A year after a winter storm led to a cascading power failure that left millions of Texans in the dark and cold, most of the pressure has been on the state’s natural gas wells and power plants that froze up during the storm. When the cold gripped those power generators, ERCOT forced power providers — such as Oncor and Austin Energy — to shut off power to as many customers as they could to keep the whole system from collapsing. KXAN Investigators dug into what your power provider could do in those crucial moments to better manage whose lights go off — and for how long.
AUSTIN (KXAN) – When Connie Mae Richey’s health started failing last year, her daughters made the decision to move her in with one of them.
Colinda Meza and Sherri Jones went to nursing school together and worked on the surgical floor of a hospital for years, and Meza even worked in home health for a time, so the sisters felt confident about caring for Connie Mae. They turned Meza’s dining room into their mother’s new bedroom.
“We moved everything out of here. We put curtains up. We hired people to come in and take care of my mom — not only home health, but she also had some personal attendants,” Meza said. “Our plan was: this is where my mom was going to live.”
Eventually, they placed her on hospice care, with the hope she would recover — or at least be able to live out her last few months peacefully, with family around. Meza made freshly-ground coffee for her mom in the mornings; grandchildren visited later in the day; the matriarch of the family could FaceTime friends and other loved ones anytime she wanted.
“She didn’t really understand the concept, but she loved being able to see everybody and to talk to everybody,” Jones said, her voice breaking.
“You might be afraid of her because she’s a powerful woman, but she was so loved by everybody that knew her. We all feel like we just have lost our — what was the word that we use the other day?” Jones asked her sister. “Our rudder! We lost our rudder. We lost the person that kind of kept everybody together.”
The coming storm
During the evening television newscast on Sunday Feb. 14, 2021, KXAN meteorologist Jim Spencer gave this warning: “This is just really the beginning of the beginning of this winter storm that is going to be epic. It is going to be crippling for Austin and much of our viewing area.”
The city had already been hit with an ice storm Feb. 11.
Meza said she remembered hearing Spencer’s forecast a few days earlier and said she knew rolling blackouts were a possibility. So, she prepared for the winter weather, stocking up on her mother’s medicine, extra oxygen, a couple space heaters and other supplies.
When her house lost power overnight, she said, “I wasn’t too concerned about it. She was warm, taken care of, and the house was warm enough. I figured it was going to be coming back on soon.”
Meza remembers her mother even getting frustrated with her, as she “fussed” over her blankets.
“Everything I was reading and hearing… was our electric would be on Tuesday,” she said.
A year later, Meza still has that day, Feb. 16, marked in her calendar as “Hope Day.” However, over the next two days, the lights remained off and the temperature inside their home kept dropping.
Ice on power lines and downed tree branches caused many of the power outages during Austin’s Feb. 11 ice storm and also later, as more rounds of cold, snow and ice arrived.
On Sunday night, after the state’s natural gas wells and power plants were affected by the freeze, the statewide power supply dipped dangerously low — forcing energy entities across the state to manually shut off power, too.
For an electric system to function, supply (called “generation”) and demand (called “load”) must match at all times. Any major imbalance can lead to cascading blackouts and damage to infrastructure that could take weeks to resolve. That night, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, called on power providers to shed load — basically, shut off power to as many customers as they could to balance supply and demand on the grid and avoid a full-system blackout.
In a senate hearing Feb. 26, 2021 — one week following the storm — lawmakers grilled the leadership from the state’s largest energy utility providers. Allen Nye, CEO of Oncor Electric Delivery, which serves Dallas and parts of Central Texas including Round Rock and Georgetown, described just how much power they were asked to shut off, quickly, on Sunday night into Monday morning.
He focused on a warning they got at 2:02 a.m. about how they were at risk of tripping “the last safety blanket the state grid has” if they didn’t shut off more power.
A catastrophe for families
By nightfall Feb. 16, Meza’s power had been out for nearly two days. The family had pushed Connie Mae’s bed into the main living room to be near the fire and were doing everything they could to keep her warm. Meza had even used Chip Clips to pin blankets on her urinary catheter and other medical equipment.
“My mom cried all night long,” Meza said. “We all slept in there with her and all around her. We were having to medicate her every 15 minutes.”
The family could tell she was in pain, but they had heard hospitals weren’t taking hospice patients. Plus, that wasn’t what she told her family she wanted. But the next morning, Meza said she lifted the piles of quilts and blankets to find her mother’s urinary catheter had frost and blood in it.
“As nurses, we know exactly what that means,” Jones said.
“That’s when I said, ‘That’s enough. That’s enough,’” Meza added. “But if she’s dying and wants to die at home, maybe we can give her some medicine to help her — to help her ease out.”
They called for hospice assistance and for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services. Over the next hour, the medics continually warned the family Connie Mae could die any minute. After an hour-and-a-half, they made the difficult decision to take her to the hospital.
“I want y’all to take care of her in a warm, nice place,” Meza remembered telling them.
On Feb. 19, their mother passed away at Dell Seton Medical Center. Her cause of death is listed as Urosepsis, Complicated by Frozen Urinary Catheter.
Jones began to cry, remembering her last moments with her mother in the hospital.
“I said, ‘I’m going to miss you.’ Then, she was gone,” Jones said, heartbroken her mother couldn’t have been home with family, in the place she had grown to love.
Meza said after working as a home health nurse for years, she’s shocked something like this could happen in her own home.
“All of these poor people in their homes with things that … connect to their life, but it relies on electricity. When that goes out, they could die,” she said.
In a final report released by the Texas Department of State Health Services in January, 246 deaths across the state were classified as winter-storm related.
Twenty-eight people died in Travis County — more than in the larger Dallas and Bexar counties— while 43 people died in Harris County, Texas. Those people detailed in the report died either from a direct cause — such as hypothermia — or an indirect cause — such as the exacerbation of a pre-existing illness or carbon monoxide poisoning. They ranged in age from less than one year old to 102 years old.
Keeping the lights on – but where?
So, how can energy providers keep the lights on or prevent long outages, if they’re asked to shut off power to balance the grid?
Providers keep lists of which of their circuits contain critical infrastructure — locations where power is prioritized because operations there significantly impact public health and safety.
Austin Energy categorizes its critical infrastructure into tiers. Tier One contains hospitals, 911 or telecommunication centers, the airport, water treatment plants, wastewater plants and — because of the way the system is set up — any of the nearby homes or businesses that share their circuits. Tier Two contains places such as nursing homes, detention facilities and ambulatory clinics — and then any homes or businesses on the same circuits.
Many Austinites expressed frustration when images surfaced of empty office buildings in downtown Austin remaining lit, while people in neighborhoods nearby remained in the dark and cold.
- Load (demand): Amount of energy delivered to meet customers’ needs at one time
- Generation (supply): Amount of available electricity within a system
- Customer: Residential, commercial, and industrial electric consumers
- Power generator: Plants or facilities where electricity is produced
- Power Provider – Transmission and Distribution Utility (TDU): Companies delivering electricity from power plants to customers e.g. Oncor Electric Delivery or CenterPoint Energy
- Power Provider – Municipally-Owned Utility (MOU): Electric system owned and operated by a local jurisdiction e.g. Austin Energy
- Load shedding: Reducing load by switching off the power supply to groups of customers for the stability of the overall system
- Circuit: A wire or system of wires carrying electric currents
- Sectionalize: To split a circuit into sections and install motor-operated switches, with the goal of controlling load shed in a more precise manner
At the time, Austin Energy said it must prioritize the complicated, interconnected downtown network. It explained it couldn’t cut power to one portion of that network, such as an empty office, without cutting off power to critical locations, such as warming centers or Dell Seton Medical Center.
A spokesperson for Austin Energy said there are a disproportionately high number of critical load circuits here in the capital city with many essential government, health and emergency facilities that serve the whole state.
In total, Austin Energy has 410 feeder circuits; 190 contain critical infrastructure.
Additionally, each power provider has a certain percentage of other circuits required to stay on, designated as Under Frequency Load Shed, or UFLS. UFLS programs are designed to automatically shed load in certain extreme conditions to stabilize generation and load. UFLS feeders can span as many as 20% to 30% of a system’s total feeders.
After all those designations, Austin Energy can usually rotate outages among the circuits that are left, for periods of 10 to 40 minutes each. But in those crucial moments the night of Feb. 14, ERCOT’s load shed demands made rotating impossible, according to Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent.
“That’s why we maxed out,” Sargent explained in a virtual press conference during the storm. “We got to that point and there was nobody else that we could cut.”
Zeroing in on Austin
Dr. Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at Webber Energy Group at The University of Texas at Austin, emphasized supply and demand must be matched in real time.
“If you’re going to turn someone back on, you have to turn someone else off first. But every single circuit that was on had critical load on it, and they didn’t want to turn them off,” he said.
He noted that some entities, such as Bandera Electric Cooperative, were able to roll blackouts more easily than Austin Energy.
In the Feb. 26 senate hearing, Senator Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) and Senator Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) grilled Austin Energy leadership about the length of time Central Texans spent without power.
“I’m not aware of another part of the state where people were out of power continuously for a period of five days,” Schwertner said.
Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent testified that Austin faced unique challenges, including some specific infrastructure problems caused by more intense ice conditions.
She also explained it faced issues with circuits tripping during the power restoration process — a phenomenon called Cold Load Pickup. It happens when the power supply has been unavailable for a long period of time and the load has reached a “cold” state. When electric circuits are restored and large amounts of appliances are simultaneously energized, it causes a spike in energy usage all at once, which can trip circuits.
Sargent said Cold Load Pickup was an issue during multiple days of the weather event and kept people in the dark for even longer.
Senator Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) came to Sargent’s defense.
“I think it’s also critically important for us not to automatically draw conclusions that if one person was out for five days and another person was out for three days, the three-day people clearly did a better job — because there are other factors. That’s what I heard you say,” he said.
Sargent agreed and ultimately emphasized the unprecedented nature of how much load providers were asked to shed by ERCOT that night.
“The system we have — requiring a utility to force customers, over 30% of our customers — to be without power for such an extended period of time is unacceptable,” she said.
Austin Energy reported 35,000 localized outages due to wind, ice accumulation and tree branches damaging or even downing power lines over the course of the 2021 storm. At the storm’s peak, however, 220,000 customers were without power due to load-shed requests from ERCOT, a spokesperson said.
On Feb. 2, 2022, just a week shy of the year anniversary of last year’s storm, Texans braced for ice and freezing temperatures yet again. This time, Austin Energy only reported around 3,500 localized outages at the storm’s peak — all due to ice, trees or other weather-related infrastructure issues.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders were quick to point out power providers were not asked to shed load or shut off power to any customers to reduce stress on the statewide power grid. Data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows when demand for power was peaking on the morning of Feb. 4, the state had more than enough supply to meet it. In total, state leaders reported Texas had about 15% more power generation than last year, “as a result of” the winterization efforts at power generation facilities.
Still, energy experts tell KXAN last week’s storm was not a “true test” of the grid’s reliability. Michael Webber, who runs the energy group to which Dr. Rhodes belongs, told KXAN that forced outages could still be possible in the future.
“To use a simpler test with a weaker storm was still a lot of outages. To declare victory might be problematic, because it might give us a false sense of confidence,” Dr. Webber said. “I would say ‘it might be a near miss,’ is the way to think about it.”
‘Protect the helpless’
In the year since her mother died, Jones’ sadness has turned to anger.
“We have to speak for our mother; we have to speak for all of those that can’t speak for themselves right now,” Jones said.
Meza said their loss has only made her more determined to ensure the system changes. She decided to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Austin Energy and ERCOT, arguing the actions of these entities contributed to their lack of electricity, and ultimately led to their mother’s death.
According to court documents filed in Travis County, ERCOT responded by denying “each and every claim and allegation” made by the family.
ERCOT also gives other reasons for why the family’s claims should be “barred” by the court, including an argument that the family’s claims arose from an “Act of God” and they have failed to “exhaust and/or utilize available administrative remedies.”
The documents go on to state ERCOT is protected by sovereign immunity. In a previous lawsuit against ERCOT, a court found the power grid operator was entitled to the same protections afforded government entities, to protect them from being sued for carrying out governmental functions. ERCOT is a private nonprofit but works under direct oversight of the Public Utility Commission of Texas.
A separate court filing reveals the case has been stayed, while multiple cases against ERCOT are reviewed by a Multi District Litigation panel. This panel could decide to merge the dozens of lawsuits filed against it, so the cases would be handled in a single court. That decision is pending.
When asked for a comment, a spokesperson with the City of Austin said, “There is still ongoing litigation in this case so the City will not be able to comment on the ongoing litigation.”
Meza said, “For me, the lawsuit is about let’s not let this happen again. We have to protect the helpless and the vulnerable.”
Getting granular: Exploring changes in light of the storm
While any kind of power crisis is not ideal, Dr. Rhodes said rolling blackouts are obviously more manageable for customers.
“I think the pain would have been a lot less, and we would have been able to get through that event much easier,” he said.
He said there are ways to divide circuits to make rolling easier: by reconfiguring circuits to separate critical infrastructure onto their own feeders or by sectionalizing to further divide up circuits.
“You can think of circuits like a bunch of lights in a room. They are on one light switch, so you turn off that light switch — all the lights go off. So, sectionalize means to make those circuits smaller,” he explained. “That’d be like having four switches to turn off four lights in a bedroom versus one switch to turn off all four lights.”
Having more circuits to turn off, he said, would give an entity more opportunity to turn other ones on — and have more granular control over the blackouts.
Austin Energy has sectionalized its system before. Since a winter storm a decade ago in 2011, the entity doubled the number of circuits, increasing the amount of load available for manual shut-offs by more than 350%.
In its after-action report from the February 2021 storm, released in October, Austin Energy noted it would continue to explore:
- How to further sectionalize by either moving critical customers onto dedicated circuits or by installing equipment to allow Austin Energy to “shut off power to as many customers as possible that are not critical customers but are on a critical circuit”
- How to include select portions of the downtown network for load-shedding
- How to allow for more flexibility around using UFLS circuits during a mandatory Load Shed event, working with ERCOT
KXAN investigators pressed Austin Energy in January 2022 about its progress on these efforts from the after-action report. A spokesperson Austin Energy said in response it is reconfiguring multiple circuits, but that “reconfiguration and sectionalization has many complex factors to consider and each situation must be carefully evaluated.”
She said its experts must consider factors such as the electric configuration of the area, the location of critical load customer on the circuit, the density of circuits and number of third party attachments like cable and telephone wires on the poles, and availability of pole space.
A memo recently released by the City of Austin goes into further detail, noting Austin Energy identified three circuits to reconfigure by moving critical customers and allowing for rotation among non-critical customers.
Seven circuits are being analyzed for sectionalizing. The memo notes this change is not to help with rotation, however, but rather for using manual intervention during an ERCOT-mandated load shed event, which can limit how it is used. Austin Energy estimates a cost of $50,000 to $100,000 per circuit for those it is addressing. The changes will take around three to five years to complete.
When KXAN investigators pressed Austin Energy on why it wouldn’t sectionalize the whole system, it explained that cost and operational challenges outweighed the benefits it could offer.
“There are cases where circuit reconfiguration and sectionalizing will work and cases where it is just not feasible,” a spokesperson said.
Austin Energy’s Vice President of Engineering, Thomas Pierpoint, explained further that the decision to sectionalize depends on the location of different customers along each electric circuit. For instance, on the seven circuits they have chosen for sectionalizing, a critical customer is located near the “head” of the circuit. This means they can place a “switch” in a certain spot on the circuit, to allow the critical customer to stay energized during an ERCOT mandated load shed event, while turning off everyone else “downstream” from the switch on the circuit.
“Now, one of the realities that we’re running into is there’s multiple critical load customers on circuits,” Pierpoint said. “I think the electric system grows and evolves. I think the circuits have just become much denser, and the critical customers are spread more evenly throughout the circuits. So, maybe what yielded benefits after the 2011 storm has not yielding so much as the area continues, continues to grow and be more compact.”
Pierpoint said they were instead prioritizing efforts that will increase its capacity for load-shed more exponentially, in a shorter amount of time. That includes developing a “load-curtailment program” for eligible, large industrial and commercial customers to voluntarily go offline and help decrease demand during a load-shed event. He said several local industrial customers had already signed up, but couldn’t specify which companies. Austin Energy is also streamlining the process for moving circuits from the reserved UFLS designation to become available for manual shut-off, in a load-shed situation.
Pierpoint said he was confident these efforts would help if ERCOT ever asked Austin Energy to shed the same amount of load, or more, in the future.
“I think Austin Energy performed well during the winter events last year. But that didn’t stop us. We really took an introspective look. To do an after action report, we looked at every detail. The teams are really diligent on items we’ve identified: making sure they get completed, and we get the benefits to our customers,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged it wouldn’t know how successful these efforts really were, until the system was tested by another, similar event to the 2021 storm.
Preventing a catastrophe, lessening the pain
KXAN asked Austin Energy what kind of impact these changes would have in preventing a future power crisis.
The spokesperson said, “Should another Winter Storm Uri hit the ERCOT grid, the impact to our customers would depend on how well the entire ERCOT system performs.”
She noted in her email that Austin Energy operates as a power generator — as well as a power provider — so its generation facilities were actually generating power for the state during the storm. It operates three natural gas-powered plants in the Austin area and co-owns two power plants outside Austin.
After the storm, experts indicated its facilities fared well against the weather. Unlike many other generation facilities across the state, Austin Energy said it made many recommended weatherization improvements to its plants following a storm in 2011. It is still making further upgrades to those sites following the February 2021 storm.
Austin Energy declined to do an on-camera interview with KXAN on any of these topics.
KXAN investigators asked Dr. Rhodes the same question: will more sectionalization and reconfiguration efforts help if another storm strikes?
He agrees that he doesn’t think these efforts would have prevented the crisis altogether: “That was more on the fact that we just ran out of power plants and fuel for those power plants.”
“But it would have allowed the pain to be shared more equitably, and would have rolled … much easier,” he went on.
He said sectionalization can also help with Cold Load Pickup issues, which caused problems and even more prolonged outages for Central Texans.
“I really think if the power had only been out for an hour or two at a time per home maybe every other day, then people would have seen it more as a nuisance than a catastrophe,” he said.
Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Graphic Artist Rachel Gale, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.