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Arctic Blast: Central Texas agencies, citizens prepare for power outages



Texas – As this week’s winter storm rolls in, many KXAN viewers have reached out concerned about the potential for power outages.

“I wore two thick sweaters and three pairs of socks and a pair of boots because the cold was beginning to creep into the house,” said Liz Elleson, a North Austin resident who lost power during the Jan. 10 snowstorm.

During that storm, Elleson’s greatest concern was for her elderly neighbors. Electricity was down for large portions of her neighborhood and didn’t come back for eight hours. She says that Austin Energy, who provides power to her and several neighbors, did not inform them about when power would return.

This isn’t actually uncommon, according to Jennifer Herber with Austin Energy. While they do provide notifications of outages, during severe weather they do not provide estimated restoration times. This is because repairing the outage may be difficult during a weather event.

What causes outages during cold weather?

Many Texans may remember the winter of 2011, when rotating outages occurred during that cold weather event. Blackouts in Austin lasted 30-45 minutes. A rotating outage occurs when demand is too high and not enough power is generated.

ERCOT, the state agency in charge of the power grid, declined an interview but told KXAN in a statement that they have advised energy generators to prepare for this week’s freeze. They advised reviewing available fuel and weatherization equipment.

“We issued an operational notice asking generators to take necessary steps to prepare their facilities for the expected cold weather. This includes reviewing fuel supplies and planned outages and implementing winter weatherization procedures. We are also working with transmission operators to minimize outages that could impact generation.”

If rotating outages are needed, ERCOT will be the ones to make the call. On a local level, Austin Energy is taking steps to prevent outages by turning on generators, preheating critical oil used in machinery, heating outside fuel tanks, using heaters in substations and by making sure personnel have the proper clothing to do repairs in the cold.

While Austin Energy can take steps to ensure they are prepared for the cold, one thing they can’t prepare for is trees.

“When we’re dealing with things like high winds, ice, or heavy snow, things we don’t usually deal with… those things can weigh down tree limbs. When they get weighed down, they can fall on powerlines,” Herber said.

A broken power line can cause an outage for one home or a dozen, depending on which line snaps. Herber says one side of the street may be on one circuit, while the other side of the street can be on a completely different circuit. If you see a downed powerline, you should avoid it and call 311.

Preparing for power outages

Because so many factors can contribute to an outage, you should be prepared ahead of a storm. Herber recommends having snacks and water ready, as well as blankets and battery powered lamps. Also an extra battery or charger for your phone. Do not use your stove to heat your home — that’s a fire hazard.

For this storm, Liz was ready. She has a solar power lantern, charger, extra food and even an indoor propane heater. It’s a good thing she was, because Liz’s home already lost power because of Thursday’s storm.