Friday, February 3, 2023 by Emma Freer
Another historic winter storm left more than 147,000 Austin Energy customers without power and more than 100 work crews struggling to repair downed power lines, with no estimate of when the outages would be resolved.
“We had hoped to make more progress today on restoration, and that simply has not happened,” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said during the second of two press conferences Thursday, walking back the utility’s earlier estimate that it would restore power to most customers by Friday evening.
Although utility crews had restored power to more than 113,000 customers by Thursday morning, Sargent explained they were hampered by impassable roads and falling ice, trees and branches, some of which took out circuits crews had just repaired.
“It feels like two steps forward and three steps back,” she said during the earlier press conference.
Sargent attributed the widespread outages to localized damage as opposed to the power grid failure during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.
“These outages have nothing to do with the power grid,” she said at the same event. “These extended outages are what happens when ice starts to weigh down on tree limbs, power lines and utility poles.”
In the face of such damage, Sargent asked Austin residents not to touch power lines or tree limbs that are in contact with power lines. Residents in need of clearing away debris should call 512-322-9100, according to a city press release.
“Assume that downed power lines are energized and stay away from them,” she said.
Crews continued to respond to more than 1,650 outages as of Thursday evening, prioritizing those affecting critical loads, such as hospitals and fire stations, followed by those affecting the greatest number of customers, Sargent said.
But roughly 27 percent of Austin Energy customers, including Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, were still powerless Thursday – which happened to be Groundhog Day – and frustrated by the recurring nature of such extreme weather.
“The storm event leaving so many without heat, light and security comes on the heels of Winter Storm Uri, and the anxiety and trauma that we all experienced then,” Watson said at the earlier event.
Many Austinites also worried that the power outages would contribute to a boil-water notice, as occurred during Uri.
Austin Water Director Shay Ralls Roalson tried to dispel these concerns at the press conferences, saying the city’s water treatment plants were working normally, the water supply remained strong, and there were no widespread reports of burst pipes.
“We do not anticipate the need to issue any kind of citywide water outage or boil-water notice,” she said at the later event.
Roalson added that intermittent power outages have affected Austin Water’s pump stations, which distribute water throughout the system, but that Austin Energy has helped to restore power as needed. Austin Water is working directly with roughly 40 customers who have been affected by water shortages in Southwest Austin.
Roalson also recommended that customers conserve water, which helps maintain the water supply at pump stations impacted by outages.
Other city and county departments continue to respond to the storm and its fallout, by clearing major roadways of debris, resuming trash collection, maintaining warming centers and cold weather shelters, and coordinating transportation to those facilities.
In the meantime, city officials are demanding better communication from Austin Energy and accountability from city staff.
City Council members Alison Alter and Vanessa Fuentes requested a briefing on the city’s storm response during Tuesday’s work session.
“As policy makers, we need to better understand what worked and what didn’t in our response, which processes require improvement, and where we need to make adjustments or investments moving forward,” they wrote in a Thursday post to the City Council Message Board.
Council Member Chito Vela also proposed burying power lines in a Wednesday tweet.
Sargent responded to this proposal during the first press conference, explaining that retrofitting existing above-ground power lines is very expensive – “billions of dollars” – and brings new challenges, such as how to bury lines in Austin’s limestone formation and how to repair damaged sections.
She added that Austin Energy has invested in trimming trees near power lines in recent years, making “substantial progress” trimming along 313 miles of lines, according to its 2021 annual report. But she said the utility relies on residents to allow its crews to do this work.
Elton Richards, the utility’s vice president of field operations, said during the second press conference that the current outages are primarily a vegetation management issue and the result of old city policy that “restricted the trimming of the trees down to an unsustainable (level).”
He estimated it would take Austin Energy another three years to address the tree trimming backlog.
Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.
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