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Some Austin Energy customers kept power during the Texas freeze. Here's why the utility's GM says that's no guarantee for the future

KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski sits down with Austin Energy and Austin Water in a two-part report about what has changed since the 2021 February winter storm.

AUSTIN, Texas — A year after the Texas freeze caused millions of electric customers to lose their power, Austin Energy officials say that the utility is better prepared now for a similar winter storm that it was in February 2021. 

Much of what happened last year was the result of state power grid operators ordering companies such as Austin Energy to reduce use on the state grid, which was in danger of total collapse. 

But the utility has improved communications, including the ability to get messages out faster and in more languages to customers. It also has taken steps to ensure that crews can better and more safely operate in icy conditions. 

General Manager Jackie Sargent also said Austin Energy has altered some of its circuits to allow the utility to maintain power to critical operations such as hospitals, while potentially flipping the power off to homes on the same circuit.

Austin Energy sits down with KVUE

Sargent recently sat down with KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski to discuss new preparations the utility has made for the next winter storm: 

Sargent: “You know, Tony, we have taken everything we have learned from the very harrowing event of last February and we have comprised an after-action report where we looked at everything across our operations and we came up with, believe it was 19 observations and 112 follow-up action items. And I'm happy to say that we're over 55% complete with those action items. But, with any event, there are things you can always do better, and so we have worked hard to make sure we are in a better position.”

Plohetski: “I know at the height of the emergency, a lot of people were looking at a fully lit Downtown Austin, saying how can that be? What is going on here? We’ve got empty, tall downtown buildings that are fully lit?”

Sargent: “You know, that was an area of great frustration in trying to get connected with the building owners and managers, the occupants of those buildings, to get them to reduce the consumption that they had, turn off their lights and any unnecessary equipment to help us during this very extreme event. So we have been actively reaching out. We have folks in a group called Key Accounts and they are talking to those building owners, the people that manage them and operate them and the occupants, and to say, we're going to need your help and it's going to require that you reduce your consumption during an energy emergency.” 

Plohetski: “Would you say that is in fact one of the main things that you all have done over the past year in terms of further preparing the city should something like this happen again?

Sargent: “You know, we've looked at our circuits and we've looked at ways that we can get more capacity into the load shed program. There are things you can do, like reconfigure circuits, so you can look at where a critical-load customer. And are you able to move them on to a circuit with fewer customers and give you a larger circuit, you know, more megawatts of power to be able to cut? So we've identified three of those circuits and we're working toward moving those critical loads.

There's been a lot of talk about circuit sectionalization, and circuit sectionalization is when you take a circuit and you break it into segments and you do that by installing a sectionalizer, which is basically a motor-operated switch. And so you have that equipment in place when we have circuits with critical load. If those critical loads are at the head-end or the start, the beginning of the circuit, circuit sectionalization becomes a tool where we can put a section analyzer in that motor operated switch and in the event of an energy emergency, we can open that switch and shut off power to the customers downstream of the critical load. But keep the critical load energized, which would be very important during an emergency.”

Plohetski: “It sounds almost like a tourniquet?”

Sargent: “Well, I guess you could think of it that way.” 

Plohetski: “So you raise a very important point, I think, for residents and homeowners, which is just because you kept your power in February 2021 during the rolling blackouts or the blackouts does not necessarily mean that if the exact same situation were to unfold today, that you wouldn't necessarily retain your power, right?

Sargent: “Well, what we would look at is what is the demand of reduction, the power cuts that we are required to do … And so if we get to a situation where we are sectionalizing circuits to protect critical load, those downstream customers would be without power. And so, yes, I would say that it doesn't necessarily mean that if you had power this last time that in an extreme emergency that your power would stay on.”

Plohetski: “Can you just talk about other major shifts, major changes, preparations that Austin Energy has taken over the past year?”

Sargent: “You know, making sure that we can sustain, you know, supporting our team members when they're having to work in hazardous conditions or be on site and making sure that we have adequate supplies for them is important. We found that when people have to be out in extreme conditions and it's, you know, snow and ice and wet and sleet and and different things, their feet get wet. So being able to support them and have ways for them to have alternate pairs of boots and extra dry socks, things like that, I think are really important.”

Sargent: “There are so many things that we have really worked on, and I think our after-action report does a really good job of laying those out. It includes the time frames that we're targeting for completion of those items. And, overall, I think that we are going to be better prepared going forward…”

Plohetski: “And hoping that something like this never happens again…”

Sargent: “Well, you know, hope isn't really a strategy, and I can assure you that we are going to do everything possible to make sure that we can support our customers to the best of our ability.”

You can read Austin Energy's after action report here.

At the height of the February 2021 winter storm, Austin's power emergency turned into a water emergency 

In part two of this report, KVUE Senior Reporter Tony Plohetski speaks one-on-one with Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros. Tune in on Friday at 6 and 10 p.m. for that conversation.

The city issued its second citywide boil water notice in history. Austin also recently issued a third citywide boil water notice last week in what officials have said is an incident under investigation after losing power to the City's main water treatment plant. 

Plohetski sat down in late January with Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros about efforts the utility has made to ensure it is ready for another winter storm.

Plohetski: “So what do you think would happen today that didn’t happen last year, and what wouldn’t happen today that did happen last year?” 

Meszaros: Well, I think a lot of things. One, we went through a very strong winter hardening. All of our plants have insulation, and we are ready for winter. But this event was unlike anything that we've experienced. So we went through and hardened up all of our facilities, enhanced insulation. We know where we had a freezing area so we can better target those with thermal blankets or heat tracing.

“We significantly increased the amount of support for our staff during the winter storm, having almost a week-long event. We increased costs and food and de-icing we bought, you know, ice and you wouldn't think of this, but we bought hundreds of spikes to put on people's shoes so they can walk around our plants in our facilities during a long-term ice plan. That wasn't something I thought in Austin I'd be worried about is ice spikes. But those are little things and big things that we did. I think another important area we did and are still doing is really working closely with the community on how they can prepare for emergencies.”

Plohetski: “What should a person do if we have a major winter storm again?”

Meszaros: "I think from an individual, really just three things to do ahead of time: one, have an emergency water supply. Again, think of the number seven – seven gallons for every person in your house. That simple – have that amount of water in a bottled water a gallon, whatever it would be. Know how to turn off your water. Every single property has a customer turn off. And then also there's a turn off on the meter side with us. Either one of those will work to turn off your water. And the last part is if you are dripping your faucets, know which faucets to drip and how much to drip."

Plohetski: “How much should a person drip? When should they drip? Where should they drip?"

Meszaros: So just ... literally, it means a drip. Just a small drip from a faucet is enough to protect that faucet and the pipes from freezing. You don't have to stream it. More isn’t better. Just a continuous small drip is enough. And you really want to target faucets that are facing an outside wall. You don't have to drip every single faucet in your home. You know, if you have a bathroom that's in the middle of your house, you don't have to drip that faucet. All the walls are protected. It's really walls that face the outside. If you have an outside facing faucet, that's a faucet that you can drip. Also, your outdoor faucet, what we call hose bibs, you can wrap those in insulation and keep those protected. Again, knowing how to do that ahead of time is really what we're emphasizing.”

Plohetski: “So what wouldn’t happen today because of the work you’ve done over the past year?”

Meszaros: “Well, one of the things we've really remade is the way we are maintaining and repairing our treatment plants to have more water treatment available in the winter. Water utilities are set up to make what we call peak demand – high demand days in the summer. And that's just natural. You think about the summer, you have irrigation, you have pools, splash pads, cooling towers. That's always peak demand, and water systems, particularly surface water systems like ours, require significant maintenance and repair, and we do that in the winter. Now the world got flipped upside down ... summer is winter now. Our peak demand day was in the middle of that winter storm. That's the most we've ever had to pump and use on that winter day. So we've got to rethink the whole way we go about maintaining our plants. So we've taken those kinds of steps where we'll have significantly more capacity available in our system during the winter time.”

Plohetski: Can you say with a degree of confidence that if the exact same thing were to happen, that the City is better prepared to keep water flowing?”

Meszaros: We are much better prepared materially, better prepared to act to meet the demands of another winter storm. Nobody can guarantee 100% reliability no matter what, and I'm not going to say that, but I can say 100%, we have poured literally tens of thousands of hours and millions upon millions of dollars into making our system better today than we were a year ago, and we're going to get better every single day from here on.”

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