AUSTIN (KXAN) — One year after a winter storm led to a cascading power failure in Texas, much of the focus has been on weatherizing the state’s power generators, to bolster the power supply against future freezing temperatures.
Meanwhile, utility providers have been making their own changes to ensure they can efficiently and equitably manage power demand during a crisis.
KXAN investigators took a closer look at the plans Austin Energy — and other utility providers — have outlined so far to manage outages more precisely in the future.
Service area: Municipally-owned energy utility serving the city of Austin
Before the storm: After a winter storm in 2011, it doubled the number of circuits through a process called sectionalization. These efforts increased the amount of load available to be shed during a crisis by more than 350%.
This time around: After the February 2021 storm, it is sectionalizing or otherwise reconfiguring around 10 circuits. This will take three to five years to complete.
Going deeper: According to a recent memo, it doesn’t believe sectionalizing the entire system would provide enough benefits to outweigh the costs and operational challenges. It is instead focusing on other ways to respond in a crisis, including a creating load-curtailment program for large industrial or commercial customers to control demand and increasing flexibility for which feeders can be shut off.
What it says: “There are cases where circuit reconfiguration and sectionalizing will work and cases where it is just not feasible … We’re doing what we can to minimize that disruption and to prepare our customers now for an emergency of that magnitude.”
- Read more about Austin Energy’s other changes here
Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative
Service area: Utility cooperative serving Bastrop, Lockhart and other counties east of Austin
Before the storm: It used a software specifically designed to manage load-shed events, enabling control center operators to enter the amount of load required by the state to shed.
What it says: “During a load-shed event, members experience between a 15- to 20-minute outage before their power is restored. We test the system regularly, and it has performed very well during load-shed events.”
What has changed: After the 2021 storm, it isolated certain critical infrastructure members on a circuit. In other spots, it installed devices to enable certain critical infrastructure members to remain energized, even while others on the circuit are included in load shed.
Service area: Transmission and Distribution Utility serving 2.6 million customers across the greater Houston area
What has changed: It implemented a rotation automation technology to provide more regular and predictable outage intervals during an extreme event. It is also working on a project to reduce power demand during emergency conditions without outages for customers, called “automated voltage reduction technology.”
In-depth: Several laws passed by the Texas legislature after the storm also enabled CenterPoint to enter into a long-term lease with a company called Life Cycle Power, which will be energy source during any future emergencies. This will allow it to receive approximately 500 megawatts of power to be deployed across their Greater Houston service area.
What it says: “This would allow up to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses that could otherwise be without power to have some power during an extreme emergency event and provides a new tool to CenterPoint Energy to rotate customer outages.”
- Read more about CenterPoint’s other changes here
Service area: The nation’s largest municipally-owned energy utility serving the San Antonio area
What has changed: Since the storm, it has reevaluated circuits to more precisely isolate ones providing electricity to critical infrastructure. It added 155 circuits to the list of those eligible for rotation, in the event of state-mandated outages.
What it says: “The approach minimizes the duration each customer is affected by outage by spreading the outages among more customers.”
CPS Energy also said its goal is to only turn customers’ power off for 15 minutes at a time, in the event of a future load-shed event of the same size.
- Read more about CPS Energy’s other changes here
Oncor Electric Delivery
Service area: Transmission and Distribution Utility serving 98 counties across North, Central and East Texas
What has changed: It is working with ERCOT to allow for “more flexibility” between which of its distribution feeders are available for manual load shed and those which are set aside to remain on in case of a full system blackout, called “under-frequency feeders.”
What it says: “Doing so will help increase the amount of load available to be shed, lessening the need for extended outages and their impact on customers, while still ensuring the availability of under-frequency feeders should emergency conditions call for their usage.”
- Read more about Oncor’s other changes here
Pedernales Electric Cooperative
Service area: Utility cooperative serving the Texas Hill Country
What has changed: It updated its automatic load shedding program to address the frequent changes seen during the winter storm. It also created a new Outage Management System to track and differentiate weather-related or system outages from load-shedding or rolling outages.
What it says: “We are better equipped today than ever to handle an emergency event. Our new outage map can differentiate real outages from load shedding/rolling outages and new technology and protocols are in place to help us handle load shedding events and better identify individual outages. With this new technology, we can even simulate events and practice different scenarios to be as prepared as possible for the next big event.”
- Read more PEC’s other changes here