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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 Created A Map To Explain Why People Lost Power After 2011 Blackouts. It Says A 2021 Map Doesn't Exist.

A pedestrian carries a gasoline can in South Austin during February's winter storm.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A February winter storm brought historic cold weather to Texas, causing millions of residents to lose power.

When the lights went out in February for hundreds of thousands of Austin residents, some wondered: Why did I lose power and not the person living across the street?

People had the same question after blackouts in 2011.

The explanation then and now is this: Austin Energy has certain power circuits that include critical infrastructure like hospitals, fire stations and nursing homes. These circuits are the last to be turned off if the state agency that oversees the electric grid tells utilities to cut power in an emergency.

In other words, if you live on an electrical circuit that also powers something like a police station, your lights get to stay on.

A decade ago, Austin Energy created a map to help customers better understand this. (KUT at the time published a second version of this map here). The utility was trying to explain how it decided to “roll” blackouts after another winter storm forced it to cut power.

“A lot of these circuits maybe had only one or two critical uses within [the circuit] and they were exempt from the … load shedding,” then-General Manager Larry Weiss told City Council members at the time.

On Feb. 18, KUT requested a current version of this map. The city said no such map existed — and could not be produced.

“We do not currently have an updated version of a grid map,” Jennifer Herber, a spokesperson for Austin Energy, said in an email.

“I totally understand why that seems confusing,” she continued. She said the utility had made several “technological upgrades,” and that meant it could no longer produce a map of circuits.

“All the information is embedded into our computer systems and we have no means to extract it to create a paper map,” Herber said.

When asked to explain the reference to a “paper map” when maps can be created digitally, she did not respond.

Herber said the information that would be used to create a map, such as a list of critical infrastructure, is not public. The city has withheld that information for “safety” concerns and the state has backed its decision.

“The Attorney General’s Office has ruled that critical infrastructure can be withheld for security reasons," she said.

Austin Energy says it’s working on a detailed report of what happened during the storm that led to electricity and water outages throughout the city. Herber told KUT there is no timeline for when that will be complete.

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