AUSTIN (KXAN) — With branches and trees littering yards and roads across Austin after the ice storm, city leaders faced questions about whether more tree trimming could have prevented some of the thousands of power outages that left people in the dark.
Austin Energy regularly trims trees around power lines to not only prevent outages during winter storms, but also to prevent wildfires. It trims in specific areas at risk of causing problems, but also along each of the city’s roughly 250 circuits that deliver power to specific areas of town.
Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent told reporters they have been “very focused” on vegetation management in recent years, but called the amount of weight in ice that accumulated on the trees during this storm “historic” and “extreme.”
On Thursday night, Vice President of Field Operations at Austin Energy, Elton Richards, added that vegetation management was not the main issue during this storm. He explained crews were seeing problems in spots where trees had already been trimmed or treated. For example, he said high branches — outside of the designated trimmed areas — were caving in, while entire 50-foot trees were falling and taking out power lines.
Still, Richards acknowledged there is a backlog of vegetation management tasks — blaming restrictions put on trimming by city council, several years back.
City Councilmember Alison Alter told KXAN she began asking questions about the vegetation management policy in 2018, when she started hearing about reliability issues.
She said she ultimately worked with Austin Energy to revamp the policy — bringing it up to industry standards at the time. The next year, council allocated around $10 million dollars to the program to help them expand.
KXAN previously reported that budget allocation allowed Austin Energy to increase the number of vegetation management crews from 30 up to 60. Still, labor shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks caused them to be 15 crews short of where they “should be,” Richards said at the time.
Alter told KXAN on Thursday — at last check — they were still dealing with challenges recruiting crews and there is still work to be done, but she has seen a continued focus on the necessary benefits of trimming.
“The challenge is that it takes years to go through the canopy of the whole city and you don’t want to do it all at once — because then you have to do it all at once every single time to get on cycle,” she said.
Richards said crews trimmed somewhere between 37 and 44 of the city’s nearly 250 total circuits, focusing on the highest wildfire risk, over the course of 2022. That marked an increase from the roughly 20 circuits completed in 2021.
Alter said she would like to see Austin Energy analyze how areas that had been trimmed faired during this storm.
“I would really like to see, you know, post-the storm, whether — in many of those — we’re seeing better results. I have lots of little outages in my district and a couple really big ones. But they’re not necessarily the places that have traditionally had the low reliability,” she said.
KXAN’s Avery Travis is working to gather more details and will add to this story as they become available.