Like many of the houses in San Antonio’s “original city limits,” my house was built without exterior wall insulation. After purchasing this house, I installed an industrial-grade electric heater in the bathroom, crawled under the house and insulated all the pipes myself, and put R-30 insulation into the bathroom wall, then got help to insulate the attic and under the floors.
On the coldest nights, my dogs and I sleep with my camping gear in the hallway outside the bathroom for climate control reasons. Sunday night, I had just gotten the temperature in my bathroom up to 66 degrees and was thinking we just might survive the winter storm, when I received the emergency alert. It explained that the wind turbines in West Texas were frozen and informed me that in order to support the statewide energy grid with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), rolling outages of 15-60 minutes would begin.
The electricity at my house in the Highland Park area then went off for about 15 minutes, came on for about 15 minutes, then cycled on and off about equal lengths of time several cycles before staying off. During the second cycle, I eventually was able to bring up the CPS Energy outage map and see controlled outages in the eastern half of the Highlands area in District 3 and part of District 2 north of Interstate 10, part of Harlandale, part of Alta Vista and several other older neighborhoods southwest and west of the city center.
Monday morning the temperature In the bathroom was 58 degrees. A few times throughout the day the electricity came on for about three minutes. Water to the neighborhood went off Monday afternoon and was restored by SAWS with very low pressure about 12 hours later before depressurizing again.
That evening I received a notice from CPS of an unplanned outage and six minutes later a notice that power was restored. The notice said if my neighbors had power and I did not, to check the breakers and then report to CPS. I went outside to knock the snow off my solar-powered light strings to bring them in and light the bathroom. During that time, the streetlights and power to my house came on for about two minutes. As the temperature in the bathroom continued downward from 45 degrees at sunset, I realized the prospect of numerous neighbors without heat having their indoor pipes burst.
I was most concerned about neighbors on home dialysis. During power outages, CPS rushes crews to restore power and keep them alive. But the ERCOT rolling cutoffs didn’t seem to distinguish those who may die during the night without electricity.
Lying under winter blankets alongside each dog, also covered with flannel sheets and blankets, I wrote a letter questioning the equity of rolling blackouts leaving the older parts of the city without power. In the letter, I wrote:
You must know at this moment being in their houses is like being without shelter for many of your residents. Has San Antonio handed the CPS area completely over to ERCOT? Is ERCOT taking advantage to leave older San Antonio neighborhoods without power? Are you going to stand by while ERCOT endangers the lives of San Antonio residents?
I emailed the plea to District 3 City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, City Manager Erik Walsh, and Frank Almaraz, chief administrative and business development officer at CPS. I sent it to Almaraz because he responds, often sending a reply email between 6 and 7 a.m., and forwards customer concerns to an employee empowered to act upon it.
I thought how overwhelmed every employee of CPS must be and hesitated to add yet another concern. But it also concerned me, on the off chance I froze to death in my own house, to leave a final message to make the future more equitable for my neighbors in vulnerable communities. I sent the message at 5 a.m.
True to character, Frank Almaraz replied at 7. Almaraz detailed the dedication of CPS employees “working around the clock to support the grid to avoid a situation where the entire power grid is forced offline for an extended period of time.”
But then he got personal: “Your comments about the elderly hit home for me…My father is 87 years old and lives in an assisted living facility that has been out of power since yesterday as well. This is an urgent problem to solve.”
This makes me hopeful, even in the midst of deadly crises, for the future of San Antonio. Unlike many city leaders who are always looking for the next opportunity, people like Almaraz, who takes the time to thoughtfully respond to concerns, and Walsh, who has said he plans to live in San Antonio the rest of his life, show that they are invested in their city.
For the future of San Antonio power, the best resource to get together is the people, and the best way to move forward is to listen to each other.
Frank Almaraz closed his reply by saying, “I am thankful for your prayers. I am working hard and praying for my city too.”
Keep working, Frank, and everyone else who remembers the reason we need power is for the people.