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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Feb. 25, 202105:19 PM EST

Texas crisis prompts JEA to look at cold weather resiliency

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The city-owned utility will again illuminate the sign on its Downtown headquarters to boost employee morale. 
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

JEA CEO Jay Stowe said the utility’s infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme cold weather events similar to February’s record-low temperatures impacting electric and water service to much of Texas. 

Stowe said at the utility’s Feb. 25 board of director’s meeting that JEA will form a task force to look at the electric and water systems’ resiliency beyond hurricane preparedness.

“I thought when you were recruiting me that Florida was safe from cold weather. But if you look at the map, Houston and Jacksonville have very similar climates,” Stowe said. 

JEA officials will use established emergency management plans, business continuity and resiliency information in place for hurricanes and flooding that will aid the task force in its work.

Stowe told the board Feb. 25 that the systemwide water boil requirement in Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee show how widespread the issue could be if prolonged cold weather hit Jacksonville.

“Much of what happened operationally in Texas could happen here, and we need to have the plan,” Stowe said.

Much of the U.S. lower tier began to emerge last week from more than seven days of temperatures 50 degrees below normal at times, according to the Washington Post.

The Texas Tribune reported that 1.4 million people in the state were experiencing water disruption as of Feb. 25, down from 14.9 million last week as water utilities work to recover from frozen and burst pipes and mains.

The Tribune reported many water systems in cities like Houston and Austin were not prepared for extreme cold.

“I realized this is not only an electric crisis alone but also a water crisis. When we have a water crisis, we have a public health crisis,” Stowe said. “To think that it can’t happen here is a mistake.”

Past cold snaps

Stowe noted that in January 1985, Jacksonville recorded a low of 7 degrees. 

That was part of a nationwide cold front that dropped Caesars Head, South Carolina, to a record low -19 degrees, according to online data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Caesars Head is on a mountain 3,125 feet above sea level.

The 1985 storm was similar to what the U.S. experienced in mid-February.

Stowe said JEA experienced a minor impact from the Texas storm with constraints on its natural gas supply.

Stowe said the task force will be led by incoming JEA Chief Strategy Officer Laura Dutton, who starts her job in March.

In an interview after the meeting, Stowe said the study’s report could recommend future capital spending. 

“I do anticipate the outcome of this will be a change in the way we do business,” he said. “It may very well include some operating and capital cost and being sure we’re structured appropriately to respond to the needs of the community.”

About 90% of the Texas electric grid is managed by the nonprofit, state-regulated Electric Reliability Council of Texas and is independent of the U.S eastern and western interconnections, according to the organization’s website.

When temperatures dropped and demand for electricity and natural gas spiked for furnaces and heaters, ERCOT began rolling blackouts to not overwhelm the Texas grid.

Florida utility grids can draw power from the U.S Eastern Interconnection, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Stowe said JEA’s status as a municipally-owned utility would insulate Northeast Florida customers from the higher utility bills reported in Texas when usage soared because its rates are not market or profit-driven, allowing JEA to control sudden demand shifts.

JEA lights up the night

JEA will reilluminate its logo on top of its 19-story, 21 W. Church St. headquarters after going dark nearly nine years ago. 

Stowe said the utility intends to turn the lights back on by the third week in March. 

The CEO pitched the move to the board and JEA employees as a morale booster after a 1½-year period of uncertainty, including the failed attempt in 2019 by former leadership to sell the utility to a private company.

“We should shine our light and let people know that JEA is back,” Stowe said.

“You should be prepared. I have a number of cheesy lines about lighting up Northeast Florida again,” he said. “We’re going to shine a light on JEA and we’re going to be a bright light for economic development in the community.”

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