Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, February 17, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy

Power could get cut to circuits that include hospitals as a ‘last resort,’ Austin Energy warns

Austin Energy could decide to shut off electricity to circuits that include critical infrastructure – such as fire stations, hospitals and 911 operations – to prevent the state’s power grid from collapsing, the municipal utility warned Tuesday.

“Only as an absolute last resort. I cannot guarantee that we will not get to that stage,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said during a news conference. “I am hoping that won’t happen, but I don’t want to create a false sense of security.”

As of Tuesday evening, about 173,000 Austin Energy customers – roughly one-third of the utility’s consumers – were without power. And it could be out into Wednesday, Austin Energy said, with no clear answer from the state grid regulator on when power can be restored.

“It makes it difficult to give you a certain answer,” Bill Magness, Electric Reliability Council of Texas president and CEO, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday. “We’re relying on the ability to get that supply and demand in balance.”

A spokesperson for Austin Energy confirmed that the utility was able to restore power to some households Tuesday, but the number was very small compared to total outages.

“Until this weather event clears and more generating units across the state are able to come online, there will not be enough capacity to meet all energy customers’ demands,” Sargent said.

She said the utility has asked its largest customers to take additional steps to conserve power, and has cut electricity to those that have backup generators.

Should demand bypass the state’s current electric capacity, the entire system could break down.

“If the grid were to collapse, if the demand would continue to go up, the generating capacity or supply continue to come down, there would be a point when the whole system would go black,” Sargent said. “That would take not just days to restore power, but weeks and even longer for some customers throughout the ERCOT footprint.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

ERCOT: Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The state-level organization that organizes utilities throughout the state. According to its web site, ERCOT, "manages the flow of electric power to 24 million Texas customers - representing 85 percent of the state's electric load."

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