After tens of thousands of Austin residents were left without power – some for two weeks – in the wake of the February ice storm, the Austin City Council is now exploring how to make the city more resilient and better prepared for the next storm.
On Tuesday – in three separate votes – the council directed city staff to examine the possibility of burying power lines across the city, and to assess the functionality and inventory of emergency generators at Austin fire and Austin-Travis County EMS stations.
City staff and utility experts will use the next several months to evaluate the options, but some are saying that the moves could be costly and disruptive, and in some cases unlikely.
While it is unclear how much a project like this would cost, Matt Mitchell, a spokesperson with Austin Energy, said a commonly used estimate puts the cost at $1 million per mile. With 5,000 miles of line above ground, Mitchell said Austin could be looking at billions of dollars in construction costs spanning across decades.
At that point, it would then be up to the city and the utility to find ways to come up with money, whether it be through rate hikes, a bond or other funding mechanisms.
Putting electric lines under ground
Austin Energy, the city’s utility company, services 12,000 miles of power lines across 437 square miles. Today, about 57% of lines are underground, but city leaders would like to see a greater number of them buried in an effort to prevent loss of power, as residents experienced in February.
Council Members Vanessa Fuentes and Ryan Alter, who’s districts encompass much of South and Southeast Austin, pushed for a few different ways to do that.
Fuentes proposed a measure that would encourage putting electric lines underground, where feasible, while projects are underway in city-owned right-of-way – sidewalks, bike lanes and other public infrastructure.
The vote would also call for an evaluation of how city departments are working together on large-scale projects so that the city is as efficient as possible.
“What we know as a community is we’ve approved hundreds of millions of dollars in mobility funds, including Project Connect, and my thought is if we are already reconstructing and tearing up let's use that opportunity to bury our powerlines,” Fuentes said. “This is about maximizing our own efforts and focusing in on projects we are control of.”
Alter’s item takes that a few steps further with a feasibility study and plan to move the existing overhead lines underground, but would also look at how to better incentivize and codify the use of underground infrastructure as new development comes in.
He said as part of that study, Austin Energy will look at how much it would cost to bury power lines as well as create a plan for how the city could implement the move, including prioritizing the most vulnerable areas.
“It will be expensive and that is why part of this is prioritization,” Alter said. “We are not able to do everything all at once, but if we start with those areas with the most critical need we can work from there.”
Additionally, if the city could limit that work to existing infrastructure rather than adding new infrastructure it could help things along, Alter said.
The vote on Thursday would also task city staff with looking at how to incentivize new developers to do so. That could mean incorporating new code amendments and permitting requirements, he said.
“This is a time intensive process but until we know what is out there, we can’t know how to invest to improve resiliency,” Alter said.
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Conducting a study
The city plans to hire a consultant to conduct the study.
Mitchell said the study is a great way to find out what will be needed and how much it would cost, but he said there are a lot of factors to consider.
The utility’s service territory has a lot of different topographical and geological areas it touches that could be cost prohibitive. Some areas of town, such as greenbelts and wildlife preserves, might not be feasible.
Additionally, the disruption it could create for customers and the existing underground infrastructure should also be taken into consideration, Mitchell said.
“It is true that underground electric lines are more resilient,” Mitchell said. “So, what this becomes is a cost analysis and gauging the appetite of our customers for something like this.”
For Alter, he said while it might seem like a reach, he believes taking on a project that would improve the resiliency and reliability of the city’s electric infrastructure is possible, especially if the city is proactive about burying power lines as part of new development plans and city construction projects.
"We are not going to get to 100% anytime in the near future but I do believe we can get to a level where a serious percentage of our power lines are under ground," Alter said.
Improving back up power for first responders
The City Council on Thursday also voted to find ways to improve back up power for Austin fire and Austin-Travis County EMS stations, and ensure reliability during major weather events like the most recent February ice storm.
Several EMS and fire stations also lost power during the most recent freeze, leaving the people who are tasked with keeping residents safe in the dark. Austin-Travis County EMS officials said during the most recent freeze, nine of its stations lost power and four of those did not have backup generators. A few Austin fire stations reported the same issue.
While the power outages did not affect emergency responses, city officials said they wanted to look at how to prevent this from happening and ensuring the city’s first responders are well equipped to respond to the needs of residents during weather-related emergencies.
Austin-Travis County EMS officials told the American-Statesman that of its 47 stations, 16 of them have generators with 8 more in the process. It is unclear how many fire stations have backup generators, but city leaders have said that the city was working on getting generators installed at all its stations but that it has been a long and costly. Officials have said buying and installing generators could cost as much as $7 million.
This is not the first time the city’s first responders were without power. During the February 2021 freeze, several stations reported outages and a need for backup power generators. A city-commissioned report released after the 2021 winter storm then recommended that every station have a backup power generator.
The resolution, led by Council Member Paige Ellis, would give the city a better look at how many generators are working, how many have been installed since 2021 and how many more are needed. The measure directs the city manager to perform an inventory of generators and assess the functionality of the existing backup power at all of the Austin fire and Austin-Travis County EMS stations.
Staff will report back in July with its findings and present a plan on how to improve backup power with a cost estimate.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin to study burying power lines, more generators after ice storm