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AE chief apologizes for hardships caused by storm

Thursday, March 4, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent apologized to the community during Wednesday’s AE Utility Oversight Committee meeting for the suffering and hardships experienced during Winter Storm Uri as a result of electric system outages. Even though the outages were ordered by the state grid operator, ERCOT, Sargent said Austin Energy would work to do a better job in the future.

“We at Austin Energy share the frustration that our customers and everyone here feels about what happened during the recent winter storm events,” Sargent said. “The outage duration, severity and inability to rotate outages was unacceptable. People suffered and endured significant hardship. For that, I am truly sorry.”

The storm was beyond what anyone in the Texas utility industry had foreseen, Sargent explained. “No one ever imagined that we would be required to shed so much load so quickly and for so long in order to keep the entire ERCOT grid from collapsing,” she said. Comparing this year’s snow, ice and freezing cold to the storm of 2011, Sargent noted that 10 years ago Austin Energy was required to shed 158 megawatts of customer load. That emergency lasted only six hours.

But during this year’s storm, she said ERCOT directed Austin Energy to shed more than 700 megawatts starting on Feb. 15 – four-and-a-half times more than in 2011 and lasting for three days. Because of the huge amount that Austin Energy was required to shut down, she said the utility had no other circuits to rotate the outages to. “To rotate outages at that point would have endangered critical loads, such as hospitals” and public safety facilities, Sargent said.

Deputy General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Sidney Jackson went through the sequence of events that nearly led to a total shutdown of electric power plants in the state. At one point, he said 220,000 Austin Energy customers had outages as a result of orders from ERCOT. He said it was not easy to know what ERCOT would order next. “Our systems were standing by. Our systems were ready to execute the rotating outages, but … the depth of the load shed” orders were “so severe that to execute an outage rotation” could have jeopardized critical services, such as police, fire and EMS, and might have provided only diminishing returns, he said.

Some consumer advocates, including Tom “Smitty” Smith, have said that Austin Energy needs to consider creating more micro-circuits for critical facilities, so it will be easier for the utility to rotate outages.

Council also heard a presentation from Marissa Monroy, who is in charge of communications at the utility. She told Council members that Austin Energy put out numerous alerts to try to let people know about the outages. One of the ways residents received warning was through Warn Central Texas. However, she noted that people must sign up for the service in order to get a phone call or text message. Austin Energy also put out 500 messages through social media, she said.

Council Member Pio Renteria was not satisfied. He noted that his home in East Austin close to downtown was hit with a power outage that started Monday, Feb. 15, and lasted through Thursday, Feb. 18. He said he had no communications from Austin Energy and the only way he could find out what was going on was through his transistor radio, where he listened to KUT 90.5 FM for news. “We need to do a better job,” he said, calling the situation “ridiculous.” Renteria said he had to shovel a path through the snow in order to charge his cell phone in his car.

At a future meeting Council is expecting to set up a community task force to look at what happened with Austin Energy and Austin Water and to ask City Auditor Corrie Stokes to report on Austin Energy’s performance during the storm. That item will likely appear on next week’s Council agenda. Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs the Austin Energy committee, said the committee would meet again on March 31, along with the Austin Water Utility Oversight Committee, to continue discussions.

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