AUSTIN, Texas - Long before the winter storm hit Austin and cut electrical power to thousands of customers, Austin Energy's multi-million dollar biomass power facility in East Texas was already offline.
Why it was never powered up, came up Friday during the power crisis hearings at the Texas Capitol. Austin Energy general manager Jacqueline Sargent testified about why the site was not in play.
"As we took ownership of that facility we've been looking at how we continue to minimize the cost our customers incur through ownership of that facility," said Sargent.
The site in Nacogdoches was purchased by Austin Energy in 2019. Buying it eliminated guaranteed payments the utility was already making as part of a previous deal. State Sen. Robert Nichols, who represents the district where the plant is located, asked how the ownership change changed its status.
"That plant had been ready to crank up when needed, and after y’all purchased it, did you just mothball it, shut it down? Or did you keep it ready to go? If so, was it cranked for y’all," asked state Sen. Nichols (R-Jacksonville).
The question was relevant to the crisis. Nichols said the previous owner, Southern Power, kept the site on standby year-round.
"So we did put it into mothball status. When we looked into in preparing for this event, we looked at, can we get that plant back online, can we get it available, can we have it here, also to support the market, based on what we found with the challenges of bringing that system online, getting fuel on-site, and have it on line and operation, we could not do it in the time frame to meet this event," explained Sargent.
Sargent went on to say the plan for the biomass plant is to only help meet summer power demands. "Wood chips don’t burn when they are wet," said Sargent.
Sargent was also asked why Austin Energy was not able to manage the original rolling outage order which resulted in keeping some areas in the dark while others never lost power. "We had to reduce so much load so quickly we got to that point where we didn't have anywhere to take somebody off and put those people back on," said Sargent.
A contributing factor to the long outages was power lines broken by fallen tree limbs. Sargent testified that the problem, along with the blackout, created repair blindspots.
"When the damage occurred, those circuits were out of service, that means no current was flowing through them, so there were no protective devices to get to see indication there was a problem on that line, and so we were not able to identify specifically where we had problems on the line until we could get them back in service," said Sargent.
When power lines were powered up, several transformers blew and fuses burned out. Sargent admitted the utility is behind in its tree-trimming program but denied being micro-managed by environmental protection policies from the Austin City Council.