Austin Energy numbers for frequency and duration of power outages during the past year were the second lowest in the last 15 years and lower than nationwide averages.
Austin Energy averaged less than 1 outage per customer at 0.69 in the fiscal year just ended and the duration of each outage when it occurred averaged less than 1 hour at 51.57 minutes. That includes the travel time in Austin traffic for a crew to drive to a location to make repairs.
In a benchmark study conducted among 28 utilities across the country last year including Austin Energy, utilities in the top quartile averaged 1.34 outages per customer with outages lasting 164.97 minutes. In that study conducted by Maryland-based First Quartile Consulting, Austin Energy ranked first outperforming participating utilities in Seattle, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio among others.
It has helped that there have been few serious storms over the past year. But Austin Energy’s good showing has been consistent over a number of years and is due to a variety of factors.
About $12 million is spent each year on tree trimming to keep tree limbs from making contact with power lines and electrical equipment. Tree trimming was completed along 324 miles of lines involving 13,223 properties this past year. Austin Energy also is one of the few utilities nationwide that meets with customers prior to tree trimming to review details of trimming on each property. The utility has also been designated a Tree Line USA utility for nine years in a row by the well-respected Arbor Day Foundation for following best tree trimming practices and maintaining an annual training program.
“Austin Energy invests $80 million to $90 million a year on average to keep the system in top form which helps reduce the frequency and duration of power outages,” said David L. Wood, vice president of Electric Service Delivery. “That includes more than $70 million annually on major Capital Improvement Projects in upgrades and expansions to meet growth and the service needs of our customers.”
Of the total annual investment, more than $16 million was spent this past year to upgrade power lines that deliver electricity to homes and businesses. This included areas in Lakeway, Hudson Bend, along Highway 620, Dessau Road, and Carson Creek, among others. Austin Energy also completely rebuilt and enlarged the 50-year-old Koenig Lane substation in North Austin to handle growth in the area. Over the past five years, Austin Energy has spent more than $70 million to expand its substations to meet growth in Austin and will construct a new substation next year to handle growth in the Mueller development and central North Austin.
And yes, squirrels and other wildlife do cause outages especially in a tree-studded community like Austin where wildlife flourish. Austin Energy installs preventative devices such as squirrel and snake guards around equipment to prevent access by animals into areas they typically target.
The utility also has an extensive wood pole inspection program to identify and treat or remove any older and decaying wood poles before they break and cause outages. About 2,500 poles were treated this past year. In addition, Austin Energy replaces spans of underground cable if there are at least two outages in a section – indicating that the cable is old or has been damaged by cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. This past year alone more than 40,000 feet of underground cable was replaced at about 100 locations.
Finally, Austin Energy keeps about 10 repair crews outfitted and on standby 24/7 year-round as a first response to power outages. Austin Energy crews assisting other utilities after major storms through the years have consistently received praise for their safety, speed and technical knowhow.