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You’ve Got Our Attention, Utilities. What Will You Do with It?

My daughter woke me up on the morning of February 15th, scared because her lights were out. As she got under the covers with us, it was cold in the house. I padded to the kitchen to check the indoor temperature -- 51 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s when I realized the power was out. I’m an Austin Energy customer and have their outage alert text number saved, so I went through the following exchange:

I had to dig around a bit to learn from Austin Energy on Twitter that we were in rolling blackouts. I went back to bed, explaining what I’d learned to my daughter and my wife as I got in bed. I had no idea that ERCOT had just kept the entire grid from collapsing, nor that Austin Energy and Austin Water would be risking their lives that week to keep their customers from losing theirs.

Emergency Communications - from School Zone to Highway

This blog isn't about grid management or service restoration. Instead it's about the utility communication response. I truly appreciate how far the Austin-area utilities got in a single week.

Everyone -- utilities and customers alike -- spent Monday trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

I cast around for information -- I had to go find it since information wasn't coming to me (more on that later). I realized that the Twitter feeds of Austin Energy, Austin Water, and Texas Gas Service were going to be the best sources of information. And, at the beginning, the communication had that "utility" feel -- high level status updates and the fact that "rotating outages are lasting longer than the expected duration." That statement raised my anxiety level considerably, but there was no added context.

Not surprisingly, all utility customers got pretty anxious. Take some time to look at the Twitter feeds for any Texas utility on Monday, and you'll see a lot of scared and angry people (for good reason). Outside temperatures were in the single digits, and the health of the elderly and the young were at high risk. Some areas -- notably downtown Austin -- still had power due to their being on emergency facility circuits, and people wanted to know why they were being "singled out" for blackouts.

Utility communications were high level and ambiguous, which just played into customers' fear, paranoia, and anger. Austin Water had to scramble to convince people that their water service wasn't going to get cut off, which at that time was one of three good things going at my house -- running water, hot water, and the ability to cook meals courtesy of old appliances and Texas Gas Service (thank you).

But burst pipes led to a boil water notice in South Austin, and the loss of the main treatment plant led to a systemwide crisis. Soon after, Austin Water got drawn in as well.

By the end of the week, utility communications were detailed and provided specific, relevant information. Austin Energy showed crews struggling to restore power, and they regularly updated and referred customers to the outage map. Austin Water also showed their crews out working, graphed why and how supply had dropped below system demand, and posted a map showing the status of each service zone.

Within four days, I knew where to go, what information to get, and stayed glued to my Twitter feed to know what was going on. That's a truly remarkable adaptation in a very, very short period of time.

Spotlight is on Utilities - And You Should Keep It That Way

I am not suggesting that this is a happy story -- people across Texas died, and more who did are being found daily. Property damage is widespread. Utility customers are hurting. Politicians are posturing and holding hearings, and the Internet opinion brigade (myself included) have been second-guessing everything. I personally believe that there is a path to accountability and better risk and system management. Time will tell if we find it.

And utilities, you have definitely got our attention right now. But instead of being uncomfortable about that, you should realize that attention is a scarce resource, and I know that you've got a list of things that you wish people would do or not do.

  • Do you want everyone, myself included, to buy and install natural gas fireplaces? Home water coolers? Gasoline-powered backup generators? Natural gas stoves in place of electric ones?

  • Do you want us to participate in demand response programs for electricity/gas/water? To take advantage of utility financing to install battery backups powered by nighttime wind? Or to find ways to safely store city water for emergencies?

  • Which set of actions makes your systems easier -- or harder -- to manage, both in times of stability and times of crisis?

  • If we do all those things, are we lowering our individual risk and raising our collective risk?

There is a narrow window of time when we are paying attention to you. You have to take advantage of it to build communication bridges to us. What will keep people coming back to you on a daily or weekly basis? You can learn from this experience to find ways to regularly present information that is relevant to people's daily lives.

Because there will be a time when you'll need them to be ready to hear from you, and you definitely need your customers to work with you. Do you remember that text I sent to Austin Energy at the beginning of the event? I never got another response there. You've got to learn from this and take advantage of this moment.

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