How does Austin Energy prepare its infrastructure for extreme summer heat?

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Curt Burdorf’s neighbor is under hospice care. During February’s winter storm, he remembers using a generator to charge the man’s ventilator.

“For them, it’s critical to have power at least for a few hours twice a day,” he said.

But since the storm, our team is hearing from people who say they keep losing power intermittently.

Burdorf said since then his Zilker neighborhood has lost power at least a half-dozen times since Winter Storm Uri. Although the outages were mostly short lived, he said it brings back bad memories.

“There’s some post-traumatic stress-type things, and I know that there’s probably plenty of other people that are having deeper concerns,” Burdorf told us.

Austin Energy crosschecked the outage dates, and now say they aren’t related to the winter storm. Rather, the utility said they were caused by natural phenomena, routine maintenance or broken equipment.

Austin Energy’s explanations for a half-dozen power outages in the Zilker and Barton Hills neighborhoods.

“Unfortunately, outages caused by things outside our control such as lighting, car crashes, birds and squirrels will always occur,” said an Austin Energy spokesperson. She added there are no larger or systemic issues with infrastructure in that area.

Ross Smith, who has lived in Zilker Heights for 30 years, said he and other neighbors are concerned about outages come summer. That’s when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electrical grid, is anticipating record-breaking demand due to expected hot and dry conditions.

“We have both a lot of young families here with young children,” he said, adding he hadn’t seen this many outages in a short period of time since living in the neighborhood. “We also have a considerable number of elderly people.”

How Austin Energy prepares for heat

There has been much discussion about how utilities “winterize” power plants and infrastructure in preparation for cold weather. But Austin Energy also has several methods to try and shed heat ahead of the summer months.

The majority of the year, we weatherize to ensure our plants can withstand extreme hot weather.

The utility said weatherization efforts are tailored based on the plant’s specific needs. Austin Energy said some of its weatherization measures include:

  • Insulation on piping, cabinets
  • Metal structures around areas determined as concerns from past weather events
  • Heat Trace – electrical heating systems on critical components
  • Removing any wind breaks, thermal blankets applied to critical components for winter weather

A spokesperson for Austin Energy said the thermal blankets help keep critical infrastructure warm in the winter, but wind and open air helps keep equipment cool in the Summer.

The city is currently auditing its response to the winter storm, from weatherization measures to the use of warming shelters.

Another aspect in preventing power outages is tree management around power lines and other infrastructure. In a presentation given to council Monday, Austin Energy said it plans to have 58 crews dedicated to clearing trees around power lines by May. That is up from 38 crews in January.

“By the end of the calendar year, Austin Energy expects to finish pruning the 10 circuits at highest wildfire risk in our service area,” said an Austin Energy spokesperson.

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