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CPS Energy, SAWS, city staff optimistic about emergency preparedness but work to be done

The steps and entrance to City Hall.
Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
The entrance to City Hall.

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Representatives from CPS Energy, SAWS, and the City of San Antonio briefed council members on the Municipal Utilities Committee about the strides they have taken in emergency preparedness since the 2020 winter storm that knocked out power and water for weeks for some San Antonians.

Representatives from SAWS were particularly confident in their ability to weather future storms or other emergencies and provide water to customers, including SAWS CEO Robert Puente.

“What I want to emphasize is that we are ready, period,” Puente said. “Even if there is a large freeze this winter or next winter, we are ready.”

CPS executive vice president of Energy Supply Benny Ethridge said he believed the energy utility was in “a very good position” for the upcoming winter. He pointed to CPS’ 28% reserve margin heading into the winter — that means CPS has 1,325 MW more in energy resources available than the expected peak demand of 4,732 MW.

A slide from CPS Energy's presentation on their winter resource adequacy, focusing on its reserve margin of 1,325 megawatts.
CPS Energy
/
CPS Energy
A slide from CPS Energy's presentation about emergency preparedness.

Bryan Norris, the deputy chief of the San Antonio Fire Department, spoke on behalf of the City of San Antonio. He said the city had completed 22 of the 24 recommendations it had been given after the winter storm. He said the last two, one of which is installing generators for key city facilities, were in progress.

However, the briefing wasn’t purely celebratory. Representatives from each entity recognized that there was still work to be done, and that some things like installing generators for SAWS stations and city facilities would take at least two years.

Even when the generators are eventually installed at 15 SAWS stations, that still won’t mean the utility can get water to every single customer in the event of a severe emergency, though representatives said it will keep water flowing at critical facilities.

At CPS Energy, despite improvements that will allow operators to prevent long-term blackouts for specific geographic areas and ensure power for hospitals, officials conceded power outages would still occur in an emergency event.

District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda and District 9 Councilman John Courage both pushed on the city’s lack of a real plan to acquire water for distribution in case of a city- or statewide event like the 2020 winter storm that caused shortages everywhere.

“You just said we really don’t have a plan for that, so let’s include having a plan for getting and distributing water,” Courage said.

Water distribution efforts
Brian Kirkpatrick
/
Texas Public Radio
SeaWorld employees, police cadets and firefighters help the water distribution efforts at the SeaWorld employee parking lot at West Military near 1604 during the 2020 winter storm.

One issue that came up throughout the session was communication — between the utilities themselves, between utilities and the city, and between those entities and residents.

Though representatives for the city and the utilities said they had undertaken major efforts to improve communications with each other and residents, council members said more should be done.

District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez pushed CPS Energy and SAWS to think more about how they can connect with residents who don’t have reliable access to the internet or television.

“I’m moderately concerned, and maybe it just wasn’t listed, what specific direct outreach we could expect — and that could be mail, text, robocalls, proactive pitches to the news media, community and senior center visits, communication with our largest employers even,” he said.

Courage said the city should at least explore some type of audible emergency warning system like the tornado sirens in other parts of the country that make it clear to residents that a true emergency is happening, in part because text alerts and emails can often become background noise.

CPS Energy and SAWS also described other efforts to make their systems more resilient, such as insulating critical pipes for potable water and wastewater and providing field staff with the right equipment to be able to go out and effectively fix power or water lines when emergencies occur, putting the utilities in a stronger position than they were in January 2020.

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Josh Peck is the Technology & Entrepreneurship Reporter for Texas Public Radio.