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Houstonians Furious As Empty High-Rises Stay Lit While 1.4 Million Households Go Without Power

Downtown Houston skyline

Why is Downtown Houston still ablaze with lights? The question has echoed angrily across social media this week as 1.4 million Houston households went without power — some for three straight days, others rolling through blackouts that themselves can last a day or more — and temperatures remained below freezing.

The entire Downtown grid has not been shut down because the George R Brown Convention Center and local hotels are housing residents seeking shelter, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted Tuesday.

Downtown Dallas faced similar backlash Sunday night, but it moved more quickly to go dark Monday night. 

There is 51.4M SF of office product in Downtown Houston, according to Central Houston. Brookfield Office Properties is the largest landlord, with 12.3M SF. Hines owns 5M SF.

The Downtown Houston Management District began reaching out to property owners and businesses Tuesday at noon requesting them to “do everything possible” to reduce power demand, Downtown Houston Management District Executive Director Bob Eury told Bisnow

“This included all lighting that is nonessential is turned off, and HVAC is controlled to minimize electrical consumption,” Eury said. “Building owners were responsive taking actions in addition to normal energy conservation practices given the seriousness of the current emergency. This included both mechanical systems which are the buildings’ major users of power and all lighting that is not required for purposes of safety.”

Eury and his wife checked into a Downtown hotel Wednesday after being without power at their home for all but nine hours since Sunday night.

Eury said most property managers, like those belonging to the Institute of Real Estate Management, probably went into the weekend believing they were prepared for the winter storm, and by the time Monday arrived, the situation had drastically changed. 

“IREM members have worked to prepare for this emergency weather event since last week. But [they], like most, could not predict the unprecedented power and water shortages,” IREM Houston Chapter President Kaci Hancock told Bisnow in an email. “As soon as the long-term severity of these shortages were communicated, non-essential building systems were brought offline in an effort to help reduce power demand and better support Houstonians.”

Hancock, who doesn't manage any Downtown property, said some property managers may have had difficulty getting to their buildings Sunday or Monday as roads were iced over.

While some reports showed an improvement Tuesday night, many Downtown high-rises remained well lit

Eury said he is hoping for more adjustment Wednesday, but said seeing lights on the skyline doesn't necessarily mean vacant office buildings are using power irresponsibly. Downtown also has residential and hotel high-rises, and buildings housing emergency services, like City Hall and the St. Joseph Medical Center. Downtown also has a high number of garages that are often used by a mix of people, not just office users, and which he said can present a complex balancing act between powering down for energy conservation and remaining well-lit for safety.

In the office towers, there are some lights that must stay on by code, and many Downtown buildings have backup generators that kick in for emergency lighting when power is shut off.

Not every office building is sitting vacant. Some Downtown buildings serve as central operations for major firms and have employees present day and night, even in hurricanes and winter storms. 

He also noted that the biggest power load from high-rise buildings comes not from lighting, which has become highly efficient, but from HVAC systems. Property managers have throttled back their mechanical systems to a bare minimum, Eury said.

“Putting the skyline and the big buildings in perspective, it’s highly visible that there is electricity, it’s less visible how much less power is being used than normal,” Eury said.

Downtown and the Galleria areas could be the next focus of blackouts as CenterPoint works to balance the power load across the city, according to a statement Monday by the Houston chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association.  

“Centerpoint has notified Houston BOMA that if they must shed energy load, it will be in the Downtown and Galleria areas,” the statement reads. “Centerpoint will only do this if directed by ERCOT to do so. As a preventative measure, Centerpoint is asking that you assist in the load shed and decrease your load down to the bare minimum needed to run your building.”

Eury said he has not gotten clarity from CenterPoint on what that energy load shed would look like if put in place. He said it could entail an entire shutdown of the Downtown power grid, but the presence of a hospital in the middle of Downtown and the convention center’s use as a warming station may make that unlikely.