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Council hears Austin Energy’s take on last week’s rolling blackouts

Friday, February 11, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A clearer image is emerging about the events that caused rolling blackouts across Texas this past week after city officials briefed the Council on the incident Thursday.


“It was a very serious and complex set of circumstances,” said City Manger Marc Ott. “But I think at the end of the day … it could have been a heck of a lot worse.”


Austin Energy General Manager Larry Weis noted the exceptionally fast-moving nature of the events, praised his staff, and told Council members that Austin Energy would review its policies and procedures.


He also set aside some of the blame for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). “I would have like to have known an hour before or two hours before,” the order came to start the rolling blackouts, he said. “Then we wouldn’t be talking so much about this communication issue.”


ERCOT Chief Operating Officer Trip Doggett has noted that that organization would work on its communication efforts.


Weis also said that, in his opinion, “there was a potential for (a total blackout) here, and it got very close.”


This contradicts a statement that Doggett made at a press conference this past week. “The grid was not close to going down,” he said at the time.


Weis’ picture of the blackout is centered on just how quickly the crisis unfolded. “The situation progressed rapidly – too rapidly,” he said.


His timeline showed that more than 80 outages of generating units began just after midnight. A more critical stage of the reserve shortage that would trigger the rolling blackouts was reported at 5:08am. Less than an hour later, Austin Energy was ordered to reduce its electrical load.


“I can’t explain the speed at which this happened,” Weis later added. “That’s (ERCOT’s) job to explain that.”


Weis said that the utility would take a closer look at how it operates under such conditions. That, he added, would include a review of Austin Energy’s policies, the utility’s communications procedures, and a host of other alternatives – including a potential reverse 911 system.


“We will look at everything we can use,” he said.


Council Member Laura Morrison asked if this might feature an incentive for rate payers to volunteer for rolling blackout duty. Weis said that the utility would look into it, but only for large-scale users.


“We’re talking megawatts of power here,” he said later. “So that would take thousands of (residential) customers to deal with. We have to really go after customers who are large.”


Questions about the relatively short and fast energy crisis will bring officials from ERCOT to the Capitol for hearings next week. Weis declined to answer directly whether the situation was made more challenging by the structure of that organization.


He was, however, able to compare quantitative differences in the organization that coordinated the services of his former utility, the Turlock Irrigation District.  Weis said that that body, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council is “divided into 35 control areas or balancing authorities.”


He noted that ERCOT is made up of only one.


“So conceivably, what could have happened is part of those balancing authorities (could have) had a problem and they had to deal with their own problem … and if they can’t, they can’t. In that (his former) situation, you don’t share the pain, you have winners and losers.”


Weis continued on. “That’s part of the interesting part about this. For example, if Austin Energy’s facilities were all running top notch and everything else, and we find out that somebody’s isn’t, then why should customers in one place have to …”


He let that thought hang as he turned to broach the philosophical nature of grid engineering.

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