AUSTIN (KXAN) — After several days without power, Martha Dolliver and other residents at their assisted living facility in Lakeway were in better spirits than one would expect.

“We can go out in some of the common areas,” she described. “You know, just visiting and talking, we get a little warmer. It’s not real warm, but we’re dressed warmly.”

The facility had a backup generator powering residents’ essential medical equipment and warming many areas of the facility. The temperature in her room, however, had dropped to the fifties.

“It’s cold,” she said, still with a smile.

She then became more serious when referencing the facility’s generator: “It’s not an indefinite supply of energy.”

“It breaks my heart that they are kind of the last ones being thought of right now,” Martha’s daughter-in-law, Leslie, said.

Leslie’s father also lives at the same facility and has significant medical needs, meaning she can’t simply pick him up to come stay at their house. She reached out to KXAN investigators — as did dozens of other families of residents living at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities in the Austin area after last week’s ice storm – worried about how much longer their loved ones could stay in the dark.

Leslie talked to the facility director, who told her their location was considered “priority” for power restorations by Austin Energy, but she said she watched as other spots on the Austin Energy outage map disappeared first.

“I don’t think anybody has been prioritized at all,” she said.

Her husband added, “Everybody is affected by this and — by gosh — I’m happy when anybody has power restored, but we do have our older community. For us it’s a frustrating inconvenience, for them it can be a life-altering experience by not being prioritized.”

What is a critical load customer?

Austin energy keeps a registry of customers considered “critical load,” including police and fire stations, 911 call centers, water treatment plants, hospitals and medical facilities – such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Austin Energy said facility operators, and other critical load customers, need to make sure they are registered with the utility, in order to be given priority for power restoration – but also priority to remain exempt from forced outages and rolling blackouts – like we saw in the 2021 winter storm.

A spokesperson for the utility, Matt Mitchell, said these customers have to meet certain criteria to be verified before being placed on the registry.

KXAN investigators spoke to at least one facility operator who didn’t know they had to register.

The president of the Texas Assisted Living Association, which represents these facilities across the state, said the registration process and communication about it need to be more clear. In a statement to KXAN, Diana Martinez said, “The Texas Assisted Living Association recommends that Austin Energy reach out to Nursing Homes and Assisted Living communities if they would like them to register with the utility company for priority restoration after an extended outage. Communities will gladly comply.”

Mitchell said the Austin Energy website has an “easy to find” page, explaining how to apply for this designation, but he added they don’t stop there.

“We work proactively to identify these nursing and care facilities in multiple ways, including through the Texas Medical Registry, our key accounts department that coordinates with our largest and most critical customers, and our new customer intake process,” he said.

In her statement, Martinez said, the website “does not allude to an appropriate process for priority restoration registration.”

She explained, “The rules for ‘critical loads’ apply to turning off portions of the grid; priority restoration, which applies to certain medical facilities, including Assisted Living communities, is focused on prioritizing the deployment of resources when restoring power afterward.”

Priority restoration

The Texas Utilities Code, which governs many electric utilities in Texas, lays out the rules for priority restoration. It requires a utility give certain medical facilities the same priority that it gives to a hospital after an extended power outage: nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, end stage renal disease facilities and facilities that provides hospice services.

The state utility regulator, the Public Utility Commission, has a registration for customers to become designated as “critical load.” When it receives a report that a critical facility has been affected by a power outage, a spokesperson explained its emergency management team works with the facility’s electric provider to ensure they are aware and have the facility noted as critical and a priority for power restoration.

Customers can file an informal complaint with the PUC, which could result in an investigation. The spokesperson said, “if an investigation of an electric utility were to determine the utility did not give priority in power restoration to a critical facility, the commission could impose administrative penalties and require corrective action of the utility, up to a likely maximum penalty of $25,000 per violation per day.”

The spokesperson said the PUC has not received any informal complaints regarding power restoration to critical facilities, as a result of the latest winter weather event.

However, the PUC holds only limited jurisdiction over municipally-owned utilities, such as Austin Energy, and doesn’t have authority over how it tracks or prioritizes critical load customers.  

People with complaints about power restoration by a municipally-owned utility would need to take those complaints to their mayor or city council for assistance.

Leslie and KXAN spoke with Lakeway Mayor Tom Kilgore on Friday, who said he was frustrated with how long these vulnerable residents had to wait.

“I don’t think anybody has been prioritized at all,” Leslie worried.

Overlapping restorations

Austin Energy has its own best practices and standards, which are approved by the Austin City Council, and Mitchell said it bases these on best practices and standards from the Texas Utility Code — even in areas where they are not specifically governed by it or the PUC.

“This is especially true with regard to medically vulnerable customers and critical load designation,” he said.

Throughout the week, as Austin Energy responded to thousands of outages across its service area, the utility’s leaders explained to the public repeatedly they were prioritizing these critical load customers first, as well as outages affecting the largest groups of people.

Mitchell told KXAN that the work to get both groups back online was overlapping and ongoing.

“The sheer magnitude of outages during the storm’s aftermath reflects the challenge of addressing critical load outages while also restoring power to the largest number of customers. These two priorities work together and overlap so that both critical load and large groups of customers can be restored as quickly as possible.”

Austin Energy leadership also repeatedly emphasized the complex nature of certain outages, explaining their could be multiple spots with damage on the same circuit or damage in need of work by a private electrician.  

The Dollivers’ facility regained power over the weekend, but Austin Energy reported some other critical load customers still offline on Monday. As of Tuesday, all critical load customers had been restored.

Looking ahead  

Martinez said the recent storm demonstrated a need for more communication from the utility company to customers. She said her association would be “happy to partner with any utility company to help spread the word” on this topic.

Mitchell agreed, telling KXAN, “Austin Energy prides itself on being a learning organization and we will take this opportunity to learn how we can increase our outreach and partnership efforts with these facilities. We are always working to safeguard our most vulnerable populations, especially in a historic weather event like this.”

He added, “if there is a way we can make that application more streamlined, more clear, then we want to do that.”

But the Dollivers said they wanted to see more change. Leslie said she believes there should be more independent accountability to make sure every utility follows the principals Texas Utility Code.

“I think the reason our legislators put that into our law was to ensure that we would honor our senior citizens, and so maybe if there are no teeth in that — maybe that’s something that our legislature needs to look at this session.”