Why didn’t Austin Energy shut down some of its biggest customers until Tuesday?

Austin

Austin Energy says plants needed slower and more controlled shutdowns

AUSTIN (Texas) — To help with power conservation, the City of Austin ordered manufacturing, industrial and commercial businesses to slow or stop operations as much as possible.

But as KXAN found out, that didn’t happen for some of the biggest companies until Tuesday — after so many homes were already in the dark.

“I had to put my mattress in the kitchen and kind of turn on and off my stove,” said Samantha Reyes.

She says she knows that wasn’t safe but was desperate, going through two days without power with her kids.

“I know people say it’s dangerous,” Reyes said. “I had to do what I had to do — you know, I don’t have any heaters.”

While thousands of people like her faced outages, the single mom wonders why some big companies were allowed to operate.

“I have a two year old, you know,” she said. “This whole time I’ve been having to cuddle with her and do all that, but then a major corporation is able to have lights and all that stuff.”

Samantha Reyes says her heat is still on and off.
(Photo courtesy Samantha Reyes)

“You’re really taking away from a lot of families when you do stuff like that, that’s not right,” Reyes said.

Trey Salinas is a spokesperson for the Coalition for Clean, Affordable and Reliable Energy, which he said represents Austin Energy’s largest customers, including Samsung, NXP and Infinion.

On a typical day without running too much heat or air conditioning, Salinas says the top 10 customers use between 300 to 350 megawatts a day.

“So that tells you these are very large customers,” Salinas said.

Austin Energy tells us a typical home only needs 877 kilowatts per month.

Based on our calculations, one day of those large industrial operations could power nearly 12,000 homes.

Salinas said most of the commercial companies started slowing down operations over the weekend.

“Austin Energy’s largest customers have done their part and are doing their part,” he said.

But he says the five chip-making plants that use the most energy weren’t shut down until Austin Energy forced them to on Tuesday. A move he calls “unprecedented.”

Usually, Salinas said, those factories are allowed to operate on ‘idle,’ using significantly less energy but not completely shut down. Now, he estimates his members are probably using less than 50 megawatts.

“Do you think that if companies or these plants were shut down Sunday or even Monday instead of Tuesday, it would have saved homes from blackouts?” asked KXAN’s Tahera Rahman.

“No, because we had a problem that started Sunday night. And so, you had a slow ramp down for everybody that was occurring. Again, remember, a lot of this ramp down started over the weekend, even before everything went out on Sunday,” Salinas said.

KXAN asked Austin Energy why it didn’t cut off power to those high-energy chipmaking plants sooner. They said they worked closely with the companies to shut down in a controlled and safe way, since the facilities involve chemicals. 

Austin Energy also added while the semi-conductor companies are some of their largest customers, they represent less than 8% of the company’s peak load. 

“We reached out to all our large commercial and industrial customers to conserve energy. The semiconductor companies were very responsive to early requests to reduce load and helped us meet ERCOT load shed requirements. As the call for load shedding increased, we worked with our customers with backup generation to bring that on, and curtail non-critical commercial loads, including semiconductors. We worked closely with the semiconductor fabs to shut down in a controlled manner given the life safety requirements related to their operations. The chipmaking plants have a complex process involving chemicals that require planned shutdowns. This approach reduced risks to plant workers and public safety. While the semiconductor companies are amongst our largest customers, they represent less than 8% of our peak load.”

Jennifer Herber, Austin Energy Spokesperson

We turned to an expert for perspective: Yuri Dvorkin is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at New York University. He’s currently researching energy grids.

“If we were to run a cost-benefit analysis, it would turn out that for short term outages… Customers are cheaper from the societal viewpoint to be disconnected than large industries,” Dvorkin said.

But Dvorkin said in a case like this, numbers shouldn’t be the only factor in the outage equation.

“That is not an applicable scenario, because their losses are far greater, there are health risks at stake, right,” he said.

Reyes’ lights finally turned on overnight but with her food now spoiled and icy roads, she’s relying on what’s in stock at convenience stores — mostly Ramen noodles, she said, and the kindness of her neighbors.

“I’m grateful for the people in the community that actually get out here and try to help each other,” said Reyes, who has received food and blankets from strangers. “I know everything is going to come together soon, I don’t give up hope.”

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