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Electric, water utilities prepare for a long, hot summer

Friday, June 5, 2009 by Bill McCann

As the summer of 2009 sweeps in with its hot, mostly dry weather, Austin’s water and electric utilities say they are prepared both with their physical facilities and with their continuing aggressive efforts to promote efficiency in water and power use.


Both utilities experience by far their highest demands in summer. Keeping those demands down can help save both the utilities and customers’ money in the short-term and long-term.


The Austin Water Utility put into effect mandatory outdoor watering restrictions for residences on May 1 (Year-round restrictions for commercial and multi-family buildings went into effect last fall.). The utility, together with the Lower Colorado River Authority, also is running catchy radio and television spots with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel to encourage people to use water wisely. The spots will run through August.


Austin Energy, meanwhile, continues to market its energy rebate, green building and other programs, including the voluntary installation of free programmable thermostats in homes and businesses. These thermostats are linked to the utility, which can remotely cycle an air conditioner on and off briefly during times of peak demand. Some 77,000 of the thermostats already have been installed. Austin also is overseeing a new program that requires the owner of a single-family home that is at least 10 years old to have an energy audit performed on the property before selling it. The audit requirement went into effect June 1.


Last summer was particularly scorching as temperatures hit triple digits a total of 50 days. As a result, Austin Energy set an all-time peak demand record of 2,514 megawatts in August, according to Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova. The utility also set all-time monthly peak records from May through August 2008, he said.


Austin Energy officials do not expect to repeat those kinds of numbers this summer. For one thing, the latest weather forecast from LCRA Meteorologist Bob Rose calls for summer temperatures to be not nearly as hot nor have as many 100-degree days as last year.


For another, Austin Energy has revised downward its projection of peak power demands for this summer due to the overall slowdown in the economy. The utility initially had projected a peak of 2,542 megawatts this summer, but is now estimating a peak of 2,477 megawatts.


For the Austin Water Utility, summer rainfall is the primary factor. If there is a lot of rain, people cut back on outdoor watering and demands stay steady. But no amount of crystal-balling can predict where, when and how much will fall. For this summer, meteorologist Rose is projecting that rain will be near or slightly below normal for the area.  While there will be periods of scattered rain, Rose said he does not see the kinds of heavy rains that will pull the area out of the serious drought – unless we get a big storm from the Gulf.


The vagaries of rainfall were evident last summer. While the Austin area did not get a lot of rain, it did get enough every 10 days to two weeks to help dampen demands on the city water system and help usher in new outdoor watering restrictions, said Daryl Slusher, the Austin Water Utility’s assistant director of environmental affairs and conservation. 


Under the restrictions, residential customers with addresses ending in an odd number may water only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and those with addresses ending in an even number may water only on Thursdays and Sundays. They may water their lawns anytime on these days except between the hours of 10am and 7pm. Residential restrictions are in effect from May 1 to Sept. 30. Flagrant and repeat offenders could face misdemeanor charges punishable with a fine of up to $2,000.


“Unless we get relief with rains, we could have a tougher test of the watering ordinance this summer,” Slusher said. “So we will be gearing up for that.”


Emphasis will be on “informing and enforcing,” Slusher continued. “We want to inform first. If we get a report of someone violating the ordinance, we will want to talk to them. We find that once most people understand what we are doing, they are willing to cooperate and less enforcement is needed.”

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