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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 Says It's Looking At Ways To Make The Next Blackout More Bearable

A winter storm and freeze knocked out power to more than 200,000 Austin Energy customers in February.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A winter storm and freeze knocked out power to more than 200,000 Austin Energy customers in February.

During February's devastating winter storm, Austin's city-owned electric utility was tested like never before. It is now in the process of grading itself.

Those grades will come in the form of a City Council-mandated after-action report. The report is still in the works, but an update the utility gave to Council on Monday provided some insight into what it will include and how Austin Energy may prepare for the next big freeze.

One of the most frustrating things about February’s blackouts was how long they lasted. Austin Energy was mandated to cut power by the state’s electric grid operator. But instead of losing power for an hour or two, many Austinites were in the cold for days, while other neighborhoods on circuits deemed "critical" never lost power.

The utility has beenless forthcoming about why some parts of town remained cut off than it has been in previous blackouts. It has said the amount of power it was told to cut was so great that it precluded the option of “rolling” the blackouts. In the presentation, Austin Energy CEO Jackie Sargent suggested the way the Austin grid is designed made it impossible.

To make sure the burden of any future outages are shared among more people for less time, Sargent said the utility is looking at getting big industrial or commercial customers to agree to voluntarily cut power to leave more for homes. But that idea is still a work in progress.

"We don’t have all the solutions or all the answers, but we will be looking at that,” Sargent said.

The state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, already runs a similar program in which it pays big industrial users to reduce power consumption in times of scarcity. It’s a strategy known in the utility business as “demand response.”

It is unclear how Austin’s program would operate in tandem with the state’s.

The image of empty downtown office buildings lit up while people froze in their homes also stirred outrage during the storm.

When asked Monday why the utility couldn’t get buildings to stop using electricity unnecessarily, Sargent told Council members it was too dangerous during the freeze to send personnel to cut some downtown circuits.

“The conditions are such that you have to send people into vaults to be able to shut off some of those circuits,” she said. “Under the conditions with the severe weather -- the ice, the wet, the cold -- it was not something we could do safely.”

She said the utility instead had to work with the Chamber of Commerce, theBuilding Owners and Managers Association Austin and other business groups to try to get them to stop using electricity unnecessarily.

“It was really challenging and frustrating,” she said.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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