Counties step up during historic winter storms

Energy conservation by counties helped curb outages to thousands of Panhandle homes

By Julie Chang

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Thousands of homes in Potter and Randall counties were saved from the cold after officials took unprecedented steps to ratchet down power use in government-owned buildings during February’s historic winter storms.

County, city, school district and university officials banded together to reduce their power usage for several days during the week of Feb. 14 as the Panhandle plunged toward a record-breaking minus 11 degrees. The action occurred after the utility company told officials that the cold was preventing a third of the regular flow of natural gas from reaching Amarillo. The company had identified certain homes for meter shutdowns, said Randall County Judge Christy Dyer. 

“We realized we had a crisis,” Dyer said. "We intiated the emergency operation center, went down there and started formulating plans on how we can save gas."

Dyer said her county's personnel turned off lights and lowered thermostats to 57 degrees in the noncritical areas of its 15 buildings.

Potter County took similar measures at its structures, including its five-story district courthouse, the seven-story county courthouse and a 12-story county building.

Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner, Dyer and other government officials also held a press conference shortly after receiving a request from the utility company to ask the public to curb its energy use. The collective action spared at least 10,000 homes from having their gas cut off, Dyer said.

Other than brief rolling blackouts, no homes served by the local utility companies lost power or electricity during the winter storms. The region is not on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) power grid, which produced disastrous dayslong blackouts in other parts of the state. Instead, the region is served by Southwest Power Pool, which extends north into North Dakota and Montana.

“The people jumped in together,” Tanner said about the community’s conservation. “That’s one thing you can say about the Panhandle people — we work together.”

Maintenance staff monitored county buildings to ensure they weren’t adversely affected during the storms. Tanner said a pipe burst in the jury room of the district courthouse and leaked into the basement, where records are housed, but none of them were damaged.

As of early March, TAC Risk Management Pool had received 77 property claims from 76 members spread across the state since the storms. More than half of them were for burst pipes, and three were for collapsed roofs.

Dyer and Tanner said beyond the quick actions their counties took, they realized they also had the benefit of time. Other parts of the state were already plummeting into darkness before the Panhandle's power source was impacted.

Even so, the judges credit the utility companies for being transparent about the situation they were in and for holding multiple meetings to keep stakeholders updated. They said the good communication was the product of positive relationships that public officials have forged with the utility companies over the years.

“Because we had the established relationships, it allowed us to all come in the same room rapidly and make adjustments rapidly. And there was great leadership from every entity — from the city of Amarillo’s mayor, from the city of Canyon’s mayor, from the school districts’ superintendents, from the universities and from both counties,” Dyer said. “Everybody wanted what was best for people.”