AUSTIN (KXAN) — One month into his role as Austin Energy’s new general manager, Bob Kahn is already bracing for at least an 80-item, to-do list after thousands of customers lost power during February’s winter storm.

He told KXAN in a sit-down interview he expects an after-action report released later this month, outlining changes and recommendations from the ice storm, which left almost a third of Austin Energy customers without power at its peak.

Kahn took over the role in July, following the departure of former General Manager Jackie Sargent in March. At the time, the utility provider was facing criticism from citizens and city leaders about how it communicated restoration times during the storm.

While Kahn was not in charge when the ice began to accumulate on tree limbs that fell and took down countless lines in the Austin area, he said he believes the utility needs to be more transparent in the future.

“We communicated that power is going to come back on ‘x’ date. That did not happen. We created expectations for customers [and] were not met, and that was the biggest problem that we had,” he said. “You can always do better. And so we’re going to make improvements.”

Kahn is no stranger to Austin Energy. He served as Austin Energy’s deputy general manager, general counsel and vice president for legal services in the past. Previously, he was the President and Chief Executive Officer at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from 2007-2009. Since December 2012, Kahn has served as General Manager for Texas Municipal Power Agency, which operates in Bryan, Denton, Garland, and Greenville.

Preventing outages

When it comes to increasing reliability and preventing outages, Kahn said they are studying the cost and effectiveness of burying the city’s 5,000 miles of lines remaining above ground. He noted that 7,000 miles were already located underground.

“We’ll get a report back in six months or a year; we’ll take a look at that.” he said. “There are other things you can do besides burying lines: we need to catch up on our vegetative management. Also you can harden cables above ground; you can wrap them with things. So, if a tree falls on them, they’ll be okay. So, we’re looking at all those options.”

KXAN investigators asked whether the utility had completed all the recommendations from a previous after-action report on the 2021 winter storm, where a statewide, cascading power failure left millions of Texans in the dark and cold.

At the time, Austin Energy had to shut off power to some customers at the request of the state to prevent the whole grid from collapsing.

Kahn explained that many customers were left in the dark for extended periods, in order to keep the power on for critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, fire and police stations, or nursing homes. He said, in the years since, they’ve studied how to better isolate those locations and more easily rotate outages among others.

“We’ve actually isolated — this may not sound like a lot — we’ve isolated 13 megawatts worth of new opportunity to rotate outages, which is about 13,000 homes,” he explained. “So we’re looking at that — it’s expensive, but we’re making progress.”

Kahn said he “needed to catch up” on the status of the rest of the 2021 recommendations.

Higher bills?

Kahn addressed the fact that Austin Energy customers’ bills could go up again soon, noting a 2% base rate increase slated in the most recent version of the city’s budget.

“Base rates are about half of what your electric bill is, so it’d be about 1% increase for customers. And it comes out to about $1 a month,” he said. “The reason we’re doing that is to maintain our financial strength, that money is not going to go into a pot to buy this or that — it’s going to be to maintain our financial strength, and it’s going to go into our reserves.”

He went on to say, “most utilities have a 200 plus-day reserve margin of cash available. If something happens, we have 93 days. Our minimum is 150.”

Customers already saw two recent increases on their energy bills.

Last fall, city council approved a hike to the portion of the bill called the ‘pass-through’ rate– which led to an estimated increase of $15 on the typical customer’s bill. A few months later, they approved a different increase to the base rate a customer pays — leading to an average of $8 or $9 more on a typical customer’s bill. That hike went into effect in March.

“Even a $1 increase on their bill, for some families, it’s a strain. What can you tell families who are nervous about the increase that could be coming?” KXAN’s Avery Travis asked.

Kahn encouraged customers to contact Austin Energy about its customer assistance programs. Click here for more details.