Equilibrium & Sustainability

A quarter of Austin households without power amid ice storm

Nearly a quarter of Austin, Texas, households were without power Wednesday afternoon as a winter storm brought down power lines.

Freezing rain from a winter storm spanning the southern U.S. knocked out power to 166,000 households in Travis County, where Austin is located, according to grid tracking site PowerOutage.us.

With up to half an inch of ice accumulating on state roads and power lines, about 23 percent of county residents were without power as of 3 p.m. Those numbers were declining through Wednesday afternoon.

While a winter storm caused the outages — and while the Texas grid has been a live topic in the Austin-based state legislature — the cause of Wednesday’s outages wasn’t connected to the notorious Winter Storm Uri, which killed hundreds in February 2021.

Those outages came because insufficiently winterized natural gas generators and pipelines froze, constricting state power supplies to Texas’s isolated grid amid soaring demand.

In Austin’s case, however, the point of failure was the power transmission system, not the generation of sufficient electricity.

Hanging ice pulled down power lines and tree limbs, cutting off power supplies as icy roads impaired the line crews struggling to get the power back on, Austin Energy said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

The utility, which provides power to the vast majority of Austin households, said it could take up to 24 hours for power to be fully restored.

About 30 percent of its customers were without power as of Wednesday afternoon, according to PowerOutage.us.

But while the grid’s problems didn’t cause Wednesday’s outage, the power losses came against a broader backdrop of controversy and debate over the grid.

In January, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas approved a rule requiring state power plant operators to commit to producing extra power to meet peak demand.

That rule — which aims to fund the construction of more gas-fueled power plants — would increase state electricity costs by $460 million per year, the Utility Commission found.

The Texas Association of Manufacturers criticized that plan as a poorly planned giveaway to the state utilities. 

The plan is “a novel proposal that is not well understood, and has not been modeled, but appears to be designed to ensure a certain profit level for existing generation,” the Association wrote.

The new commission rule would also do little to prevent future blackouts, experts told Texas Public Radio.

“The problem that I think some of these folks [at the PUC] are trying to solve is, how do we disadvantage renewables?” Doug Lewin of consulting group Stoic Energy told Texas Public Radio. 

The regulators, Lewin said, “are trying to solve the wrong problem.”

Tags power outages severe weather Texas electric grid

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