EnergyLocal News‘Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back’: Central Texas Outages From Iced, Downed Power Lines Linger

Mayor Kirk Watson did not hold back, criticizing the city officials' belated communication with the public.
February 2, 2023
An ice storm on Monday night knocked out the lights for hundreds of thousands in the Texas capital city and surrounding area while the state’s main power grid has maintained sufficient supply. Two days after state officials held an emergency press conference, Austin officials finally held their own.

As of Thursday morning, 400,000 customers across Texas were without power with the largest portion falling in the Austin Energy service area, totaling 155,000 — nearly 30 percent of the utility’s customer base. The map shows most of the outage area spanning from San Antonio up the I-35 corridor to North Texas. The second largest outage chunk falls in the Oncor service area from Austin to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex; Oncor services 3.8 million customers.

An icy cold front moved through the state this week, causing poor road conditions and downed power lines as falling tree branches cracked under the additional weight. Unlike two years ago, the power issues were all localized transmission problems.

But as the week has gone on and power companies work to fix the broken infrastructure, even with the temperature in Central Texas finally jumping back above the freezing point Thursday, compounding outages linger and the number of those facing outages grows.

At a Thursday press conference, Austin-area officials briefed the public on the situation and answered questions. New Mayor Kirk Watson lambasted the city’s communication, or lack thereof.

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It’s an understatement that this has been a challenging three days for our area,” he said. “Like so many of our residents, I’ve been frustrated by power outages including at my own home and also the lack of communication — a press conference like this should’ve happened by now.”

Asked why that did not occur, Watson said that he deferred to specialized officials to give them an appropriate amount of time to deal with the compounding issues, which really began on Tuesday. Initially, the city utility told the public they expected outages to only last 12 to 24 hours. On Thursday morning, Austin Energy expected power restoration to take until Friday at 6:00 p.m. But later that afternoon, the utility changed its message, saying that they no longer can predict when full restoration of power will be reached.

From Wednesday to Thursday morning, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said that the utility had restored power for 113,000 customers, but that not much headway had been made because repeat and compounding outages were occurring for the same reasons. “It’s been two steps forward and three steps back,” she stated.

Sargent said the precipitation and icing problem this time is far worse than what occurred during the February 2021 blackouts that caused a collapse of the state’s main power grid.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials said that at the time of their Tuesday briefing, 5,500 customers were out of power across the state. That has since grown 72 times over. Throughout the week, thermal sources of electricity generation — natural gas, coal, nuclear — generated upwards of 90 percent of the supply on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) grid. Wind and solar waned substantially as overcast skies and precipitation affected sunshine during the day and the wind failed to substantially blow.

Additionally, Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake said that about 10,000 megawatts of wind power in West Texas fell out of commission due to icing issues.

Nonetheless, the ERCOT grid held sufficient excess capacity throughout the week and never came close to needing an energy conservation alert. This week’s storm was far less severe than the one that hit the state two years ago — the temperature didn’t reach as low nor last as long, and precipitation did not hit as much of the state as the 2021 storm. Despite that, Sargent said that the scope of the precipitation and freezing was greater than in 2021 across the Austin Energy service area.

As the week progressed and outages compounded, Austin Energy’s online reporting tool crashed from overuse. Sargent said that a more detailed assessment of this issue, and all the others, will be a part of its “after action report.”

Austin Energy is a city-owned utility that is primarily funded by customer-paid rates; the utility has a $1.6 billion budget. Each year, more than $100 million in revenues from Austin Energy are transferred into the city’s General Fund.

With the primary cause of the outages being downed power lines from ice and branches, Sargent was asked why power lines have not been buried, which occurs more frequently in northern states.

Sargent said that it would be cost-prohibitive to “retrofit the entire transmission system,” estimating the price tag for that to reach the billions of dollars.

Repair crews both from Austin Energy and surrounding utilities are working around the clock to restore power, the officials said. Places of critical infrastructure and outages affecting large portions of the population top the priority list for the repairs.

Asked how much repairing these issues will cost, Sargent told The Texan that she didn’t know.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Austin Energy’s latest statement on expected restoration of power.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.