Austin Energy got few requests for home generator help. Since February's freeze, it's gotten hundreds more

Kelsey Bradshaw Luz Moreno-Lozano
Austin American-Statesman

Joe Rizzo, president of Austin-based generator company Capital Power Systems, said things haven't been the same since the weeklong freeze in February.

Previously, the company — which helps business and residential customers — would install one generator a day, and now that number has increased to as many as five or six. And quite a few of those are for homeowners, which is also a change, he said. 

“We are backlogged 200 installations,” Rizzo said. “And the factories have not been able to keep up with the increase in demand across Texas and in the U.S. There has been a shortage in materials and so everything has delays, and it has slowed production down.”  

Snow and ice blanket a neighborhood near the Mueller development in East Austin on Feb. 15. Austin Energy has received hundreds of requests for information about or help with installing whole-home generators in the months since the February freeze.

As families struggled to stay warm in the record-breaking February freeze that left thousands across the state without power or water, many turned to using portable gas generators, gas grills or their vehicles to generate heat, leading to carbon monoxide poisonings and other hazardous situations.

In the months that have followed, residents across Austin have been preparing for similar situations in the future with whole-home generators.

Austin Energy has received hundreds of requests for information about or help installing whole-home generators in the months since the February freeze.

In a typical year, the city utility receives two to three requests about generators, which act as a backup power source. This year, it has received more than 350.

“The uptick started shortly after the storm,” said Joan Wilhite, Austin Energy’s electric system field operations manager. “It just steadily built over the last few months.”

Austin Energy does not provide generators, but rather helps install them, Wilhite explained. Homeowners typically use a contractor who helps them buy a generator before it goes through a permitting process with the city. 

Austin Energy’s role is to schedule a power shutdown so an electrical contractor can install the generator without the electrical system that feeds the house being live.

The company does not charge customers when they go out and disconnect power, Wilhite said. 

After the freeze, the company received about 25 requests for generator help in February, Wilhite said. 

“Right after the storm, people were up in arms. It was a catastrophic event,” she said. “There was an uptick right after, and then it kind of died off. Now as we get closer to winter months, we’re seeing the uptick again.”

When power is shut off on Texas’ power grid, a generator can be switched on and will run on gas. The amount of time the generator can last depends on how big the house is and how long an outage is.

“A whole-house generator could feasibly provide energy for the whole house, depending on the size of the generator,” Wilhite said. 

Generators can cost thousands of dollars.

Rizzo said the price ranges from $8,000 to $25,000, depending on the size of the generator and the size of the home. He said the average home in Austin would probably need a generator costing between $11,000 and $14,000.  

Rizzo said the automatic generator system, the most popular choice for customers, kicks on in 10 seconds and keeps the power running until regular power is restored. The system is connected to the natural gas line, but customers can also choose a propane gas option.

A battery system is also available, but Rizzo said it won't last as long. 

Austin Energy has also received more requests for solar batteries this year than in the past five years combined, officials said. 

“The cool thing about solar is, let’s say it’s an outage and I have power stored up in the battery; I can power my house with the battery, and if it’s sunny, I can be charging my battery during the outage,” said Elizabeth Letton, a former Austin Energy official. 

Austin Energy received 85 applications for solar panels with batteries between March and August. In 2020 and 2019, the company received 12 and eight applications during the same period.

Incentives and a $2,500 rebate are available for Austin Energy customers who install solar panels. Information can be found online at austinenergy.com/ae/green-power.

Austin Energy does not offer rebates for generators or generator installation.