'Basically we're stuck here': 40% of Austin Energy homes without power amid failed 'rotating blackouts'
Editor's note: This story about winter weather is free for everyone to view as a public service. If you already subscribe, thank you. If not, please do so today using the blue "Subscribe" button in the top right corner of this page.
Nearly 200,000 Austin Energy customers woke up without power Monday and were not expected to get it back until Tuesday — possibly late in the day — because of a so-called rotating power outage that didn't rotate, leaving parts of the city in the cold and dark.
The outages began in the middle of the night, leaving swaths of neighborhoods without electricity, as already freezing temperatures dropped into single digits during an extraordinary winter storm that has raised questions about the city of Austin's and the state's ability to handle such an event.
The power shutdown left nearly 40% of Austin Energy households without heat or services, such as internet, to work remotely as icy conditions made roads unfit to drive. It also created confusion with residents wondering why they had lost power when others had not — and when they might get it back.
Local government leaders and Austin Energy officials held a news conference Monday to address the lingering questions. Fittingly, it started 20 minutes late and began with Travis County Judge Andy Brown losing signal on his phone as he was forced to log in from his car because his Hyde Park home was without electricity.
Austin Energy — which serves a 437-square-mile area, including Austin and portions of Travis, Williamson and Hays counties — was required to dramatically reduce the share of its energy usage to ease the strain on a statewide power grid, according to General Manager Jacqueline Sargent. Other energy providers in the state had to do the same, leaving roughly 2 million Texas households without power Monday. The statewide grid is controlled by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Areas surrounding Austin were also hit hard by outages. According to Oncor Energy's outage map, 42,301 customers were without power in an area between Round Rock and Pflugerville on Monday. Pedernales Electric Cooperative's outage map showed 5,774 people without power in the Buda area, 21 in Driftwood, more than 2,500 in Dripping Springs, 5,064 in Kyle, 1,141 in San Marcos, 1,290 in Wimberley and 3,854 in parts of Austin within Hays County.
As of Monday afternoon, there were 209 outages citywide in Austin, affecting 195,681 Austin Energy customers.
Areas chosen for the blackouts were away from operations that officials describe as critical, including hospitals, fire stations, control centers and water treatment facilities. The power in areas near those services was kept on and will stay on, Sargent said.
"This event happened quickly, and the amount of load that we needed to remove from the grid was significant. It was in a very short time that we maxed out on all of the available circuits that we had to disconnect," Sargent said. "So because we're at a max limit, there's no more energy that we can shut off at this time to bring these customers back on. Basically, we're stuck here."
Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted Monday afternoon that he expected more electric generation to come online soon.
"Many power generation companies facilities froze overnight and shut down their ability to generate power. This includes the natural gas & coal generators. They are working to get generation back on line," Abbott said in one tweet, adding in another: "About 200,000 residential customers are coming back on line now. More are expected in the coming hours."
Austin Energy's plan was to rotate the outages, meaning more neighborhoods would've shared the no-electricity burden for the entire city, for a period not to exceed 40 minutes. But the rotation was not possible, Sargent said, because it would have disrupted service for those critical operations.
"We know that not having power is extremely frustrating and unnerving," Sargent said. "We want our customers to know we're doing everything that we can to work through this ongoing and fluid situation."
Some residents not part of the controlled outages lost power because iced vegetation and freezing temperatures have interfered with power lines.
Energy conservation is critical to restoring service citywide, officials said. Those with power are encouraged to use very little of it so that power can soon be restored in neighborhoods without any. Suggestions include setting thermostats to 68 degrees or lower, shutting off lights and unplugging items that are not being used.
"Every bit helps," City Manager Spencer Cronk said.
Due to the power outages and other technical issues, the city's website and 311 call lines were out Monday. A City Council work session scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled.
"This is the time when the whole community really needs to pull together and to come together," Mayor Steve Adler said.
Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, which has a service area that encompasses portions of Travis County and stretches east and south of Austin, said some customers are likely to experience rotating power outages into Tuesday.
“There is a very high probability” that rotating outages will continue Monday night and into Tuesday, said Will Holford, Bluebonnet’s manager of public affairs.
He said the outages have increased both in length and frequency since early Monday, because the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the state’s electric grid, has asked Bluebonnet to cut power usage by more than its initial request.
The outages had been taking place about every 90 minutes for some and lasting 15 to 20 minutes. Now, however, they’re taking place every 30 to 45 minutes and lasting 20 to 30 minutes, he said.
While the outages are impacting many of the cooperative’s estimated 110,000 members, those who are served by power lines that also serve critical infrastructure, such as hospitals, aren’t experiencing them, he said.