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Austin Energy reflects on emergency response two months after record-breaking ice storm

Tuesday, March 28, 2023 by Kali Bramble

As brush collectors make their final sweeps for toppled tree debris, Austin Energy is working to uncover the hard lessons wrought by February’s catastrophic ice storm.

Gearing up to deliver an after-action report to City Council this spring, interim Deputy General Manager Stuart Riley and a cohort of Austin Energy executives stopped by the Electric Utility Commission last week to share their preliminary findings. 

The storm, which coated Austin in nearly an inch of ice before wreaking “hurricane-level destruction” to utility lines, left 174,000 households and businesses without power at its peak, with some outages lasting up to 12 days. It came just two years after the record-shattering Winter Storm Uri, when blackouts mandated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas left millions across Texas without water and electricity.

Despite efforts in the past two years to weatherize infrastructure, Austin Energy was unprepared to withstand the buckling of the city’s urban canopy, which suffered damage to an estimated 10.5 million trees under layers of freezing rain. While the utility’s vegetation management program runs year-round to curb overgrowth, crews are still catching up to the city’s belated change to clearance policies, which were updated from 4 to 8 feet of clearance to 8 to 15 feet in 2019.

“We have never seen anything as complicated or as laborious as this, with so much manual work required systemwide,” Riley of the damage caused by the recent storm. “Circuit after circuit with tree damage up and down the line, broken cross arms, broken poles – dozens of separate issues preventing them from being energized until each problem is fixed.”

Commissioners noted that as AE staff, mutual aid workers, and emergency contractors scrambled to tackle repairs, customers were perhaps most frustrated by communications issues that left many unsure when help would be on the way. Austin Energy says it has reworked a number of programming issues with storm center outage map application KUBRA, but will prioritize automating and streamlining its call and text center to handle greater loads during emergencies.

“Our more proactive communications with folks required a lot more manual data extraction than there probably should have been,” said Greg Flay, vice president of technology and data. “There’s no doubt that there will be an element of the after-action report dealing with that.”

As for the trees, Austin Energy is optimistic about forthcoming vegetation management contracts, which they hope will help alleviate the labor shortages that have slowed down the clearing process. Per the commission’s request, staff will also explore negotiations with the telecommunications companies using distribution poles to contribute to upkeep.

Under Council pressure, Austin Energy will also consider more ambitious solutions, with plans for a study on what burying power lines would financially and logistically entail.

“It does seem like, with the exception of some communications issues, you all did a lot of things right and the weather simply overwhelmed the system,” said Commissioner Kaiba White. “I know that every time burying power lines is brought up, it’s dismissed as too expensive. But if you start to look at the economic impact of these extended outage events, strategies that might seem outlandishly expensive may start to seem cost-effective.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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