AUSTIN (KXAN) — With no electricity, the temperature in John Worley’s Hyde Park house likely got down to the 30s by the fourth day of February’s winter storm. Luckily, he wasn’t there because he and his wife camped out at his stepdaughter’s condominium that had power.
“When you get down that low, you risk hypothermia. So, we decided we don’t want this to happen again,” Worley said. “We decided to do something about it.”
Worley joined a ballooning number of Austin residents buying permanent home generators this year. These are units hardwired to a gas line and a home’s electrical system that can supply power during a blackout. Permits to install home generators have soared since February’s winter storm, escalating from 43 homes in all of 2020 to 303 homes in the first eight months of 2021.
The Austin area is on pace for a nearly 1000% increase in homes applying for generator installation permits this year, according to a KXAN analysis of Austin permitting data.
The installations are concentrated in Austin’s wealthier neighborhoods. Four of the top five zip codes with the most permits this year were in West and Northwest Austin.
Joe Rizzo, owner of Capital Power Systems headquartered in Austin, sells and installs home generators. He confirmed the exponential upswing in demand for generators this year.
His customers are concerned about another winter storm, and “some people have PTSD from what they experienced in that storm,” he said.
In some cases, people want to protect their property. Rizzo said he’s seen some buyers who sustained up to $30,000 in damage to pool equipment in February.
“The other main driver is that they could freeze to death in their house,” Rizzo said. “Some people didn’t even lose power to their house, but they are afraid this time around it may happen.”
During the winter disaster, ice and snow caused power plants to fail. Texas’ electricity supply plummeted as demand for energy to heat homes shot up. To stop a complete collapse of the electrical grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, called for power outages. Power was cut to millions of Texans, as temperatures fell into the teens and single digits.
At least 210 people in Texas died, including 28 in Travis County, during the winter storm, according to the Department of State Health Services.
Installations and backlog
The average price to install a generator to power a 3,000 square foot home is about $11,000 to $13,000, Rizzo said, but several factors can increase that amount.
Capital Power Systems is a “multi-line dealer,” meaning Rizzo sells generators made by several different manufacturers. All of them are backlogged, he said.
“We have hundreds of them on order,” Rizzo said. “It is hard to guarantee a full installation before February.”
The systems he sells are installed on a concrete pad and hardwired to a gas line and a house’s electrical system. These are not portable generators typically run on gasoline or diesel.
Installation requires the power to be shut off temporarily to the home, which has created another bottleneck for Austin residents.
Due to an Austin Energy backlog, Rizzo said he’s seen the city’s utility scheduling power shut-offs, also called disconnections, six months in the future. Meaning some customers buying generators now likely won’t get it installed until next spring.
In some cases, installations can be much quicker if there’s been a cancellation or unexpected opening with Austin Energy. It is good to get in the queue now, he added.
Austin Energy said it isn’t just generators that are causing the backlog.
“While Austin Energy has seen a significant increase in customers requesting generator installations, other factors are also causing requests to stack up, including high demand from the construction industry, pandemic-related staffing issues and limited opportunities to provide the time-sensitive service (early morning and end-of-day),” the utility said in a statement.
Symptom of a larger problem
Alexa Martin, a South Austin homeowner, told KXAN she’s digging deep into her pockets to get a generator “for peace of mind” and because she “has no faith in Texas government.”
Worley, in Hyde Park, said he’s concerned February-like storms will become more common due to climate change.
Paul Robbins, an energy and environmental activist and writer, said the massive influx in generator sales is a symptom of a bigger problem. Robbins has written extensively on the subject, on his Austin Environmental Directory website.
“The worst thing that I see is the profound distrust the public has in the electric system,” Robbins said. “It is people saying, ‘I trust ERCOT so little that I am going to go out and spend $13,000 to make sure that ERCOT can’t crash my power again.’”
Robbins gave some credit to the Texas Legislature for passing bills that aim to improve the electrical grid, but he said enough was not done to protect and fix it.
For example, the rules for weatherization won’t be put into place until November, so they won’t have an impact this winter, he said. Also, Texas still has the same energy market structure, which incentivizes cutting costs as much as possible, he said.
Then there is the “elephant in the room,” Robbins said. Texas’ grid remains an island with little connection to the country’s two major, federally regulated electrical grids—the Eastern and Western Interconnections.
In short, what state officials have done since February won’t cut it, Robbins said.
“If I were in Las Vegas and set the odds, I would not bet on another winter storm Uri next February, simply because lightning doesn’t usually strike twice in the same spot,” Robbins said. “But if lightning did strike twice in the same place, ERCOT would not be ready.”