The San Antonio Water System is taking a major step toward fortifying its system against major power outages such as those seen during the February 2021 freeze, the utility and CPS Energy announced during a rare joint board meeting Wednesday.

Following the harsh conditions of Winter Storm Uri, which saw pipes across the city freeze and limited residents access to water, utilities across the state — including SAWS and CPS Energy — were tasked with making their facilities more resilient against natural disasters.

With the intention of meeting new state requirements, CPS Energy will be partnering with SAWS to connect the utility’s most critical pump stations to backup generators. This would ensure SAWS has enough power to keep water running during a major power outage.

Connecting these facilities to backup generators will also allow CPS Energy to run them during peak energy demand periods without pulling from the grid, officials said.

This is important because SAWS and CPS Energy are each other’s biggest user, explained SAWS Board Chairwoman Jelynne LeBlanc Jamison. This is called the water energy nexus, she said.

“The production, distribution, treatment, cooling, collecting of water and the treating of wastewater consumes energy,” she said. “[Vice versa], harnessing energy requires a lot of water; almost every power source demands water in one form or the other or the other.”

SAWS will be responsible for procuring and installing the generators, which will cost an estimated $97 million. CPS Energy will be responsible for operating and maintaining the generators, which will allow the electric utility to operate the generators “at any other time that [CPS Energy] deems it beneficial,” utility officials said.

CPS Energy will sell the energy generated back to the grid to help SAWS pay for the generators. SAWS officials said they could not disclose how many generators the utility is acquiring for this initiative, where they will be located or which facilities would be affected, due to security concerns.

The state-required Energy Power Plan

Shortly after and in response to Winter Storm Uri, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 3, which required water utilities to each submit an Emergency Power Plan to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality by March of this year. SAWS met that goal.

Under the new law, utilities had to detail in their respective plans how they would provide enough pressure to their entire service area to avoid a boil water notice, even in the case of a 24-hour power outage.

During Winter Storm Uri, CPS Energy had to shut power to some SAWS pump stations as the utility struggled to impose cuts needed to stabilize the Texas power grid. This caused a significant drop in water pressure across SAWS’ service area, and the utility estimated that up to 30% of its customers lacked service at some point during the event.

Within its own Emergency Power Plan, SAWS identified that it needs to run 36 of its 80 pump stations to meet the new 24-hour power outage requirement across San Antonio.

SAWS’ plan identified roughly $202 million in projects that would shore it up against a major event, said Steve Clouse, SAWS’ chief operating officer.

The first project will connect 15 of SAWS’ 36 critical pump stations to natural gas backup generators. The other 21 will later be connected to diesel-run backup generators.

SAWS has already purchased the natural-gas generators, which included a 20-year maintenance contract from the original equipment manufacturer and a 10-year warranty, he said.

“We realized we need to diversify the fuel supply,” Clouse said.

It has yet to purchase the diesel-run generators, Clouse added. While SAWS has a 10-year window under which to get its plan fully enacted, he said SAWS has given itself a seven-year timetable and is aiming to have all 36 of its critical pump stations connected to backup generators by 2030.

At this time, no additional rate increases are expected for the acquisition and installation of the natural gas backup generators, Clouse said. It’s unclear at this time if one will be needed for the acquisition and installation of the diesel equipment, he added.

This article has been updated to correctly reflect that CPS Energy, not SAWS, will operate the generators.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.