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Storm deals heavy blow to Austin Energy, other utilities

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 by Jo Clifton

With roughly 40 percent of its customers without power Monday, Austin Energy and other local officials worked to explain what happened when an unprecedented winter storm swept through the entire state, leaving roughly 2 million Texans without electricity.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, told Austin Energy and other utilities they were required to cut electric usage in order to keep the system operating. As a result, Austin Energy turned off electric service to about 200,000 customers at about 2 a.m., telling them that the action was part of a rolling blackout. But later in the day at a news conference, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said those same customers could be without power until sometime Tuesday.

The utility’s website explained the problem this way: “The large amount of electricity demand we’ve had to reduce has impacted our ability to rotate outages among customers and some of our customers have been without power since early Monday morning. In normal emergencies, we rotate outages throughout our service area. Unfortunately, we are unable to rotate outages at this time because there are no other available non-critical load circuits to put into outage rotation. The bottom line is that electric load must be reduced statewide in order to fully restore service across the ERCOT grid, and Austin Energy is following ERCOT’s direction.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who attended the news conference from his car, said his household in Hyde Park was one of those that lost power. He did not complain, but thanked all those working hard to provide services to Austinites.

The Austin Monitor reached out to two utility experts from the University of Texas, Michael Webber and Joshua D. Rhodes of the Webber Energy Group of the Energy Institute.

Webber explained what may be happening at some power plants. “Even though a power plant is very hot, some on the outer edges can freeze.” If that happens, “it can trip the whole power plant off. And a lot of it is because in Texas we design our power plants to throw off heat,” unlike in other parts of the country, where power plants conserve heat.

He predicted that the situation would get worse with colder weather Tuesday. “Once those big power plants go offline, it’s hard” to get them back up, Webber said.

Rhodes said the winter storm impacting all 254 Texas counties was “quite a black swan event,” noting that the state’s problems are “all stemming from record demand. I’ve never seen all 254 counties being under a winter storm warning.”

He explained that half of Texas homes use natural gas for heat and half use electricity, which is generated by power plants, many of which use natural gas. So there’s a heavy demand on natural gas, but some plants are unable to get the gas they need to operate at full capacity. In addition, he said the weather could be impacting utility operations by freezing intake pipes, which would prevent the plant from getting the cooling water it needs to operate.

“ERCOT said today that overnight they lost 30,000 MW of power,” including gas, coal and nuclear facilities, Rhodes said. While it’s true that wind turbines and solar power facilities have been seriously impacted by the storm, gas and coal plants have also been impacted. “So I don’t think it’s any one particular fault. We design the system to the best we think we need and can afford, but it’s not fail-safe.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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