electricity

Is There a Way to Prioritize Medically Fragile Texans in a Power Disaster?

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During the power outages last month, some North Texans lost electricity for many hours over a few days while others didn’t lose it at all.

North Texans who rely on electricity for medical equipment at home wanted to know if there’s a way to spare their homes during controlled outages – the kind Texas saw the week of Valentine’s Day.

Here’s what we learned.

"It Was a Real Concern for Us"

When the forecast escalated to a power emergency, Holley Daniel said she worried about her husband - who relies on a combination CPAP machine and oxygen concentrator at home.

“We were kind of panicked, not really knowing what to do,” said Daniel.

The devices were even more critical after Daniel said her husband recently recovered from COVID-19 and pneumonia.

“He's doing much better now, but he's also a transplant patient, so he's on dialysis. He's got a lot going on. It was a real concern for us,” said Daniel.

Daniel said the family maintains an emergency supply of oxygen tanks at home but explained they’re an option for the short-term.

“Those tanks typically don't last very long. Some of them only last about an hour,” said Daniel.

With icy roads outside, the family considered what to do if they run out of power and oxygen.

“He was going to sleep in the recliner so he could sit upright and, that way, your lungs are more open,” said Daniel.

The family conserved power and hoped for the best.

“We just prayed and kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't be affected,” she said.

Critical Care and Chronic Condition Designations

During the storm, Daniel reached out to NBC 5 to ask if there was a way to prevent a controlled outage to homes like hers – which would fall under the status of critical care or chronic condition residential customers.

The designation identifies a residential customer who has someone in the home who has a serious medical condition that requires an electric-powered medical device or someone with a medical condition that would be impacted significantly by loss of heating or cooling.

Customers can fill out an application, submit it with a doctor’s note to their transmission and delivery utility - like Oncor. If the customer submits the form to their retail electric provider, it is required to forward the application to the TDU.

You can find the application and instructions here.

If approved, the designation triggers extra protections like additional notice in case of disconnection for nonpayment, though disconnection is still allowed under the rules.

Oncor said the designation also tells power companies where chronic condition and critical care customers are located so the utility could try to prioritize those customers in restoration work after a storm.

Debbie Dennis, Senior Vice President and Chief Customer Officer at Oncor, said it wasn’t possible to prioritize critical care and chronic condition residential customers during the February storm.

“There's no way, in this type of load shed event, that you can exclude them and accomplish keeping the grid from a total blackout,” said Dennis.

Oncor said it prioritized hospitals and 911 call centers, but others, including nursing homes, could be included in controlled outages.

As ERCOT ordered more blackouts to reduce the demand on the state’s electric grid, Oncor said engineers had to make decisions at the feeder level – each feeder can impact a few thousand customers.

Out of 3,660 of its feeders, Oncor says 2,405 carry some type of critical load. Though Oncor has deployed smart meter technology, Dennis said the meters weren’t designed for this purpose.

“This event was extreme. We lost close to half of the generation across Texas. The load shedding requirements had to be done quickly and at the feeder level of thousands of customers versus being able to do that down to individual customers,” said Dennis. “There wasn't time.”

No Guarantees

According to the Public Utility Commission of Texas rules, chronic condition or critical care status does not guarantee an uninterrupted power supply.

The form warns customers to make back-up plans. Though, for some customers, back-up battery devices can be expensive, unreliable and not designed to provide power for extended outages.

“Our goal is that we never find ourselves here again with this type of circumstance,” said Dennis.

At the Daniel home, Holley Daniel said the family never lost power.

“We just kept praying that we weren't going to be impacted and we weren't. I don't know how we weren't,” said Daniel. “We were very fortunate.”

During the height of the disaster, approximately four million Texas customers did lose power.

So far, the Texas Department of State Health Services says at least 111 people in Texas died as a result of the storm. The state says most died of hypothermia. Others died because of car crashes, carbon monoxide poisoning, falls, fire and medical equipment failure. The number is updated weekly and is current as of March 25.

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