Austin Energy power outage crisis blamed on city's environmental policies, property owners

Local utility crews are now cleaning up the mess that broke Austin's local power grid.

With teams from other cities coming to help restore power, Jackie Sargent, the General Manager of Austin Energy, was confident and made this prediction.

"At this point, because of the forecast of rising temperatures, we are expecting to be wrapping up and major restoration efforts by Friday evening," said Sargent.

Thursday afternoon, Austin Energy back tracked and said it was unclear when power would be fully restored. 

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Circuit breaks lit up the night sky during the ice storm as an estimated 265,000 Austin Energy customers lost power. 

During the Thursday morning thaw, more tree limbs fell, triggering more outages after initially 113,000 were re-connected. 

During a briefing, Sargent was asked why line breaks from trees is a recurring problem for Austin considering the utility has a tree trimming program. She blamed city environmental policies and property owners.

"Over the past several years. We have increased our budget and our focus to trim trees. We could really use help in that area with getting our residents to understand the importance of vegetation management, to allow our crews in, to get the vegetation management done. We can always be better, but in this circumstance, I don't know what you saw when you were driving here this morning, but the amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic extreme, and that has caused significant challenges for us," said Sargent.

Sargent later provided more details on why the utility's vegetation removal program has not been able to remove this recurring problem.

"So we have policies that are given to us that direct our tree, our vegetation management programs, and because we want to preserve the beautiful urban canopy that we have here, we are often only allowed to do V cuts for certain portions of line. So trees that are underlines and that weakens the trees. And so in cases like this, it actually adds to the potential problem. We'll be working with our policymakers to help us with that, but certainly helping us educate the community of the importance of that and the need for that is going to be something that we would appreciate your help with," said Sargent.

Sargent also blamed weather forecasts, claiming it was their understanding ice accumulation would not be this bad. Austin Energy also defended how they pick areas to get back online first. Locations are determined by the size of the outage. 

Mayor Kirk Watson, during the briefing, did indicate mistakes were made in how the crisis was managed.

"I also want to acknowledge that, like so many of our residents, I've been frustrated. I've been frustrated by the lack of power in our homes, including mine. And I've been frustrated and disappointed in the communication that I feel like should have been better with the people of the city. A press conference like this to answer questions should have happened before now," said Mayor Watson.

Mayor Watson promised changes will be made. But that work will begin after this crisis is over.