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Winter Storm Uri caused hundreds of deaths in Texas, and ERCOT said a similar outage could be on the horizon if extreme weather temperatures repeat. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

When the historic Polar Vortex swept through Austin in February, all 254 counties in Texas were put under a disaster declaration as millions of people statewide were left without power, water, heat or all of the above. As the weather begins to cool off, the threat of another winter storm is becoming more and more imminent.

Now nine months after Winter Storm Uri left hundreds dead in its wake, ERCOT reports that Texas could suffer another outage during the chill if enough power facilities are forced offline during peak energy demand like they were in February—and it would take a storm less extreme than Uri to make that happen.

What state action was taken after Winter Storm Uri?

Six ERCOT board members resigned in order to "allow state leaders a free hand with future direction" less than a week after the conclusion of the storm. Since the resignation, little has happened on the statewide level.

In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed two power grid reforms into law, declaring that they had "fix(ed) all of the flaws" that sent 4 million residents without power during the storm. Later that month, 12,000 MW of power unexpectedly went offline, which is several times more than would typically be offline during the month.

But some from both parties worried that the reforms, which include mandating "winterizing" essential power plant equipment across the state and imposing fines on energy providers that fail to do so, as insufficient.

Snow covered Austin and the Texas Capitol in February that led to statewide power outages. (Bob Daemmrich)

Oil and gas companies, which have long reigned king in a fossil fuel-drenched Texas, labeled winterizing each plant as excessive, and Senate Bill 3 leaves it up to those companies to determine which sources are "essential." The bill failed to raise the power-generating capacity of the grid.

Still, in October regulators completed a rule that requires power plants to use "best efforts" to keep plants going this winter, including fixing issues from last year. With the reforms, ERCOT "anticipates that there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve the system-wide forecasted peak demand" of the upcoming winter season. And though the grid operator estimates that more energy will be available this winter when compared to last winter, four of its five extreme, low-probability scenarios studied in the report would result in a serious power shortage.

The winter storm has been one of the main issues that has caused Abbott's approval rating to dip from 59% to 45% from pre-pandemic to September 2021.

What's happened on a local level?

As the lights slowly switched back on in the crippled Texas power grid, the city of Austin's woes were just beginning. Before Winter Storm Uri, Austin Water saw winter weather as a low threat to the city's water supply. But after days of freezing temperatures, the city faced broken pipes, a "boil water" notice as water treatment plants sat shut off, and eventually an outage that left thousands without water.

The Ullrich Water Treatment plant with a layer of snow in February. (Steven Joyner)

The city has since recovered from the crisis and says it is working to improve beyond the state's measures. The city of Austin, including Austin Energy and Austin Water, conducted extensive reviews released in early November to see how they can improve the Austin metro's infrastructure before another potential disaster.

Austin Water has completed repairs at most of its water treatment plants; dispatched heaters, sand and more winter equipment; and is expecting to have all exposed pipes insulated by the end of 2021. The department's 52-step improvement plan prioritizes winterizing equipment and upping certain plants' electricity generation capacity.

"Austin Water teams have done tremendous work since Winter Storm Uri to repair our facilities and put measures in place to make our infrastructure more resilient should prolonged freezing temperatures return this winter," Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in an email to Austonia. "We also have developed a blueprint for infrastructure replacements and upgrades that will be prioritized to further enhance our resiliency."

Meanwhile, an Austin Energy spokesperson told Austonia that while Austin Energy "helped prevent a total ERCOT-wide grid failure," it recognizes room for improvement and is "actively engaged" with state lawmakers and regulators. On the local level, the department has completed 29% of the 112 follow-up actions discussed in their After-Action report, including "increased vegetation management, further sectionalizing circuits and developing processes to reduce power in the downtown network and to collaborate with large industrial customers in response to grid emergencies."


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