Austin
1:00 pm
Thu August 4, 2011

Austin Energy Chief Concerned About Advance Blackout Warning

The risk of rolling blackouts looms over Texas as people crank up their air conditioners to cope with the blistering heat. But the head of Austin Energy indicated today that he doesn’t have a direct way to alert consumers before the lights go out.

“I understand the concern. We have that concern too,” Austin Energy CEO Larry Weiss told Austin City Council members during a public meeting today at City Hall.

“We have no way to really contact [customers]. We’ve talked about reverse 9-1-1. We cannot tie up the 9-1-1 system and do that,” he said. “It’s not - quote, unquote - an emergency, but it does put people in a very difficult situation, and potentially a health threatening situation if they don’t know.”

Weiss said Austin Energy currently relies on local media to warn the public of looming blackouts by sending releases to local news outlets. But he said that can be problematic because it encourages people to turn on their television sets. And media organizations may not convey the information rapidly enough to provide adequate advance warning.  

“It’s going to be fast, and we’re going to have to react,” he said. “We know it’s going to probably be on the edge this afternoon and people should be prepared for it.”

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas initiated energy emergency alert Level 1 the past two days, and came close to Level 2 on Wednesday. Level 2 requires some industrial operations, mostly chemical factories along the Gulf Coast, to power down their operations. They are paid for the inconvenience.

Energy Emergency Alert Level 3, which Texans saw over the winter, results in rolling blackouts across the state. The blackouts are supposed to be only 15 to 45 minutes in duration. But as we saw during the winter, they can sometimes last longer.

Following the winter energy crisis, consumers complained that they weren’t given enough advance warning of the blackouts.

“If we had an ability to have a warning light in their house or something that like that, that this was coming, we would do it,” Weiss said.