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An ice storm hit the Austin area the week of Jan. 30. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses lost power as ice-covered trees toppled power lines across the city.

More people went without power than Austin Energy 'customer' numbers might suggest

A light bulb is off at a home because of a power outage.
Renee Dominguez
The power is out a Central Austin home after an ice storm impacted power lines.

Last Wednesday, during the worst of the big ice storm, Austin Energy said around 170,000 “customers” were without power. Many people likely heard that number and assumed it meant 170,000 people were in the dark. It did not.

In fact, far more people have been without power in the past week than are reflected in the “customer” numbers put out by the utility. It has to do with the way utilities define “customers.”

“When we think about customers at a store, it’s like individual people going and doing the shopping,” said Yael Glazer, a research associate at UT Austin's Webber Energy Group. “When you hear a utility talk about how many customers are not receiving service, the word customer ... doesn’t represent a person but rather a meter."

When you include families and multifamily buildings attached to one electric meter, and average that against commercial and industrial meters, a single utility “customer” typically represents between two and three people. Glazer says analysts often use 2.5 as an average.

So when around 170,000 Austin Energy customers lost power in the storm last Wednesday, that actually meant closer to 425,000 people had no power.

And as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, nearly a week later, some 9,000 customers still don’t have electricity, that means about 22,500 people remain in the dark.

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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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