Is Your Utility Ready for the Next Storm?

Frozen Power Lines


One very cold Monday morning in Texas, I sat down at my laptop to start my workday. Next thing, the lights go out and the furnace makes a sound like a jet engine shutting down.

 

“What the heck?” I said to myself. Then I remembered that the day before I had received warnings from our utility and Retail Electric Provider asking us to conserve energy to help prevent outages from occurring during the storm.

 

“Probably just a brief outage,” I muttered to myself. After a few minutes, I realized that the power was OUT. I would only have what juice I had in my laptop and cell phone to get me through the day.

 

Over the course of the next three days, myself and millions of other Texans would be reminded how vital electricity is to maintaining life, health, and safety in the 21st century.

 

From working in the Utilities industry, I knew that I should be able to go to my utility’s website to report an outage, see a map of outages, and maybe (if I was lucky) get an estimated outage restoration time. This time was different; the outage web page on my utility’s website just had a message that it was unavailable.

 

I figured I’d go the old school route and call the utility. I looked up the phone number to report an outage and hit dial. I was expecting to be greeted by a robot attendant that would deliver some kind of message about my being in an outage area – instead, I got a busy signal. I waited a minute and called back. Busy signal again. After a few times I gave up and told myself to call back later in the day.

 

When I called back later in the day, I got the voice response robot again. Joy! I listened carefully to each of the prompts and made my way up the tree to report an outage. The robot said: “One moment please…” and then, “Sorry, your request cannot be processed at this time. Please try again later.”

 

Normally when there is an outage, my utility will text me to let me know about the situation and when power will be restored. No text messages this time. We’d look at Twitter and local news sites to get updates on the power situation, but saw no indications of when our power would come back.

 

Over the next few hours, the batteries in the laptop and the phone drained. The bitter cold with sub-freezing temperatures and freezing rain made it very dangerous to leave the house.

 

We kept as active as we could and layered up to stay warm as we waited for the power to be restored – but, the situation was far worse than anyone had imagined. These were not rolling blackouts, these were power cuts that would last for 18-20 hours at a time. Power would come back for 2-3 hours (without warning) and we’d charge up our phones and laptops, until the power went out again (without warning).

 

As the days wore on, we did what we needed to cope; huddling under layers of blankets, working for as long as our batteries lasted, charging our phones in the car in the driveway, cooking whatever we could on top of our gas stove, and using candles and flashlights in the dark. We learned to make do without running water, using bottled water to cook and drink, and flushing our toilets with water from a friend’s pool.

 

I thought about my fellow Texans that may not have been as fortunate: critical care customers on oxygen or home dialysis machines, the elderly or disabled, or people without access to technology. How were they going to survive this? For hundreds of Texans, the power outages had some terrible consequences. Houses burned down and people died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they attempted to keep their homes warm, while others expired from exposure to the cold.

 

When our power was restored three days later, we received text messages from the utility after the lights had come back on. We were very grateful to have made it through.

 

Why did this happen?

 

The Texas Outage of February 2021 was caused by a massive shortfall in generation. Power Generators were unable to meet the demand from all the residential, business, and organizational users of electricity. The state’s grid regulator (ERCOT) acted to preserve the safety of the grid, and our utilities followed the regulator’s instructions. Ultimately, this was about the lack of preparation for the cold weather by the generators. While our local utility may not have caused the situation, how prepared they were to respond to it is still a matter of local and governmental interest.

 

As a power customer what was most frustrating is that we did not have a way to communicate with our utility, and they were unable to communicate with us to let us know about the situation and advise us when our power would be restored. Had they done any testing to ensure that their critical systems would be able to manage the situation and stay in communication with customers?

 

Will our utility be ready for the next big storm? Is yours?

 

Learn about our Storm Readiness Testing service HERE.

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James Barrett    


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