FAQs

Repowering Downtown Austin

Why is a new substation and upgraded electrical equipment needed downtown?

Like our region’s roads, schools and hospitals, the current downtown system was built for a smaller population than it serves today. It’s been in operation since the 1930s and continued to grow in complexity over the years. Now it is time to re-invest in the downtown system to meet 21st Century needs.

With a new substation, Austin Energy will be able to power more homes and businesses. It will also provide the backup so that two existing substations can be improved. Additionally, transmission lines carrying power into downtown also will be upgraded to increase their capacity to bring in more power and to improve reliability for the entire downtown network grid. When all the steps are taken, downtown can continue to be the center of regional growth with a reliable, resilient system.

Repowering Downtown Austin Progress Arrow

What is a substation?

A substation receives high-voltage power from power plants over transmission lines and then steps down the voltage with large transformers inside the substation so that it can be distributed safely at the local level. Substations downtown then distribute the power to vaults in some of downtown’s largest buildings where the power is stepped down again by transformers for use by businesses and residents and to power the services of everyday life.

What happens if a new substation is not built?

If the aging Brackenridge substation fails, there could potentially be catastrophic consequences for downtown. This scenario is not meant to be alarming, but the consequences are very real if upgrades to the electrical network downtown are not made within the next few years.

Downtown helps drive the economy of Austin and the entire region and is host to international events such as South by Southwest and Austin City Limits that bring thousands of tourists to Austin. If a prolonged power outage or series of outages occurred because of inadequate electrical facilities, the loss in business, productivity, tourism, and quality of life could be significant.

Why is this Austin Energy’s responsibility?

This system serves Austin Energy customers in an area where the State of Texas has designated it as the provider of electrical power distribution, so it is Austin Energy’s responsibility to provide the needed improvements. Austin Energy would be considered remiss if it did not adequately plan for the growth that is occurring.

  • Austin Energy has operated the electrical network downtown for over 70 years and is an expert in power reliability.
     
  • Austin Energy is ranked in the highest quartile for reliability among benchmarked utilities in the country, as measured by the lowest number of power outages and the shortest duration for outages when they do occur.

What has Austin Energy done to reduce energy use downtown to avoid or delay the need for this substation and electrical upgrades?

Austin Energy has already taken several measures to increase energy-efficiency and offset demand in downtown Austin.

  • All new buildings downtown are required to be Green Building-rated, meaning they are constructed for levels of energy efficiency above what is required by city building codes. Austin Energy created the first green building rating system in the nation and administers the Green Building ratings. More than 10.5 million square feet of building space is Green Building-rated downtown and include the J.W. Marriott Hotel, Hotel Van Zandt, The Millennium, Spring Condominiums, Seaholm Residential Towers, among others.
     
  • Austin also is ranked among the top 25 cities in the country by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the most ENERGY STAR®-rated buildings, meaning the buildings are 75% or higher more energy efficient than similar-type buildings in country. Building owners receive rebates from Austin Energy for making energy efficiency improvements above what is required by code. ENERGY STAR-rated buildings downtown include One American Center, Frost Bank Tower, 301 Congress Ave. San Jacinto Center, 100 Congress, and more.
     
  • Additionally, Austin Energy has the largest downtown district cooling system in Central Texas. District cooling shifts energy usage from high-intensity use during the day to nighttime hours by creating chilled water at night to pipe to downtown buildings for air conditioning use. Austin Energy sends chilled water to about 50 buildings downtown representing almost 14 million square feet of building space while shifting more than 10 megawatts of electricity use from the hottest part of the day to night. District cooling customers include the The Austonian, The Shore, 360 Condominiums, Four Seasons Residences, W Hotel and condos, Austin Convention Center, Austin City Hall and Whole Foods Market, among others.

When did Austin Energy forecast the need for a new substation?

Austin Energy acquired the property at 55 East Avenue in the Rainey Street area for a future substation in September 1999 from the City of Austin Public Works Department.

The Downtown Austin Plan, adopted by the Austin City Council in 2012, also identified the need for a substation in the Rainey Street District to support future growth as well as to provide system redundancy for increased reliability. The Downtown Austin Plan established investing in utilities and infrastructure as one of the seven major components of the plan to keep downtown vibrant and a vital economic engine for the city and region.

Were other areas considered for the planned substation?

Yes. But because of limited property available downtown and the physical boundary constraints of Interstate Highway 35 and Lady Bird Lake bordering the Rainey Street area, few options are available.

The property at 55 East Avenue, a narrow strip adjacent to the frontage road of IH-35, is largely undevelopable for other uses but well-suited for a municipal use. The area also has adjacent transmission infrastructure already in place that will reduce costs and avoid major disruption of nearby properties.

Development of a substation closer in to downtown would require major relocation and construction of poles, lines and equipment along private and public property to bring power in and out of a substation.

Are substations common in neighborhoods and urban areas?

Yes. Austin Energy has 60 substations at the local level that are located in all geographic areas of the community including neighborhoods and urban centers.

Like all utilities, Austin Energy sites substations and substation upgrades closest to where growth is occurring or projected to grow. Constructing substations close to where it is needed is also more efficient, reduces power losses by minimizing the distance it travels, and lowers the cost for building the infrastructure associated with delivering the electricity such as poles, wires and transformers.

All Austin Energy customers share in the cost of these upgrades through their base electric rates for energy usage.

How much will the project cost?

The substation is expected to cost $25 million, up to 40% higher than conventional substations. The limited amount of space on the 55 East Avenue property requires Austin Energy to build a compact substation that reduces the footprint by as much as 70% compared to conventional substations. A good example of this is the substation in the parking lot of the Fiesta Mart near IH-35 and 38½th Street.

What would the substation look like?

The design of the substation has yet to be determined. Austin Energy will hire a design consultant and receive input and recommendations from Austin Energy staff as well as the public during the public engagement process. The Austin City Council and representatives of boards and commissions such as the citizens-based Design Commission also will provide input and make recommendations.

Austin Energy is committed to constructing a substation that represents the values of our community, including innovation and sustainability. The substation could include solar, battery storage and smart devices that align with Austin’s vision for a Smart City and an emphasis on electrifying transportation. A new, innovative substation to power a Smart City into the future aligns with that vision.

Austin Energy also recognizes the historic significance of the Rainey Street area including the nearby Palm Park and Palm School and the economic, social, and physical barriers that were created with the construction of IH-35. The design of the substation will demonstrate sensitivity to this history and Austin Energy wants to be a partner in the larger issues involving connectivity, equity, and social justice in this part of downtown.

Will the public be involved in the planning process?

The project and all major contracts for design and construction must receive approval from the Austin City Council. The property also requires rezoning by the Austin Zoning and Platting Commission and the City Council.

To assure that public wishes for the project are understood and evaluated, there will be an extensive public engagement process. Elected and appointed officials will have multiple opportunities to review the project as it makes its way through the City Council, Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, the Electric Utility Commission, the Zoning and Platting Commission, Design Commission and Downtown Commission.

A public engagement firm will be hired to help lead the public involvement process, including organizing design charrettes and scheduling presentations to gather input from associations, civic groups, downtown stakeholders, and others, among the planned public outreach efforts.

When would construction start and how long would it take?

Construction of the substation is anticipated to begin in early- to mid-2019 and be completed by the end of 2020. Existing storm sewer and wastewater lines will be relocated from the substation site to within existing City of Austin street right of way along East Avenue as well as construction of the underground electric lines that tie the new substation to the downtown grid. These utilities will be installed prior to substation construction and are projected to be complete by the end of 2018.

How will construction affect area residents and businesses?

Substation construction will have temporary noise and impact transportation and some utilities. Transportation impacts may include some road closures to allow Austin Energy to connect to the existing transmission line and initially power the substation; impacts to some parking around the site; and potential traffic disruption with haul trucks moving in and out of the substation site during construction as well as delivering large equipment such as transformers into the site.

Construction of the distribution network and relocation of utilities to the right of way of East Avenue will also have temporary noise, transportation and utility impacts. The City of Austin and Austin Energy will work diligently to minimize construction impacts to residents and businesses in the area.

How will residents and businesses be informed before and during construction?

The public engagement firm will help ensure that information about construction activity affecting residents and businesses is relayed to the community well in advance of the work. The consultant will also work with Austin Energy staff to answer questions and address concerns regarding construction activity. Austin Energy is committed to keeping two-way communication open between the public and the utility during construction.

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Date last reviewed or modified: 6/29/18

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