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Austin Energy’s new chief operations officer ‘proud’ of first-year results

Monday, December 10, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

At Austin Energy, successful operations begin with safety. With a growing city and a growing need for electric services, Austin Energy has begun to internally push its “Safety Starts With Me” campaign in an effort to reduce the number of injuries on the job and simultaneously increase the productivity of employees.

“We are requiring each person not only to be their own keeper but the keeper of their co-workers,” Charles Dickerson, the four-month veteran chief operating officer at Austin Energy explained to the Electric Utility Oversight Committee at its Dec. 6 meeting.

Austin’s burgeoning population is creating more demand on city utilities, which can cause employees to work longer shifts. The problem with that equation is, according to Dickerson, “the more hours you work, the more exposure you have to risk.” Fortunately, Austin Energy statistics from this year show that despite an increase in hours worked, there has also been an increase in the number of hours worked safely.

This can partly be attributed to the new equipment that the utility is installing, and partly to employees becoming accustomed to reporting “near misses,” as close calls are known in the industry. “We want people to feel safe to report a near miss because we want people to be able to learn,” said Dickerson. He told the committee that his proudest moment this year was when he realized that employees were taking the initiative to correct situations and errors that led to near misses rather than simply analyzing them as a statistic to be addressed at a later date.

One of the corrective actions taken to make sure employees are less accident-prone is making electrical vaults safer, through Arc Reduction Maintenance systems. These systems reduce the energy emitted during an electrical fault to a safe level. Austin Energy has installed 409 network protectors, which is two years ahead of schedule.

“We’ve already protected two employees,” said Dickerson. “Had it not been for this system we would have been having a very sad conversation.”

These improvements in safety have in turn led to more system reliability. “The frequency of our outages have dropped significantly year over year,” Dickerson said. According to utility data, the duration has dropped from 60.94 minutes in 2017 to 41.43 minutes in 2018. In 2017, there were 0.8 interruptions per customer, and by 2018 that had dropped to 0.62.

To continue to reduce the frequency and duration of outages, Austin Energy needs to keep drawing power from ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) rather than relying solely on its own generation. The consequences of this are twofold. On the one hand, taking energy from the state grid keeps prices more stable for utility customers. On the other hand, it also means that the city continues to have a larger carbon footprint than it would otherwise have, which in 2018 meant that 38 percent of the total power load was renewable. The city of Austin has a goal to generate 65 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. Already, Austin Energy has energy generation facilities all over the state, many of which are wind- and solar-powered. However, the major reduction in carbon-generating assets will come in 2021-23 when the Fayette Power Project and Decker Creek go offline. At that point, plant CO2 emissions will decrease from about 5 million tons per year to 0.8 million tons.

Until that point, “our environmental (footprint) will continue to show red as far as I am concerned until we unwind some of our carbon positions,” said Dickerson.

Photo by USDA Forest Service.

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