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Why the lights are on downtown when so many Austinites are without power
(Emma Freer)

Lit up office towers caused consternation on Monday evening as hundreds of thousands of Austinites went without power. The skyline in January is photographed above.

While sitting in the dark under layers of blankets on Monday evening, trying to stay warm amid a power outage, Emma Israel noticed lights turn on outside her bedroom window.


Israel, a masters student at the University of Texas at Austin, lives two blocks away from the university's intramural fields in the North Loop neighborhood. Every night, their lights shine through her window.

Israel had noticed they went on Sunday evening despite requests from Austin Energy to conserve energy. She and her housemates had responded, unplugging things around the house and turning the heat down to 68 degrees. "We took that warning seriously because I didn't want to end up here, where we are 30 hours later, without power," she told Austonia.

When the field lights flashed again on Monday night, Israel was "even more mad." She tweeted about it, hundreds of people liked it, and within the hour the lights had turned off. "Now we're begging the downtown skyscrapers to turn off their lights," she wrote in an update.

Israel wasn't the only one who had noticed the downtown lights. Skyline photos began popping up on social media as night fell, showing office towers ablaze while entire swatches of the city remained in the dark.

Terri Gruca, an anchor and reporter of KVUE, posted a stark photo taken at the Fairmont Austin. "A tale of two cities," she tweeted, pointing out the difference between downtown and nearby East Austin. Austin Energy's outage map shows blackouts all over the city.

Council Member Greg Casar, who represents Northeast Austin's District 4, weighed in.

By Tuesday morning, Austin Energy had issued a response. "The downtown network is excluded for now from load shedding (power outages) during controlled outages mandated by ERCOT," the utility said in a statement. "This is a complicated, inter-connected network which includes critical buildings like the Dell Seton Medical Center, warming centers, the COVID-19 Alternate Care Site, Capitol Complex and Austin City Hall, as well as other critical infrastructure and government buildings."

Austin Energy made "an urgent plea to customers" to conserve power and announced it is working with the Building Owners & Management Association and the Downtown Austin Alliance to ensure their members are heeding it.

Like many Austinites without power, Israel is frustrated by the lack of action on the part of major energy consumers. "Those big power users are the ones that can help get us out of this," she said. "It's not really a question of whether my neighbors turn their porch lights off."

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