AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Energy needs to focus on communication, customer experience, emergency preparedness, storm response and coordination, according to a newly-released after-action report on the 2023 winter storm.
Over several days at the beginning of February, nearly a third of the utility’s customers lost power when ice-coated tree limbs — and even entire trees — crashed down onto power lines. In some spots, ice accumulated directly on the power lines, taking them down and leaving customers in the dark and cold.
Outage data shows it took the utility a full 10 days after hitting the peak number of customers affected for power to be restored to the vast majority.
- Read the full report here
Directly following the storm, city leaders openly discussed possible changes to handling this kind of crisis in the future, and ultimately fired the city manager over the handling of the storm.
The report released Tuesday morning notes that power outages from extreme weather cannot be entirely eliminated, but it still details 14 observations from the storm and dozens more specific recommendations for the city’s energy and power operations going forward.
Communication and customer experience
In August, before the after-action report was released, KXAN sat down with Bob Kahn, who was appointed as the new Austin Energy general manager earlier in the summer.
At the time, he said, he was proud of how crews responded, working to restore people’s power as quickly as possible, but he believes transparency and communication during the restoration period could have been improved.
“We communicated that power is going to come back on X date — that did not happen. We created expectations for customers that were not met, and that was the biggest problem that we had,” Kahn said.
The after-action report praised some of the actions of the utility’s Public Information team, including news releases, social media posts and more than 300 media interviews in multiple languages. The report also noted that daily emails and text messages were sent to customers.
However, the report reiterates Kahn’s concerns — stating Austin Energy “did not provide an accurate estimation of when power would be restored” and the outage map and other outage reporting tools “did not function as expected.”
For example, some customers were “bumped off” the system when using the texting feature. In other cases, customers were unable to determine if their outage was represented on the outage map, “which led to multiple outage reports,” the after-action report reads.
The report recommends Austin Energy re-configure certain functions of the outage map, text messaging and other communications systems in order to more adequately respond to an event of this size.
The report noted that proactive customer communication, such as emails and texts “should have been initiated earlier” and, in the future, the utility should coordinate more closely with city leadership about news conferences and other customer communications.
According to the report, the utility’s Customer Care team received 370,000 calls and conducted wellness checks for medically vulnerable customers to ensure their safety. Still, it outlined nearly 10 specific improvements for customer care programs during an emergency, such as optimizing the Call Center’s ability to escalate cases and considering the use of an “outreach bus” or something similar to provide resources for long-duration outages.
In the aftermath of another winter storm in 2021, the utility was tasked with providing “a pool of trained representatives to help respond to social media messages during an emergency” and coordinate with the Customer Care team.
While the item was marked as ‘completed’ last year, “it was not implemented” during this most recent storm and “there was a lack of Customer Care resources available to support this new role.” So, the latest report also directs the utility to re-evaluate its response to social media messages during emergencies.
In his August interview with KXAN, Kahn also said that the utility’s storm assessment and forecasting processes could be improved, given the level of ice accumulation seen during the 2023 storm and the severe damage to the city’s tree canopy.
“We’re going to have to plan for an event like this going forward,” Kahn said.
When KXAN investigator Avery Travis asked Kahn how they plan for the “storm we’re not expecting,” Kahn replied that the utility will have to be more flexible but “can’t see into the future.”
“You can always do better,” he said.
According to the after-action report, Austin Energy was prepared for a short-duration outage event, “like what the utility experiences during a severe thunderstorm with extreme winds,” but needs to make improvements to address long-duration outages.
It reads, “This event proved to have vastly different challenges. For example, ice and trees continued to affect the electric system after the weather passed through the area… Having to adjust the restoration process to match these conditions while making repairs created inefficiencies in Austin Energy’s response.”
The report suggested hiring a director-level Emergency Management position to lead the utility’s Emergency management team, after noting Austin Energy only had one full-time employee dedicated to emergency management at the time of the storm.
It also made some specific, procedural suggestions to optimize the utility’s Incident Command operations.
Storm response and coordination
Finally, the report details how damage assessments and restoration coordination could be streamlined and improved — which could ultimately help with communication efforts, too.
It called out “unclear expectations on what and how to report back to Incident Command and a lack of established procedures” — meaning Austin Energy did not have the information necessary to get accurate restoration times.
For example, it reads, “some crews did not update and close out tickets as assignments were completed in the field. This caused dispatchers to believe these tickets were not completed and reassigned the work. This was due, in part, to a need for additional training.”
It goes on to explain that crews were also using two different dispatching tools in the field, before directing the utility to “establish a single-ticket restoration process during emergency response events, and establish a standardized tracking mechanism.”
The report did acknowledge that, as branches continued to break, repeat outages in the same areas complicated matters for the utility.
What about the 2021 winter storm?
A winter storm two years earlier left Austinites, along with millions of other Texans, in the dark and cold for days, as well. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, more than 200 people across the state died during this emergency.
Many of the outages experienced during the 2021 storm were not caused by downed trees on local power lines, but rather when the state’s power grid operator, ERCOT, ordered utilities to cut off power to some customers, in order to prevent the entire electric grip from collapsing.
Some power providers struggled to rotate outages among different circuits and customers, as so many circuits contained critical infrastructure such as hospitals or fire stations.
At the time of the interview, Kahn could not tell KXAN how many of the recommendations from the 2021 after-action report had been completed, but noted one area of improvement.
“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 said. “So, we’re looking at that — it’s expensive, but we’re making progress.”
KXAN is digging into this report and will update this story throughout the day.