No utility company in the state came out unscathed after last week’s historic winter storm that resulted in rolling power outages and snowballed into a water crisis for millions of Texas residents, but had New Braunfels Utilities not made infrastructure upgrades in recent years, results might have been worse for customers.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electric grid, declared a third-level energy emergency alert early on Feb. 15, forcing NBU and transmission companies throughout the state to begin rotating power outages as there was not enough power available to keep up with consumer demand.

That lack of power resulted in low water pressure and outages throughout NBU’s water system.

A bad situation would likely have been worse without the upgrades the utility has made in the last four years to increase electric and water pumping capacity, NBU CEO Ian Taylor told city council members on Monday.

“Without those investments, we would not have fared as well as we did in this situation,” Taylor said.

In 2016,NBU’s maximum pumping capacity for its water system was between 20 and 21 million gallons per day, Taylor said. Today, it’s at 34 million gallons a day.

“We had some facilities offline for planned maintenance during this event, and a couple of other issues came up,” Taylor told council members. “So our maximum pumping capacity during this event was 28 (million gallons per day). With that 28 mgd you saw how long it took to fill up the system, so if we had not had that additional pumping capacity, it would have been much worse.”

Taylor added that had NBU not added feeders to the electric system, “the outages would have been much longer for many of our customers.”

“In fact, some of them, like other utilities that you heard of, we may have had to turn off their feeder and left it off for the entire time,” he said.

According to Taylor, NBU’s maximum shed obligation during the storm was 86.97 megawatts, and a maximum of 13,930 customers experienced rotating power outages at one time on Feb. 16.

NBU’s total time spent rotating outages was 70 hours and 35 minutes, with 34 out of 42 circuits affected.

By comparison, the state’s previous third-level event that took place on Feb. 2, 2011, included seven hours and 24 minutes of rotating outages with NBU’s maximum load shedding requirement at 13.76 megawatts. Nine circuits were affected, and 6,400 customers were impacted by that storm.

“It was pretty cold last week, and that caused unprecedented events and impacts to the statewide electric grid, NBU’s electric system and also to our water system,” Taylor said. “There was insufficient generation to meet the load on the statewide grid. The reason that happened is because generators were tripping offline. They were shutting down.”

The generators shut down for two primary reasons, Taylor said.

“One, winterization had not happened,” Taylor said. “This was across the generation fleet in ERCOT — nuclear, coal, gas, sun and wind. Plants were tripping offline. The second thing, there were issues with natural gas delivery. For those thermal resources ... natural gas is the primary fuel. When you cannot deliver the natural gas to those plants, the plants shut down.”

Taylor said that not all of the system’s circuits were available for load shedding.

“Two of them serve our hospitals, Resolute and Christus Santa Rosa,” Taylor said. “Three of those 42 are required to stay on by ERCOT because they have a system protection device called an under frequency relay.”

Taylor compared that relay device to a pressure relief valve in a water system.

“When the load starts to go above generation resources, the frequency starts to drop,” he said. If it drops low enough, you have big issues, and that’s when you run the risk of catastrophic cascading outages.”

Six of the circuits, he said, serve critical utility infrastructure, such as water pumping stations and circuits that keep communications for law enforcement and NBU units running. Taylor said that two other circuits were “loaded so heavily, that if we had to shut those off, we would not have been able to turn them back on.”

Taylor said the cold weather had started to take its toll on the water system before rolling power outages began taking place.

“We had to send crews to the water tanks and manually tell us how much was in there,” he said. “We had to send crews to pump stations to manually turn them on and off. At one point, we had someone sleeping in their truck all night long at Copper Ridge because that eventually became a standalone system that we had to make sure that we were operating out there.”

Once the thaw started, there were thousands of leaks throughout the system.

“When you have that many leaks and you simply cannot keep up your pressure drops,” he said.

Taylor said the utility identified about 5,000 customers whose meters were showing continuous consumption indicative of a leak, making it difficult for the system’s water tanks to recover.

Using electric and water operation teams, meter readers, conservation technicians and anyone else able to drive, Taylor said NBU visited more than 1,000 homes with the highest continuous water consumption.

“There was a lot of frustration in the community saying, ‘Tell me when my water’s going to be back on. Can you tell me what order you’re going to go in?’ The answer that we had was, ‘We don’t know.’ We literally did not know,” Taylor said.

NBU issued a boil order notice on Feb. 17 when the system’s water pressure fell below regulatory standards. The notice was rescinded Sunday as water pressure returned.

Crews repaired eight NBU water main breaks after the storms. Water demand peaked at 25.1 million gallons a day, more than twice the normal winter average.

Taylor said NBU has put a plan in place to help residential and commercial customers minimize the impact of high bills related to weather-related water leaks brought-on by last week’s winter storm.

He said NBU would make a one-time adjustment to all residential and commercial water and wastewater accounts to assist or aid customers who may have higher bills due to freeze-related leaks or unusually higher usage for faucet dripping in order to prevent freezing at their home or business.

Although there have been reports of retail electric bills in the thousands of dollars in some parts of Texas, Taylor said this would not happen in New Braunfels.

He said the utility operates a power supply program designed to reduce volatility and maintain a competitive price.

The hedging program and reserves policy greatly insulated our customers from last week’s event, he said. But there are still some unknowns on the ultimate impact on future utility bills.

“Are bills going to go up? Yes, they are,” he said. “How much? I don’t know yet.”

Last week’s pricing of wholesale power, specifically during the Energy Reliability Council of Texas’ third-level alert, was historic, as energy pricing spiked to $9,000 per megawatt-hour up from an average of $28 and stayed there for three days. Additionally, natural gas prices rose from around $3 per MMBtu to $400 per MMBtu, commonly used to price electric energy products.

As a result of the weather event, NBU estimates the cost of power generation at $82 million between Feb. 1-20. By comparison, the cost of power generation and transmission for the entire fiscal year is budgeted at $88.5 million.

There are a number of issues still to be settled in ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates ERCOT, he said.

“There are a number of things that a number of utilities are pushing for changes to happen,” he said. “The costs that we were exposed to … were completely outrageous. Hopefully, some of that will be peeled back.”

NBU provides bill assistance and payment plans to help those struggling to pay their bills.

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(1) comment

Rita Wittwer

NBU’s service during the freeze should not be underestimated. While the rest of the state unnecessarily suffered from death and significant financial loss from a unregulated power grid wholly not maintained or upgraded, NBU managed rolling outages that kept people from freezing to death. Without their prior decisions affecting the utility’s ability to weather this event, New Braunfels would have been in much worse shape. And, a huge thank you to NBU employees who went and are still going above and beyond to help our community. The inevitable rate increase to ensure that our energy utility can withstand the ramifications of climate change is well worth the cost to prevent the loss of lives and homes in the future. The Texas legislature and ERCOT could learn from NBU’s decisions. Just one more reason to love living in New Braunfels.

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