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Austin is facing not only a second night of widespread power outages but also the prospect of a "total system blackout," city officials said Tuesday.
Electricity generators, frozen or otherwise impacted by the winter storm, are unable to meet the current demand, despite extensive blackouts intended to ease pressure. In an effort to prevent demand from exceeding the available supply, local providers, such as Austin Energy, may need to cut power to additional circuits, including those that carry "critical loads," such as hospitals, fire stations and call centers. So far, those circuits have been spared in Austin.
"I cannot guarantee that we won't get to that stage," Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said during a late afternoon Tuesday press conference. "I am hoping that won't happen, but I don't want to create a false sense of security because there is a potential that the entire grid will go down."
The reason for shutting down power to critical loads would be to avoid overwhelming the state electric grid. "If the grid were to collapse … that would not take days to restore power but even weeks," Sargent said.
Local officials answered other pressing questions, including how long this situation might last, whether the water supply will be impacted and what residents can do to help.
What caused this situation?
The short answer is a historic winter storm that has lingered across Texas and will likely be followed up by a second storm in Central Texas that is forecasted to last until early Thursday morning.
Such extreme cold weather affected the power supply, with the primary impact being to the state's natural gas providers, according to officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages around 90% of the state's electric grid. At the same time, demand for electricity spiked as customers sought to heat their homes and businesses. You can read more about the reasons for the power shortage here.
When this happens, it risks compromising the entire grid. ERCOT directed local providers to cut power to a certain number of customers to prevent the grid from collapsing. Austin Energy intended for these outages to be temporary and short-lived but quickly exhausted its supply of non-critical circuits. As a result, the local utility couldn't rotate the outages without shutting down circuits that included customers such as hospitals and fire stations. This has left nearly 200,000 customers without power for going on two days.
The longer answer has to do with why Texas has its own electric grid (basically, to avoid federal regulations, according to the Texas Tribune). Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that ERCOT reform will be an emergency item this legislative session.
How long are these outages expected to last?
Austin Energy announced around midday Tuesday that impacted customers should be prepared not to have power through Tuesday night and possibly longer. "Until the weather improves, there will not be enough capacity to meet all customers' demand," Sargent said.
Although temperatures are forecasted to rise slightly—up to the high 30s—over the next two days, there is also a second winter storm warning in effect. Sunshine and milder temperatures aren't expected until the weekend.
What is Austin Energy doing to try to remedy the situation?
Austin Energy crews are working during daylight hours to knock ice off of electric circuits and other devices in an effort to restore service to some customers. "We are so frustrated by this entire situation," Sargent said. "The team is working around the clock to meet the need."
But these interventions do not help customers whose power has been intentionally shut off to lessen pressure on the statewide electric grid.
The utility has also worked with large customers, such as factories, to switch over their operations to backup generators or otherwise curtain their energy use.
Will the city's water supply be affected?
There are no current plans to disrupt water service and no reports of broken system mains, City Manager Spencer Cronk said. But he added: "Our system is strained."
Austin Water says there is no boil-water notice in effect for its customers, although other parts of Texas may be facing such a situation due to the storm. Austin Energy is also working with the local water utility to ensure that its treatment plants remain energized, Sargent said.
Burst water pipes may cause individual customers to lose water access.
Will downtown be lit up again tonight?
Austinites took notice Monday night when many of downtown's skyscrapers were brightly lit, as hundreds of thousands of residents were stuck inside homes without power. Austin Energy issued a statement on Tuesday morning: "The downtown network is excluded for now from load shedding (power outages) during controlled outages mandated by ERCOT," it read in part. "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."
The utility is working with the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Building Operators & Managers Association and other local organizations to encourage their members to conserve energy.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown also issued an order Tuesday requiring manufacturing, industrial and commercial businesses to minimize non-essential operations "to the greatest extent possible" and athletic facilities, stadiums and other businesses not to use exterior lighting "until it is necessary."
What is being done to make the roads less dangerous?
City crews are working "nonstop" to lay down sand on Austin roads, Cronk said. But they likely won't be clear until the weekend, when the cold temperatures subside.
"It is going to get worse tonight," he said, due to a winter storm forecast that includes freezing rain. "Even the work that we've done to date and prepping for this event tonight, it will be really slick in the morning."
Where can people without power go? And how can they get there?
Since Monday morning, the city of Austin has opened up multiple warming centers and expanded their cold-weather shelters, which serve homeless residents, to operate 24 hours a day. Four warming centers are currently open, along with others that have not been named because they are at capacity.
- Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Rd., Austin
- Mendez Middle School, 5106 Village Square Dr., Austin
- Northeast Early College High School, 7104 Berkman Dr., Austin
- Del Valle High School, 5201 Ross Rd., Del Valle
Local officials stressed that the warming centers are intended for the city's most vulnerable residents, such as those who rely on electric medical equipment, because of limited supply. "If you can hunker down in your house, do so and do so safely," Cronk said.
The Austin Police Department and Capital Metro have partnered up to provide rides to the city's warming shelters. Residents in need of transportation should call 3-1-1 for more information. The Austin Disaster Relief Network is also providing rides and can be reached at 512-825-8211.
What about people with medical needs?
Austin Energy has reached out to all of its customers who have registered with the utility as medically vulnerable, Sargent said. "We know where those customers are," she said. "We know if they've been impacted by these outages."
There is a concern about customers who are medically vulnerable but who have not registered as such or who are facing a short-term medical crisis, such as a case of COVID-19. Residents facing a medical emergency should call 911.
I still have power. What can I do to help?
Conserve energy. "If you have power, please try to live almost like you don't," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. Specifically, residents with power are asked to:
- Set the thermostat to 68 degrees or lower
- Turn off unneeded lights
- Unplug items not in use
- Keep blinds open during daylight hours and closed at nighttime
As Austin Energy works to restore circuits, customers can help prevent additional outages by taking such measures. "If all of these energy-consuming devices are plugged in and we energize the circuit, there's a surge," Sargent said. "And that creates problems for us."
This story has been updated to clarify that natural gas providers have been most impacted by the storm.
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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."