Austin Energy

Heavy rainfall left 2800 Austin Energy customers without power, disrupted traffic in West Campus and resulted in event cancellations across the city Tuesday. 

Near campus — on West 24th and Nueces streets — a tree fell on a beige Toyota Camry in traffic at around 5:30 p.m. Police surrounded the area and blocked off half of the street with cones.

Officer Robert Snider, present at the scene, said it is possible that the car would be left on the street all night.

“It’s not the only tree that has fallen,” Snider said. “It depends on how busy the city is. We can’t clear it until the city crew comes out.”

Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark said the energy provider is moving steadily and quickly to make repairs to restore power.

“Repairs are needed at an estimated 60 locations and we have 10 repair crews out right now and about half a dozen tree trimming crews,” Clark said.

Clark attributed the number of power outages to tree limbs weighing heavily on power lines. The vast majority of outage locations affect one to eight residents per site, according to Clark. Austin Energy expects power to be restored to all residents by Tuesday night.

Not everyone in Austin was put out by the storm, though. Nutrition sophomore Isabel Cruz said she enjoyed the unexpected rainstorm.

“Even though I didn’t have an umbrella, I walked out of class and it made me feel motivated and fresh,” Cruz said. “It just put me in a very
contemplative mood.”

With ample support from residents, the Austin City Council is taking extra steps to gather data before deciding on whether or not to approve an unelected governing board for Austin Energy.

Austin Energy, the city’s municipal electric utility, is currently run by the council. A resolution passed in February directed the city manager’s office to outline an ordinance for an independent governing board of the utility that will be appointed by the council. Several Austin residents spoke out against the resolution at the Feb. 14 meeting, concerned about the accountability of a governing board unelected by citizens.

In a resolution unanimously passed by the council at the council’s March 21 meeting, city staff have been directed to perform a study looking at other municipally-owned utilities nationwide to see how Austin Energy compares in metrics such as rates, revenue, staff, efficiency and consumer satisfaction. According to the ordinance, the metrics concerning transparency and accountability are “to be determined based upon availability of information across all utilities surveyed.” 

Larry Weis, general manager of Austin Energy, said the utility is willing to put forward what it can to make the study happen.

“We operate in a very close peer industry in the public power industry and municipally-owned industry, and we have a lot of resources available to us,” Weis said at the meeting. “We will call upon those to do the very best job we can to pull the data together and be responsive.”

Austin resident Lynetta Cooper, spokeswoman for the Gray Panthers of Austin, said the study is a step in the right direction for the council’s decision.

“We wholeheartedly support this resolution — it is just plain good public policy,” Cooper said. “Before we take such an important step as removing our direct ability to hold the board of directors accountable, we should see where Austin Energy stacks up against other utilities.”

The results of the study will be released by the second week of April, when the council will move forward with its decision. Several speakers at the meeting expressed a wish for the data to be published in advance of a public hearing. 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell said at the meeting that he hopes to make a decision on the governing board as soon as possible.

“I want to hold as close to an expeditious timeline as we can,” Leffingwell said at the March 21 meeting. “The city of Austin has been studying this for a couple of decades now — I really don’t think that we’re going to hear much new out of it. I think we’ve basically studied this to death and I see no reason to continue to delay this again.”

Photo Credit: Sam Ortega | Daily Texan Staff

Strong winds caused several thousand residents to experience power outages Monday and passengers to deal with canceled flights from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

The outage left nearly 18,000 Austin Energy customers without power. Several streetlights were also down in the areas of North Lamar Boulevard, West Howard Lane, Highway 71, Mopac, Wells Branch, Red River Street, 26th Street and Airport Boulevard. 

According to Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark, repairs in the areas would be completed “by mid-evening at the latest barring any additional difficulties due to windy conditions, which continue.”

About 150 areas needed repairs and more than 20 Austin Energy crews were restoring power through the city. By 6:00 p.m Monday, power had been restored to all but 5,000 households and businesses.
Undeclared sophomore Henry Anderson was one of those waiting for their power to be restored.

“I’ve been waiting for a while,” Anderson said. “This really messed up my schedule. I was watching a movie for one of my communication classes and I have to write a report due today at 12:00. But I know how these things go. The wind was a surprise to all, me included.”

None of the University facilities lost power, primarily because the University has its own power source, the Hal C. Weaver Power Plant.

“It is unusual for the University to have power outages,” university operations spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said. “The original planners for the power plant built it with a lot of forethought. The utility is delivered underground instead of above ground.”

The first power plant was commissioned in 1928 and had additions in 1966 and 2003.

The last power outages UT experienced happened in the 2009-2010 school year, Weldon said.

“It was a situation that involved rodents,” Weldon said. “This is a very complete plan. It has both heating and cooling services and provides energy, chilling water, ionized water, steam and compressed air for some of the labs and even emergency power.”

The National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning due to the strong winds for all of South Central Texas until 10 p.m, stating that any fires that developed would likely spread rapidly.

Printed on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 as: Blustery day bad news for power lines, flights

Parking Services Supervisor John Garrett stands in front of solar panels on the Manor Garage roof Tuesday afternoon. The panels were installed in 2011 as part of a study by the Webber Energy Group, a UT mechanical engineering team researching the output of three different types of panels under the same conditions.

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

While Austin Energy announced that it gave out more solar energy rebates to residents in 2012 than any other year, UT officials said they plan to maintain the campus’ solar panels but don’t plan to build any more.

Since 2004, Austin Energy provides solar photovoltaic rebates to residents who install panels and meet other requirements. Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said the company is looking to help customers ease into this alternative energy source.

“We want to help spur the solar energy desire in the world but to also bring the costs down,” Cordova said. “Our rebate is the lowest ever, $2 per kilowatt hour, but the desire for solar energy in Austin is at its highest ever, which has helped us achieve the high number of rebates.”

Saying he hopes to provide a clean energy future for students, Jim Walker, the University’s director of sustainability, oversaw the installation of solar paneling on the main campus and at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin.

The J.J. Pickle Research Campus has been heralded as having the largest solar power system in Austin, consisting of two solar arrays. One is on top of a newly built carport structure and the other covers more than an acre as a larger ground-mounted system south of the Microelectronics Research Center building. By harnessing the sun’s energy, UT obtains more than 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to UT Facilities Services. 

However, Walker said representatives of the University have no plans to install any more solar paneling. He said the current energy program, started in 1930, is both efficient and cost effective. Outside of solar energy, Walker said one type of fuel has powered all 400 acres of the University over the last 50 years. 

“Our [main] energy source is a monofuel burning, natural gas producing plant that produces energy that is cheaper and much more efficient than solar energy,” Walker said. “Because solar energy is still quite expensive, making the campus go solar is a harder argument to make.”

Published on January 16, 2013 as "UT elects to not expand solar energy usage".

In December, Austin Energy, the city-owned utility company, proposed increasing electricity rates by 12 percent. Austin City Council’s consideration of the proposal is ongoing, but the plan is drawing increasing scrutiny because the rate increase would disproportionately affect low-usage residents.

Residents of large homes may see an increase of about 17 percent while UT students who rent small apartments could be saddled with a rate increase as high as 41 percent, according to Austin Energy’s estimates. The company’s proposal would increase the monthly base fee from $6 to $22 and would bring Austin Energy $136 million per year in additional A sannual revenue.

Austin Energy needs to raise its rates because its operating expenses are outpacing its revenue, but the proposal fails to consider the impact on city residents. If approved, it could take effect as early as this summer. Rather than implement a drastic increase, the city should gradually increase rates to help residents adjust to the change and to reduce the impact, as Mayor Lee Leffingwell and other city leaders have suggested.

Additionally, the company is unfairly relying more heavily on residents than commercial entities to cover increasing costs. Historically, commercial tenants paid higher energy rates than residential ones. Austin Energy posits its proposal will correct a decades-long imbalance. But Mayor Leffingwell cried foul: “We shouldn’t now put our financial house in order disproportionately on the backs of homeowners and renters.”

Austin Energy’s proposal was ill-delivered. The company should reevaluate its proposal to ensure the increases do not unequally impact low-income and low-usage residents.

City facilities around Austin will soon be equipped with electric car plug-in stations, said an Austin Energy spokesman. Austin Energy partnered with California-based Coulomb Technologies, an electric vehicle infrastructure company that works with public utilities across the country to install public charging stations for electric cars. Before next summer, 100 to 200 charging stations will be installed at city facilities such as Austin City Hall and public libraries. Austin Energy Spokesman Carlos Cordova said any public utility can install a charging station for $2,500. “They would show their commitment to the environment and that they are on the leading edge of promoting electric vehicles,” he said. Although there are only about a dozen electric cars in the city now, Cordova said he expects the number to increase to about 160 next year after the launch of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf next month. Kara Kockelman, a civil, architectural and environmental engineering professor, said Austin residents would make a good market for plug-in electric vehicles. She said that early users will provide businesses with an example to further modify the products to make them more affordable and effective. “As in any paradigm-shifting situation, timing of supporting infrastructure is critical,” Kockelman said. “Austin must roll out such charging infrastructure soon.” Having more electric vehicles on the road in Austin will improve air quality and reduce the city’s carbon footprint, Kockelman said. “We would do the world a favor in terms of greenhouse gas impacts and reduce our reliance on petroleum imports,” she said. The investment in the stations is a step in the right direction, but their effects might not be immediately noticeable in the environment, said Chandra Bhat, a civil, architectural and environmental engineering professor. The investments will be successful if government agencies monitor the adaptation behavior of households so that changes can occur without a substantial loss in the investments already made, he said. “It is important that new infrastructure in Austin is introduced in a careful, calibrated fashion so that Austin Energy can get reactions to the first few charging stations, learn from those responses and have the flexibility to design other stations in the pipeline based on that knowledge,” Bhat said.