Ice storm, wild weather reveals vulnerability of Austin's power grid

Power grid outages following an ice storm in Austin, Texas, have left thousands of people without electricity for nearly a week and counting. Infrastructure repairs have been sluggish, prompting criticism of local government and an unreliable grid.

Jay Janner/AP
Nicolas Lane removes a live oak tree that fell on a house on Cloverleaf Drive during a winter storm, Feb. 3, 2023, in Austin, Texas. Thousands remained without power days after an ice storm knocked out electricity to nearly a third of the city's customers.

Like thousands of other Austin residents, Darin Murphy began a sixth day Monday with no power in his home, wrapping his head around the city’s latest demoralizing update: Getting the lights fully back on may take another week.

“We are planning for worst-case scenario,” he said.

Making any plans has been difficult – and downright infuriating – for nearly 20,000 customers who still had no electricity Monday nearly a week after a deadly ice storm crippled the Texas capital and brought down power lines under the weight of fallen and frozen tree limbs. Schools finally reopened, but noisy generators rattled before dawn and outdoor extension cords running 100 feet or longer became lifelines between neighbors who had power and those who didn’t.

The boiling frustration over the slow pace of restoring power, and officials repeatedly saying they could not offer timetables for repairs, escalated Monday as the future of Austin’s top city executive plunged into jeopardy even as the number of outages continued falling.

For many, the outages stirred unpleasant memories of the 2021 blackouts in Texas, when hundreds of people died after the state’s power grid was pushed to the brink of total failure because of a lack of generation. That was not the case this week, as the grid maintained sufficient reserves.

Energy experts said Austin’s dense tree canopy made the outages caused by fallen trees and iced-over power lines more widespread. Most power lines are overhead, and Austin officials said burying existing lines would be expensive and more difficult to repair.

Austin Energy at one point said power would be fully restored by Friday evening but then backtracked, saying the damage was worse than originally calculated. The utility’s online system for reporting outages also temporarily crashed this week, and city leaders did not hold a news conference to publicly answer questions until Thursday.

“This was a reminder you can have plenty of power plants but still have an unreliable grid,” said Michael Webber, professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. “The wires and poles are the weak point of the system.”

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, a Democrat, called a meeting for this week that will put City Manager Spencer Cronk’s job on the line. The move reflected the rising discontent in America’s 11th-largest city, where late Sunday night, Austin Energy issued a statement in the face of growing criticism that full power restoration may not happen until Feb. 12 – nearly two weeks after the outages began.

“To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right,” Mr. Watson tweeted. “There must be accountability.”

Mr. Cronk, who oversees city staff, responded by telling reporters he was focused on the storm recovery and restoring power. Mr. Watson did not outright say whether he thinks Mr. Cronk should be fired but said Thursday’s meeting would “evaluate the employment” of the city manager.

For the vast majority of Austin residents, the lights were on Monday or never went out in the first place. At the peak of the outages, about 170,000 homes and businesses – nearly a third of utility customers in Austin – had no electricity, and in many cases, no heat. By Monday, the outages were down to about 4% of all customers.

But in neighborhoods still without power, familiar scenes unfolded.

Spoiled food piled up in trash bins. Power outlets in coffee shops and restaurants were snatched up by people charging battery packs and devices. And on text message groups and social media apps, the sights of repair crews were treated as urgent developments.

Katy Manganella grew so fed up that when Austin Energy came to her neighborhood Sunday with a charging station for residents – but still no repair trucks – she paced in front of the station holding a poster that read, “This pregnant lady is over it!”

“It’s been pretty miserable,” said Ms. Manganella, a therapist who is seven months pregnant and was unable to work last week because of the outages. “How is there no plan for this?”

Austin Energy has described the remaining outages as the most complicated and time-consuming. The storm plunged temperatures near or below freezing and coated trees with ice across Austin, weighing down branches that eventually snapped and crashed onto power lines. Iced-over equipment and crews driving on slick roads also slowed recovery efforts, according to city officials.

Crews have also come across “irate customers” out in the field, said Craig Brooks, director of operations for Austin Energy, including one instance in which police were called. He did not provide specifics about the encounters, describing them as, “Some verbal. Some people protecting their property.”

The utility warned Monday that a new front of high winds and potential storms starting Tuesday could further hamper restoration efforts.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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