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Energy & Environment
Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

Austin Energy Restores Power To Some Customers, Hopes To Implement Rotating Outages

Byron Thomas shovels ice and snow from his driveway in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin Tuesday.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Byron Thomas shovels ice and snow from his driveway in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin on Tuesday.

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Austin Energy restored power to some customers Wednesday afternoon, but the electricity will likely not stay on indefinitely.

“We have restored as many circuits as we can at this time across our service territory, and we are prioritizing those customers who have been without power the longest,” Austin Energy General Manager Jacqueline Sargent said during a news conference.

Austin Energy has been following directives from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the state’s electric supply. As ERCOT’s reserves have improved — though they still remain low — Austin Energy says it has been able to restore 16 circuits.

Once the circuits stabilize, and if ERCOT has enough resources, Austin Energy hopes to initiate rotating outages on these circuits, Sargent said. That means shifting outages from place to place so no single neighborhood is without power for too long. The utility hasn’t been able to do that so far, and many residents have been without power for more than two days.

“We have not been able to initiate rotating outages because the ERCOT requirement has been so large that our available circuits have been maxed out,” Sargent said. “There just wasn’t enough head room to allow us to rotate those circuits, and we are working to get to that point.”

She said hospitals and other critical infrastructure have power right now, and Austin Energy has no plans to include them in rotating outages. These facilities could still be vulnerable to weather events, and officials are encouraging them to make sure they have backup generators prepared in case of an emergency.

Ice has caused tree limbs to fall on power lines and damage equipment, causing some areas to lose power. Sargent said crews have been working to address these problems, and some customers might see their power turn on again as a result.

Officials continue to urge people who do have power to conserve it.

“We are continuing to respond to the ERCOT needs for the electric grid, and ERCOT is operating at extremely low reserve margins,” she said. “So, if you do have power on, please continue to use as little as possible because every little bit helps.”

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Officials are also asking residents to conserve water. Water use in Austin has far exceeded typical demand because of the winter storm. Homes and businesses have had pipes burst, Austin Water's system has experienced water-main breaks, and many customers are dripping faucets and storing extra water amid the freeze.

"All of that’s combined to significantly increase demand above our ability to produce water," Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said. "For example, in the last roughly 24 hours, we’ve seen peak pumping and demand be two and a half times greater than our ability to produce water. That’s rapidly been draining down our system and our reservoirs."

Water pressure and storage have dropped significantly as a result. Some customers now have very low water pressure or no water at all, Meszaros said. That's led the city to issue a boil water notice in Southwest Austin.

The situation could get worse — cause a citywide boil-water notice, impact fire protection or lead to a widespread lack of service. To prevent this, Austin Water is telling customers to conserve by using water only for essential needs (avoid using dishwashers and washing machines) and to stop dripping faucets. Meszaros said dripping water out of three or four faucets in one household can easily be a gallon a minute.

"We are requesting that customers no longer drip faucets to do freeze protection," he said. "We’re in a decision-making mode of trying to restore water to hospitals and fire protection and other essential services and really need customers to cut back on things."

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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