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Austin Energy leader insists utility is resilient

Wednesday, June 2, 2021 by Jo Clifton

While Sidney Jackson, Austin Energy’s deputy general manager and COO, told City Council the “system is resilient,” utility customers who went without power for three days might disagree. By Saturday night, power had been restored to 88 percent of the 37,800 customers who lost power during Friday night’s intense thunderstorm, he said, addressing Council at Tuesday’s special called meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee.

To anyone who does not consider severe thunderstorms to be particularly challenging, “I would ask that you reconsider your point of view,” Jackson said, showing pictures of huge trees that had fallen on houses and power lines during the storm. He described Friday night’s storm, which included lightning, damaging winds, flash floods, water pooling on roadways making them impassable, zero visibility, torrential rains, and hail in some areas. All of these occurred over a sustained period of time, he noted, and trees were knocked down over the utility’s entire service area and beyond.

The storm was so intense and spread over such a large area that when Austin Energy asked other utility providers for help, they were not able to respond because they were dealing with their own outages.

Many of the downed trees were huge, weighing 10 tons or more, he said. “The Austin Energy system is resilient. However, 10-ton trees falling on our overhead distribution lines will cause outages.”

Whenever a power line is knocked down, electricity will be cut off automatically for safety reasons. “We do not want a tree on an energized power line,” he said, noting that such lines are dangerous to humans and animals and can result in fatalities. Having the power cut off protects the equipment as well as maintenance personnel.

In addition to the first storm on Friday night, there was a second storm on Sunday night and a third on Monday. He called the storms “a calamity of sorts to property,” causing significant damage. “It is challenging to restore service during these events,” he said. This is not an issue of electric line maintenance or operation.

Jackson said Austin Energy is committed to restoring critical customers first and restoring as many customers as fast as possible. “All things being equal, the outages affecting the largest number of customers are our first priority,” he said.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who chairs the committee, noted it is always easy to find fault during a crisis. She said it was important to recognize the perils of electricity and asked people to remind friends to have their trees trimmed – ideally by an arborist.

Council Member Alison Alter heard complaints from her constituents who were without power. At one point, she said, 10,000 customers lost power in her district. She wanted to know whether having vegetation management practices in place would have prevented some of the debris on the lines and how much the problems had to do with the specific nature of the strength of the storm.

Jackson said vegetation management has some positive impact, but he pointed out that Austin Energy only manages vegetation in the right of way and does not go on people’s property to trim their trees.

Council Member Paige Ellis asked, “Is there a place where people can find information when they’re having frequent outages?” In the last place she lived, “it seemed like power was going out constantly.” She also said she appreciated the deployment of a cooling center in South Austin.

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