AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just a week shy of a year since freezing temperatures led to cascading power failure, plunging millions of Texans into the dark for days, Austinites are bracing for another winter storm. This time, KXAN meteorologists are forecasting a significant ice storm could hit much of Central Texas before dawn Thursday morning.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Austin Energy Oversight Committee, Mayor Steve Adler asked the leaders of the electricity utility, “Are we in a different place than we were last time?”
General Manager Jackie Sargent told the committee it was prepared.
“We are in a good place,” she said, after hearing Gov. Greg Abbott and leaders with the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas give a press conference earlier in the day.
Austin Energy said it has completed 55.2% of the recommended updates and action items outlined in the After Action Report from the February 2021 storm.
“But there’s no way to make a guarantee or promise, because it’s situational,” Sargent warned.
Types of outages, and how to handle them
When winter weather hits, it can cause customers’ power to go out for a few different reasons.
Some outages are caused by ice, wind or fallen trees interfering with power lines. In those cases, Austin Energy said its crew must get out to assess the damage and fix the problems on the lines.
“It’s hard to predict where the outages or the trees are going to be an issue. So we do have tree trimmers, and crews throughout the city, should there be a situation that we should concentrate on a certain part of town, then we can make the necessary accommodations for that,” said Luis Rivas with Austin Energy.
Austin Energy told KXAN it made “huge progress” in 2021 on preemptively trimming trees to prevent these kinds of outages, thanks to a doubling of its Vegetation Management Program budget by the Austin City Council.
Vice President of Electrical Field Systems Operations Elton Richards told KXAN this allowed them to increase the number of vegetation management crews from 30 up to 60, but there was a delay in getting those new crews operational.
“So we lost almost a half a year on that,” he said, saying they hope to increase their efforts even further this year. “Last year in 2021 we trimmed approximately 16 to 20 circuits. This year we are hoping to execute 44 circuits.”
Richards said labor shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks have caused them to be 15 crews short of where they “should be.”
Last year, Austin Energy reported 35,000 weather-related outages, but after ERCOT mandated utility providers cut demand and shut off customers’ power during the storm, the number of outages jumped to 220,000. It’s a process called “load-shedding,” to help decrease demand on the overall power grid.
Vice President of Engineering Thomas Pierpoint said, “We’re used to restoring from storms. The ERCOT-mandated load-sheds are definitely more challenging.”
He explained Austin Energy is in the process of making some changes to their circuits, to target outages more precisely and better isolate critical customers, such as hospitals or 911 centers. He said they are also focused on a “load-curtailment” program for large commercial or industrial customers. Basically, they are asking these customers to voluntarily decrease any unnecessary power demand to prevent them from having to shut off so many homes during a load-shed event.
Echoing Sargent’s comments to the committee, Pierpoint told KXAN he feels the steps taken so far will set them up to better handle this storm. Still, he emphasized this all depends on how the grid fairs against the coming storm and how much demand — if any — ERCOT asks entities to cut.
“But we just don’t know until it happens,” he said.
When it come to tracking these various kinds of outage, Rivas said Austin Energy has also made changes to its Outage Map, to better track how many customers are without power across the city — and why.
“So far, it’s been performing very well,” he said.
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