Austin Energy Faces Questions Over Blackouts
Ron Coldiron manages Far West Optical. He says with advance warning about the blackouts, his office could have re-scheduled appointments, and turned off equipment to save power.
“Instead we were here turning everything back on when the power came on, getting patients into the exam rooms, having employees getting back on the internet,” said Coldiron, “and then before they could even finish the task they were on BOOM, then we went down again.”
His office went dark a total of three times yesterday, losing about a half a day’s business and leaving him frustrated with Austin Energy.
Judging from e-mails sent to KUT, and messages posted online, he’s not alone.
“Yeah, I know. One of the things people, and I understand this, they want to know ‘can you tell me at 10:00 it’s gonna be my turn?’ And the answer to that is ‘No,’ said Ed Clark an Austin Energy spokesperson.
To better understand why the answer is “no,” Clark says it helps to imagine yourself sitting in a room, trying to manage Austin’s grid during the statewide power shortage.
ERCOT has told you to pull a certain amount of power from the Austin grid.
“And you’re sitting there in your control room, and you are looking at your different circuits that are available, and you’ve got to pick the number to add up to the number you are responsible for at that moments,” said Clark.
But here comes the tricky part: The amount of power on each circuit keeps changing, as users, for example,turn their lights off and on. AND the amount of power ERCOT wants you to pull changes, too, depending on the situation around the state.
“So it is a moving target,” said Clark, “and that is why there is no way to give some sort of organized notice to really anyone.”
That doesn’t mean the blackouts didn’t expose weaknesses in Austin Energy’s emergency response.
For one thing, the utility initially told customers the blackouts would last a much shorter time than they actually did. On top of that, the utility had no extra staff to respond to normal power outage calls.
“All of our resources went towards mapping out the different circuits that we could bundle up and actually turn off to help shed that load. That took a lot of man power,” said Austin Energy spokesperson Leslie Sopko.
That left some customers with without power for several hours. Then there was the question of where power was turned off.
“They never killed the power at my house. There was nobody at my house. We were here at the office, we were killed three times two miles away. My house was never turned off,” said Ron Coldiron.
Ed Clark thinks he knows why.
“Well the reason for that is because we have about 125 circuits that have special equipment that form this underlying frameworks sort of like pump stations at a water system and you cannot go into those circuits” said Clark, “If you do you risk bringing down our entire system.”
When you combine those circuits exempted from blackouts with circuits that can’t be shut off because they’re attached to critical care facilities, like hospitals, that only leaves 75 of Austin’s 350 electrical circuits available to be shut off to conserve energy.
Customers attached to those circuits bear an uneven burden in the event of rolling power cuts. Austin Energy has received requests for a map of which circuits are candidates for blackouts. Ed Clark says the utility is working on that, and will make them available when they are complete.