$60M grid recharge aims to keep the lights on: Austin Energy readies downtown for rising demand, new substation to be built by 2020

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Austin Energy is set to give downtown a jolt: The municipal utility provider is on track to build a third substation in the downtown grid by 2020—which is needed to avoid recurring power outages in the city’s economic powerhouse, according to the utility.

Utility customers throughout the Austin Energy service area—which spans all of Austin proper and several other Travis County cities, such as Manor, Pflugerville and Cedar Park—will pay for the infrastructure improvement. The utility provider will not set new customer rates until 2021, but the cost will mature over a 30-year period and minimize the impact to customers’ bills, according to the utility. More and more Austin residents and tourists lay their heads at night in the central business district, and it has become the local home of an increasing number of the world’s biggest corporations, such as Google and Facebook.

At its current growth rate, the city will reach network capacity by 2023, according to Austin Energy documents. The utility said power outages might occur with regularity without needed fixes.

In addition to building a new substation downtown, Austin Energy is planning upgrades to other aspects of the downtown grid, including rebuilding the Brackenridge substation, upgrading network distribution and adding a transformer to the Seaholm substation. Those improvements, including the new substation, total $60 million over the next six years and would double the utility’s network capacity in downtown.

“Downtown is really the engine that drives the entire economy in Austin and the entire region,” Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said. “The downtown network should never, ever go down. We should never have power outages. But when it does … it needs to repaired or restored quickly.”

The new substation is planned for 55 East Ave. in the burgeoning Rainey Street District, where high-rise condominiums, nightlife and businesses have emerged almost overnight. The neighborhood was rezoned in 2005  allowing for its conversion from a sleepy residential area to a vibrant new area of downtown Austin.

Averting an eyesore

The upcoming introduction of a substation—which will serve as a sort of gateway to the community and nightlife district—raised eyebrows for downtown residents in the Rainey Street area, said Sandra DeLeon, president of the Rainey Street Neighborhood Association.

Electrical substations, which receive high-voltage power from power plants over transmission lines and reduce the voltage so that power can safely be distributed, are not known for their aesthetics, DeLeon said.

But she said the neighborhood association has been working with Austin Energy staff, who have been receptive to ensuring the substation reflects the character of the community.

“There is full participation in terms of what we want that station to look like,” DeLeon said. “[We want] to make sure it blends in with the neighborhood and that it doesn’t become an obtrusive building that looks out of place at the entrance of our neighborhood.”

The engineering phase of the project is scheduled to begin early next year, and DeLeon said she expects a dialogue with the design firm and Austin Energy to continue through 2018.

Another interested party in the project is the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center. The center, located at 600 River St., promotes the arts in the local Mexican-American and Latino communities. The center, often called the MACC, is on the perimeter of the Rainey Street district.

The Rainey Street area was historically a largely Latino neighborhood, and MACC board member Juan Oyervides said he hopes the design of the new substation reflects that past.

“This is an opportunity for the MACC and Hispanic community to give their input as to the look [of the substation],” Oyervides said.

But Oyervides said he believes more work needs to be done to eliminate the electric utility infrastructure that threatens to become an eyesore for the area. He said the city transmission lines that run through the MACC’s parking lot have been a sore point for the center.

“I’m sure our neighbors would also like to see the transmission lines rerouted or buried preferably,” he said.

Burying transmission lines is an expensive undertaking, Oyervides admitted, but he said it will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Reaching capacity

The rapid development of the urban core with denser facilities emerging in downtown, such as the Seaholm district and Austin’s fledgling health care innovation zone, have taken demand for electricity on an upward trend since 2014, according to utility data.

Dewitt “De” Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said downtown added 8 million square feet of development in 2017 alone, and future projects will bring another 15 million square feet in the near term.

Development is not slowing down in the central business district, either. In the coming years, the redevelopment of Waller Creek, University Medical Center-Brackenridge and Villas of Town Lake are all expected to come online. The Austin Convention Center expansion, completion of the 37-story Fairmont and 33-story Mirabeau hotels, and the build-out of the South Central Waterfront are also in the works.

“We did a capacity analysis earlier this year looking at potential development that could happen on the remaining opportunity sites downtown and identified that we could essentially double the size of downtown—the square footage,” under current zoning, Peart said.

Because of that “investing in the grid is extremely important,” he said. He said it is a proactive move to ensure redundant service—meaning if one substation goes down another will serve as a backup.

The project is intended to bring additional capacity before it is necessary, said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who represents the downtown area on Austin City Council.

It will likely be out of sight and out of mind for most residents, but the project will be a boon for the city’s future, Cordova said.

“This will benefit not just Austin today but future generations of Austinites,” he said.

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JJ Velasquez
The Central Austin editor since 2016, JJ covers city government and other topics of community interest—when he's not editing the work of his prolific writers. He began his tenure at Community Impact Newspaper as the reporter for its San Marcos | Buda | Kyle edition covering local government and public education. The Laredo, Texas native is also a web developer whose mission is to make the internet a friendly place for finding objective and engaging news content.
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