Power outages add to woes in water-soaked Texas

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Edward Klump
E&E News reporter

Electric line repair
Taking down American flag during storm. Photo credit: Capt. Martha Nigrelle/Army national Guard

HOUSTON — As rain continues in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey, Texas is coping with a significant loss of electricity, even if the current outage numbers in and around America’s fourth largest city aren’t as large as might be expected.

And people in areas with heavy damage face the prospect of a power restoration process that could last weeks or longer.

CenterPoint Energy Inc., the main electric wires utility for the Houston metro area, reported more than 105,000 customers — or homes and businesses — without power in its territory as of 10:52 a.m. local time. Remarkably, over 95 percent of the 2.4-million-plus customers in CenterPoint’s service area had electricity as of this morning.

CenterPoint cautioned that it can’t get to everyone to address lost power or assess natural gas issues. It also remains to be seen how much damage has occurred to the company’s infrastructure. Floodwaters need to recede before individual restoration time estimates are available, the company said.

"Our crews are responding to outages throughout our service territory where they can safely do so," CenterPoint said in a statement today. Houston continues to see "catastrophic flooding" and strong winds, it said.

The company said that, in some places, it’s "proactively taking service off the grid in order to avoid long-term damage to our electric infrastructure, which could potentially result in a longer restoration time."

After Hurricane Ike in 2008, many people in the Houston area were without power for weeks after high winds toppled trees and took down power lines. CenterPoint credited its use of technology and an emergency response plan for enabling it to return electricity to over 580,000 customers since Harvey began affecting its territory Friday, even if the outlook for thousands of customers remains fuzzy.

The restoration effort is being aided by advanced meters that pinpoint outages. There’s also the fact that Harvey’s arrival with hurricane-force winds occurred down the Texas coast, although the storm later stalled near Houston and caused massive flooding, periods of high winds and reports of tornadoes.

Ed Hirs, an energy economist with the University of Houston, also described improved maintenance of rights of way for power lines in CenterPoint’s territory. He said it’s remarkable to see the level of electric service across much of the metro area.

"Everyone’s acutely aware that it maintains the social fabric — traffic lights, refrigeration, air conditioning, communications, emergency response, health care clinics, the fuel stations that are open, the grocery stores that are open," he said.

More broadly in Texas and Louisiana, about 288,349 customers were without power in affected areas as of 10 a.m. EDT today, according to the Edison Electric Institute. EEI had reported an outage total of about 310,000 as of 6 p.m. EDT yesterday in a news release on Harvey.

EEI stressed yesterday that some areas along Texas’ coast could be unable to take power service "for weeks or months."

Tom Kuhn, EEI’s president, said that damage assessments were happening and that power restoration progress would occur as soon as it could happen safely.

"At this point, nearly 10,000 workers are dedicated to the response and recovery effort," Kuhn said yesterday in a statement. "This includes crews, lineworkers, and support personnel from the impacted companies and mutual assistance crews from at least 19 states across the country. Additional resources are ready to mobilize to assist if needed to further support restoration."

Patience is appreciated

EEI said the industry was coordinating with the federal government, including with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor, who has been in contact with chief executives of companies affected by Harvey.

"As we are all seeing, the devastation and flooding from Harvey are catastrophic, and this will be a long-duration restoration event," Kuhn said.

Entergy Texas, a unit of Entergy Corp., reported thousands of customers without power yesterday and said the number could climb. Its region includes some locations north and east of Houston.

"More heavy rain is predicted for some areas, and these areas have already had over 20 inches of rain," Vernon Pierce, vice president of customer service for Entergy Texas, said in a statement.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s main grid operator, said yesterday that the grid remained in "stable condition" after Harvey.

In a statement dated yesterday, ERCOT said several transmission lines were out of service, including near Corpus Christi and Victoria. Two major 345-kilovolt transmission lines that serve the Gulf Coast region were not in service, ERCOT said.

As of midday yesterday, the grid operator said a little over 6,700 megawatts of generating capacity was offline for storm-related reasons. That included some renewables.

NRG Energy Inc., a major power producer in Texas, went into emergency preparedness at power plants in the Gulf Coast before Harvey made landfall.

"Any time you have this much rain, you will have issues but one of the advantages of our geographically and fuel diverse fleet is that we can look at it from a holistic view and continue to generate the power needed," David Knox, an NRG spokesman, said via email today. "I would also add we have our plants staffed 24/7 with food and cots to allow us to outlast the storm."

Meanwhile, power demand in the ERCOT region has been below typical August usage in recent days as the grid operator noted cooler temperatures and structural damage. ERCOT’s region saw a peak of less than 45,000 MW yesterday compared with a peak of more than 60,000 MW on Aug. 24.

"ERCOT operations will continue to focus on overall grid reliability during the restoration process, while transmission and distribution providers make repairs to power lines and electrical equipment," the grid operator said in a statement yesterday. "Additional engineers have been on site around the clock throughout the hurricane and tropical storm to support these operations and stay in constant communication with transmission and generation suppliers."

CenterPoint asked for understanding as people await power restoration in its service territory.

"Our crews are working and will keep working until everyone is restored," the company said today. "We greatly appreciate our customers’ patience."

Twitter: @edward_klump Email: eklump(at)eenews.net

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