Jan 21, 2022 - News

Austin preps for another cold winter

Icicles hang from a frozen water fountain in front of the state Capitol building in Austin.

Icicles hang from a frozen fountain in front of the state Capitol building. Photo: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

Austin is still burning from last year's blizzard.

Flashback: Nearly a year after Winter Storm Uri wreaked havoc on Texas' energy grid, plunging many Austinites into a cave-like ice age, the state has entered its sometimes-treacherous winter weather pattern.

The big picture: Texans were reminded yet again of the possibility of another blackout Thursday as they woke up to rapidly dropping temperatures, a face-off between two companies and a threat to cut power to 400,000 Texas homes.

  • By Thursday afternoon, Energy Transfer LP subsidiaries had walked back a threat to cut off fuel to five Vistra power plants, whose electrons power homes, businesses, schools and hospitals — including, potentially, some in Austin.
  • But the companies still have not resolved their underlying financial dispute stemming from last February's winter storm, the Texas Tribune reported, highlighting just one of the many question marks around the future of Texas' grid.

Little has been done to address one of the underlying causes of the blackouts — namely, preparing gas facilities for ice-cold conditions. Austin officials have scrambled to prove how prepared they are for a repeat catastrophe.

  • A press release a couple months ago touted the warehousing of boot spikes and tire chains for walking and driving on icy surfaces at area water treatment facilities.
  • A city auditor report found Austin was unprepared to respond to Winter Storm Uri because officials had not adequately considered the risks of a severe winter storm or a widespread disaster.

Flashback: The storm led to desperation and death — at least 28 people died in Travis County, six in Williamson, two in Burnet and one each in Bastrop, Llano and Lee counties, per the state tally.

  • Statewide, the storm's 246 victims ranged in age from under 1 to 102 years old.
  • The lion's share died from injuries associated with extreme cold exposure, such as hypothermia and frostbite.

While people in poverty and the elderly shouldered the worst of it, even the ultra-ultra-ultra rich were affected.

  • "I was actually in Austin for that snowstorm in a house with no electric, no lights, no power, no heating, no internet — couldn't actually even get to a food store," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said at an investor meeting in October.

What they're saying: "Yes, it can happen again," Curt Morgan, chief executive of the power company Vistra, told Texas Monthly reporter Russell Gold about the possibility of another electricity crisis.

Why it matters: The political stakes are high, as Gov. Greg Abbott has guaranteed power won't fail this winter.

Yes, but: Whether there are blackouts this winter — or even this summer — the question is: Will voters care come November?

  • Democrats are hoping to make the election about government competency, but Republicans will turn the conversation to books in schools, gun rights and other hot-button issues.

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