How Austin can improve its energy system if Texas lawmakers fail on reform

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas lawmakers are promising swift reform after extreme winter weather last week left millions without power for days due to a system incapable of handling sustained freezing temperatures.

But if state lawmakers ignore warning signs again (federal regulators criticized the lack of winterization standards in Texas after a major storm in 2011), experts say local governments, like the City of Austin, have opportunities to improve their own energy infrastructure.

Michael Webber, a renowned energy expert and professor at the University of Texas, said Austin and its municipal utility, Austin Energy, fared better than most last week but has opportunities for improvement.

Austin Energy, under order from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), was forced to cut more supply than its fair share during the storm to keep the state from total collapse.

“Austin was a good neighbor,” Webber said. “If we had not done that in Austin, we would have been without power for several weeks or months.”

Texas doesn’t require energy plants to winterize, though Austin Energy winterizes its own plant.
Webber’s suggestions for Austin Energy to improve reliability, some of which are already in motion, include:

  1. Winterize all assets
  2. Invest in smart meters to execute targeted outages when necessary
  3. Improve vegetation management around lines and transformers
  4. Increase energy storage resources

Webber commended the City of Austin’s green energy focus for establishing efficient building codes.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN on Wednesday he’s focused on the city’s recovery, as hundreds continue to visit city distribution sites seeking food and water. But he said there will be time for the city council to explore its options to improve energy systems.

“I wish I had a switch to turn on the power. I wish I had a switch to turn on the water,” Adler said. “I think we have to recognize that in this day and age of increasingly frequent, extreme weather events, we have to be more prepared in more situations.”

Improvements to Austin’s energy infrastructure would be expensive. But, according to Webber, the alternative comes with a much higher cost.

“It’s one of those things like home insurance, where home insurance is expensive but so is rebuilding your house when it burns down,” he said.

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