Forest and Paper Council.

“The third executive order requires certain auditors in cabinet-level departments to report to the Office of Internal Audit,” the governor said. “This change will further enhance the integrity of our audits and give taxpayers confidence that state agencies are following the best practices of internal auditors.”

The governor’s office detailed each of the executive actions as follows:

  • EO 21-19 creates the Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee. On Nov. 15, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. The Act provides $1.2 trillion in grants and dedicated spending for infrastructure projects, capital assets, and workforce development. With this order, the governor creates the Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee composed of state agency personnel to identify best practices and procedures to ensure the state of Arkansas realizes the maximum relief and benefits available under the Act.
  • EO 21-20 amends EO 18-01 regarding the Office of Internal Audit. In order to comply with the international standard for the professional practice of internal auditing #1110.A1, independence of internal auditors is a necessity. Currently, six cabinet level departments outside of the Office of Inspector General have internal auditors on staff. This executive order will require those auditors to functionally report to the Office of Internal Audit. This change will allow for a more consistent audit process throughout the executive branch agencies, additional oversight of the auditing process, and assurance of independence in objectivity and auditing judgment.
  • EO 21-05 creates the Arkansas Energy Resources Council on the recommendation of the Energy Resources Planning Task Force. The purpose of the task force was to evaluate the ability of Arkansas’s critical energy resources and infrastructure to withstand extreme events. The Task Force heard from more than 30 stakeholders and released a report that outlined findings and recommendations. One recommendation was to create the Arkansas Energy Resources Council, which is to meet at least once a year and is composed of state agency personnel and stakeholder representatives. The Council will facilitate technical and policy discussion among regulators and energy stakeholders and will develop and maintain educational materials on best practices regarding preparedness and communication in advance and during events that may disrupt the supply of critical energy resources.
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