Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Powering the Buzz of SXSW

Photo by KUT Austin

Vampire Weekend catches a big break at SXSW in 2008

Hordes of techies, musicians and film buffs are packing their bags for the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conferences that get rolling this week. 286,000 people attended SXSW events last year, and even more are expected this year.

So what kind of effect does that have on the city’s energy use and grid? Austin’s population is around 800,000, so you’re looking at an additional 35 percent of population that needs power, at least temporarily. And you could argue that this  is a particularly power-hungry bunch, with Interactive attendees charging phones and powering laptops, Film folks running projectors and Music venues staying open longer and later than usual.

But if you ask Austin Energy, the city-owned utility that powers Austin, the 10-day festival doesn’t make a big dent in the city’s overall energy use. “It’s no more than any other event,” Larry Weis, General Manager for Austin Energy, says. “I don’t think we’re going to see anything unusual.”

Weis points out that in many instances, portable generators are used to set up power at temporary venues, since that’s easier than setting up a temporary utility pole that hooks into the downtown grid.

And the fact is the event is held in March, during what’s typically some of the nicest, mildest weather Central Texas sees all year (known for fooling many attendees into thinking we’re no hotter than Southern California). “If it was extremely hot and everyone was jammed downtown, we have a network grid under the streets [there]” that could be affected by the influx of people. But “that’s kind of a worse-case scenario,” Weis says.

Also helping alleviate the strain? While plenty of people like to come to Austin for SXSW, many Austinites like to get out of town. It’s spring break, after all, and renting your place out to visitors is a more attractive option for many locals than sticking around to navigate the chaos and traffic. (There’s even this handy how-to on renting your place out from Software Advice.)

“We don’t make or break our year of revenue with SXSW,” Weis says. “But we’re very fortunate. The one thing you want [in our industry] is a growing, vibrant service area, and we certainly have that. It’s one of our bragging points.”

Weis says the real impact on Austin’s electric reliability could be SXSW traffic.  “There’s a real impact of crowds on our crews being able to get around when there’s a problem,” he says. “But I think we should be in good shape.”

The SXSW 2012 Interactive, Film and Music conferences begin Friday. Stay tuned for more energy-related reporting from the festival.


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