After spending hundreds of thousands on weather platform, CPS Energy entrusted college student to forecast with it

Invoices show weather contractor never paid more than $716 in a single week

CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally-owned utility company, gets its weather forecasts from a college student who has not been compensated more than $716 in a single week, invoices obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show.

SAN ANTONIO – CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned utility company, gets its weather forecasts from a college student who has not been compensated more than $716 in a single week, invoices obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders show.

The University of the Incarnate Word meteorology student, who refers to himself on one social media platform as “Kid Cold Front,” was as of last week still a “current student and is not listed as a graduate,” a UIW spokesman said via email.

The forecaster, whose services are provided to CPS through a contract with a third-party, has been paid between $197 and $716 a week, according to invoice records covering late October 2019 to late January.

CPS officials in recent weeks have refused to say how many hours the forecaster worked in any given pay period after his employer objected to the release of that information.

Separate invoices for money paid to DTN, a Minnesota-based weather services company that provides the utility forecast graphics and mapping for severe weather events, show CPS Energy has paid the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Invoices show CPS Energy made nearly $120,000 payments to DTN over a single 21-month period. (KSAT)

The payments include nearly $120,000 over a 21-month period from late February 2018 to late November 2019.

‘Caught flat-footed’: Energy experts, lawsuits claim CPS has itself to blame for $700 million in natural gas bills

The release of records comes amid ongoing criticism of the utility for its handling of February’s extreme winter event, which forced CPS officials to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on natural gas to continue heating homes and providing fuel to its power plants.

CPS Energy officials refused to make President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams available at its in-person board meeting last week. She has not answered questions from KSAT since March 12.

A KSAT photographer was required to stay on the other side of a glass partition while the meeting took place, due to what utility officials described as ongoing social distancing guidelines.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams has not answered questions from KSAT since March 12. (KSAT)

CPS Energy Chief Financial Officer & Treasurer Gary Gold said after the meeting he did not have enough information to answer why the utility spends so much on its weather mapping and graphics and then so little to have them analyzed.

Gold did acknowledge the possible cost impact from February’s winter storm is currently estimated to be $1.035 billion.

That figure, according to Gold, includes the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on natural gas as well as energy purchased through ERCOT, the state’s electric grid operator.

The utility is now challenging the bills in nearly 20 lawsuits filed in Bexar County since the storm ended. A majority of the suits claim natural gas suppliers overcharged and even price gouged CPS Energy during the weather event.

“The amount that we spent on purchasing fuel, both natural gas and the power during that winter event, was the equivalent if not a little bit more than our annual budget (for fuel),” said Gold, who acknowledged internal emails that showed CPS officials were forced to spend $400 million on gas to cover just a few days.

“Hard to believe,” wrote CPS Energy General Counsel Carolyn Shellman in a Feb. 12 email.

The utility’s annual fuel budget, according to internal records, is around $800 million.

“So I anticipate we’re going to be working through this issue through the rest of this year and then talking about it all through the year,” Gold said.

Thorough research could have better prepared CPS Energy, expert says

While many of the state’s utility companies and retail energy providers have licensed meteorologists on staff, CPS Energy uses the weather contractor as well as monitoring the National Weather Service and local newscasts.

Judah Cohen, a Columbia University-educated climatologist who did postdoctoral work for NASA, said companies like CPS Energy that rely on the weather for operations should not only have meteorologists, but also people who specialize in weather research.

Climatologist Judah Cohen. (KSAT)

“I come with my own biases and prejudices. I’ve spent my entire life trying to study the weather, so I think bringing on people who not only have a degree or background in meteorology, but maybe have a good connection or relationship with the different institutions and departments that are studying weather is really helpful,” said Cohen, who is director of Seasonal Forecasting for Atmospheric and Environmental Research.

“I think useful information for this event really lied more in the research than the operations, but it certainly could have been very beneficial to the stakeholders, certainly the energy companies, the energy infrastructure,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he was “really banging the drums” about a potentially significant weather event in mid-February by late January, for specifically east of the Rocky Mountains.

Cohen posted on Twitter on Jan. 26 about the potential for widespread cold temperatures and snowfall the second week of February.

Weeks earlier, on Jan. 8, Cohen described a wandering polar vortex and its potential impact on the winter season.

Thirty-seven days later, that polar vortex brought record subfreezing temperatures to Texas.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.