Thursday, February 18, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

With energy, water recovery slow, Austin leaders look for answers

With the city’s energy and water utility systems vastly over capacity, local leaders are pushing for immediate solutions to improve residents’ safety and looking at how the state can prevent a similar statewide failure in the future.

As of Wednesday night, Austin Energy had restored power to 16 grids that had gone days without power, with utility officials saying rotating outages in circuits without critical infrastructure could take place in the coming days. That uncertainty came with a citywide boil notice issued by Austin Water Utility after power was lost at Ullrich Water Treatment Plant and water pressure dropped below minimum standards.

Temperatures are forecast to dip back below freezing until Saturday, which is expected to put continued strain on utility systems crippled by a historic winter storm that began last weekend.

Mayor Steve Adler said state officials have provided unclear information on why the state power grid wasn’t prepared for the freezing temperatures, ice and snow. Gov. Greg Abbott added reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) as an emergency item for this year’s state Legislature, a move that could fast-track changes to the body in charge of regulating the state’s energy infrastructure.

“Everybody deserves better answers from state leadership as to why this happened as well as how we’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. Our system was not hardened around the state sufficiently to withstand an extended period of time with a temperature of 18 below freezing,” Adler said. “We hardened the system to be able to withstand hot temperatures with lots of air conditioning and high loads, but the low temperatures we have not hardened ourselves against.”

Abbott’s Wednesday press conference suggested that another 2 million residents out of three million total without power are expected to get service restored in the coming days. There was no new estimate on Wednesday of how many Austin residents are still without power, a factor Adler said exacerbates stress on the city and its populace that is expected to conserve water for at least the next several days.

“On top of Covid we have this once-in-a-generation storm then on top of that we have the power situation and now on top of that we have a developing water challenge,” he said. “Of all of those things it’s mostly the water challenge that is in our control. We can’t let ourselves create another challenge that goes on top of all the others, so everyone has to conserve water.”

The city had opened a rotating set of warming centers around the area to provide some help to impacted residents. Adler encouraged anyone who is able to help to visit the Austin Disaster Relief Network website to find the best opportunities closest to them.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs City Council’s Austin Energy oversight committee, said there will be a special called meeting of that group next week to begin investigating Austin Energy’s role in the power failure and how it was impacted by ERCOT’s instructions early Monday morning to cut power to more than 200,000 customers.

“My goal is to be as honest and clear as possible in my communications and where Austin Energy is at fault I will say, and where they are not at fault I will also say. We are at the mercy of directives we cannot ignore, disobey or otherwise flout. When ERCOT told us to start shedding at 1 a.m. Monday morning we had to shed 100 percent of everything they told us to shed, just like every other community across the state,” she said.

“The statewide grid has been neglected, underfunded and under-resourced for decades, and this calamity rests on the shoulders of the state’s elected leadership and ERCOT. Period, full stop. By next week we will have moved beyond this crisis where power is restored 100 percent and people can start moving on and looking at how it happened, where we can fill the gaps, what resources are needed and what we can do to close them.”

Council Member Paige Ellis echoed the call to conserve water so the Austin Water Department can fix main breaks and fix low pressure that could lead to boil notices.

“What’s important for people to know is that in situations where you end up with low pressure, you need time for the infrastructure to catch and that’s the situation we’re in now,” she said. “The ability of the machinery to produce clean water has been affected … things are getting into a place I don’t know anyone would have predicted even recently. People are rightly in emergency mode; try to make sure they have what they need to keep their family safe.”

The statewide failure and outages drew national attention as well as outrage on social media, including posts that highlighted downtown Austin as mostly illuminated, including high-rise office buildings with lights on throughout.

Adler said the downtown circuits had to stay on to ensure energy service for critical facilities such as the Dell Seton Medical Center, but shared in frustration over the lack of energy conservation by many downtown businesses.

He said talks in recent days with the Austin Chamber, Downtown Austin Alliance and Real Estate Council of Austin were leading to progress to get those buildings darkened with lowered thermostats.

“I saw the number of tall buildings with all the lights on downtown and that made me angry too. For as many people as we have in the city working hard to conserve and others who don’t have power and so are doing forced conservation,” he said. “We talked about getting greater conservation from them, turning off the lights and getting thermostats lowered. Those organizations were real supportive of that and I know they’ve put forth considerable effort to reach out to their membership on the properties downtown so they’re doing their part with conservation. I share the same frustration of the people from a few days ago.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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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