Who Messed With Texas?

https://theweek.com/cartoons/967581/editorial-cartoon-texas-weather

This week’s human tragedy was caused by a political failure that no one is taking responsibility for.


This week’s Texas disaster has really been three related stories:

  • The situation on the ground has been horrific. Millions of people were significantly inconvenienced, many thousands had to leave their homes, and dozens died.
  • Bad weather was the immediate cause, but the deeper cause was bad policy. Texans’ hardships arose directly from the state’s short-sighted, low-regulation, keep-the-government-out-of-my-business political philosophy.
  • The response of the Republican politicians who hold power in Texas has been reprehensible.

It’s important to keep all three stories in mind, and not let the entirely justified outrage you feel about Ted Cruz running away to Cancun or Greg Abbott blaming renewable energy divert your attention from the underlying human tragedy. So let’s examine the three aspects of this week’s events in their appropriate order.

What happened. A major winter storm hit most of the country this week. In the Midwest and Northeast, people expect that kind of thing from time to time, so we’re ready for it. Here in Massachusetts, we began the week with a foot of snow already on the ground from the previous storm. But even here, winter weather still causes problems: We haven’t put all our powerlines underground where they belong, so occasionally a heavy snow will bring one down and black out a neighborhood or two for a few days. But it seldom leads to a widespread calamity like Texas experienced.

Winter storms are much rarer in the South, so Southerners are not as well prepared. For example, it turns out that Memphis only has 13 snowplows for its 7,500 miles of streets. The situation was probably not much better in places like Mobile or Little Rock or Tulsa.

But nowhere else in the United States experienced the kind of cascading disasters that unfolded in Texas. By Sunday, the weather was more-or-less back to normal, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s across much of the state. But the crisis is far from over. CNN summarizes:

At least 26 people died across the state since February 11. Millions lost their power, forcing families to huddle over a fireplace, scavenge for firewood or spend nights in their car trying to stay warm. Others spent hours searching for food as shelves emptied and weather conditions led to food supply chain problems. The frigid temperatures caused pipes to burst, leading to water disruptions for roughly half the state’s population. Covid-19 relief efforts, including food banks, were shuttered. Vaccine shipments were delayed and many appointments were canceled.

It could have been even worse. According to unnamed officials quoted by The Texas Tribune, as demand increased and suppliers dropped out of the system, the state’s power grid was “minutes and seconds” away from “a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months”.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid could have taken months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

What would that worst case look like? Probably something like this:

As a result of the blackouts, at least three Texans died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they ran their cars in unventilated garages. Elsewhere, the freeze affected local water-treatment systems, creating situations where people needed to boil their tap water (with what power source?) before drinking.

Some 13.5 million people throughout Texas have experienced water disruptions, with nearly 800 water systems reporting issues like frozen or broken pipes, according to Toby Baker, executive director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. About 725 systems are under a boil-water advisory, Baker said. …

In Austin alone, the state capital’s water supply lost 325 million gallons due to burst pipes, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in a Thursday news conference.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation says that’s 43 million cubic feet of water, which is bigger than the 37 million cubic feet in the Empire State Building.

Aftermath. It will be weeks before the state’s plumbers can fix all the broken pipes, or we learn how many Texans caught Covid while gathering in the homes of whichever friends or relatives happened to have heat or water.

And the hits keep coming: In the aftermath of the natural disaster, many Texas households face an unexpected financial disaster: The New York Times profiled one Texan who suddenly found himself owing $16,732.

The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market, which allows customers to pick their electricity providers among about 220 retailers in an entirely market-driven system.

Under some of the plans, when demand increases, prices rise. The goal, architects of the system say, is to balance the market by encouraging consumers to reduce their usage and power suppliers to create more electricity.

But when last week’s crisis hit and power systems faltered, the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered that the price cap be raised to its maximum limit of $9 per kilowatt-hour, easily pushing many customers’ daily electric costs above $100. And in some cases, like Mr. Willoughby’s, bills rose by more than 50 times the normal cost.

Dallas Morning News elaborated:

That means $9 for a kilowatt-hour that usually costs [Griddy customer Karen] Cosby around 7 cents, and sometimes as little as 2 cents. … The price per megawatt-hour reached $9,000 around 10 p.m. Sunday night and stayed there for much of Monday and all of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday morning, it fell to $35 and kept dropping. At 4 p.m., it was 85 cents. …

While searching for a new provider, Cosby flipped the breakers connected to her heating units and moved into a small bedroom with an air mattress and her two dogs, Onie and Birkin, and shut off the rest of the house. Her energy use was limited to a space heater, making a cup of coffee in the morning and using the microwave for four or five minutes to heat her meals.

“It’s been 43 degrees in the house since Monday, and I still have a $5,000 bill,” she said.

https://www.dallasnews.com/business/2021/02/20/griddy-customers-face-5000-bills-for-5-freezing-days-in-texas/

Why it happened. One of the striking things about the crisis was not just that Texas was hit worse than neighboring states, but that some parts of the state did much better than others. On Tuesday, at the height of the power disruptions, only .04% of households tracked in El Paso County were without power, while the comparable number was 29% in Dallas County, 44% in Travis County (Austin), 41% in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), and 18% in Harris County (Houston).

The difference was that El Paso, sitting at the far western edge of the state, is outside the Texas power grid. (MSNBC frequently interviewed Beto O’Rourke, who was sitting in his brightly lit El Paso home.)

Texas is the only state that has its own grid, which it maintains in order to avoid federal regulation. The rest of the US is on either the Western power grid (like El Paso) or the Eastern Power grid, like the panhandle and a few counties on the state’s eastern border. (In Bowie County, home of Texarkana, 10% of households lost power.) So when Texas’ supply/demand situation went bad, the rest of the country couldn’t bail them out.

As for why it went bad, there’s an immediate answer and then a more general answer. The immediate answer is that at precisely the time when Texans wanted more heat, suppliers were failing to handle the cold.

The system broke down this week when 185 generating units, including gas and coal-fired power plants, tripped offline during the brunt of the storm. Wind turbines in West Texas froze as well, and a nuclear unit near the Gulf of Mexico went down for more than 48 hours. Another problem emerged: Some power plants lost their pipeline supply of gas and couldn’t generate electricity even if they wanted to capture the high prices.

All sources of power were affected, but the biggest problem was natural gas.

The biggest shortfall in energy production stemmed from natural gas. Gas pipelines were blocked with ice or their compressors lost power. Much of the gas that was available was prioritized for heating homes and businesses rather than generating electricity. That’s helpful for people who use gas for heating but less so for those who use electric furnaces.

That’s the short-term cause, but nothing about that was inevitable. The Chicago Tribune contrasted Texas’ problems with power generation in Wisconsin.

So why does the power continue to work in places like Wisconsin, where bitter cold is a way of life? The reason is simple: Generators in the Upper Midwest are designed to work in frigid conditions, unlike those in Texas.

“We designed all our infrastructure for these bitter-cold temperatures,” said Paul Wilson, a professor of nuclear engineering at UW-Madison who studies electrical systems.

That means insulation, heated pipes, crushers to break up frozen coal.

“We design everything with the understanding that it can get down to 40 degrees below zero and even stay there for a few days,” said Madison Gas and Electric spokesman Steve Schultz. “We also test our equipment regularly to make sure it’s working properly and prepared for frigid conditions.”

Wind turbines are equipped with winter weather packages such as heating elements to keep ice off the blades and insulated gearboxes, allowing them to work at temperatures as cold as 22 below zero.

But that costs money, and the Texas system prioritizes price over reliability.

Industry experts say there are no explicit regulations that outline cold weather reliability, but there are economic incentives in regulated states like Wisconsin, where electricity rates are structured to give utilities a return on their investments in power plants.

“In a place like Texas where you’re competing to be the cheapest all the time you’re able to take those risks,” said Marcus Hawkins, a former engineer with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission who now runs a multi-state regulatory organization. “Any added capital costs makes you less attractive to the market.”

The Wall Street Journal has more detail:

Texas has long prided itself on its wholesale power market. It was born from a legislative effort in the 1990s that broke up the state’s utility monopolies, introducing competition among a larger universe of power generators and retail electricity providers.

The result was a laissez-faire market design that rewards those who can sell power inexpensively and still recover their capital costs. That keeps prices low when demand is steady. When demand spikes, however, so do prices, which can climb as high as $9,000 per megawatt-hour to incentivize power plants of all kinds to fire up.

If an electricity producer agrees to supply power into the market and then fails to deliver, the producer has to pay for the cost of replacing it. But if a plant trips offline and stays out of the market for an extended period, as happened this week, there is no penalty besides lost revenue.

USA Today describes one of the key features making Texas’ system vulnerable:

The ERCOT grid is what’s known as an “energy only” market, in which generators are compensated only for electricity actually delivered. In an “energy plus capacity” market, they also would be compensated for generating capacity that’s maintained but kept in reserve for special or unusual circumstances.

The result is a system that runs cheaply most of the time, but is prone to catastrophic failures like the one that happened this week. Essentially, the state is like a household that decides to save money by not paying for fire insurance. As long as your house isn’t burning down — and how often does that happen? — you’re winning.

Similarly tempting personal decisions would be not changing the oil in your car, not having health insurance, or not fixing the leak in your roof. Those things cost money, so in the short term your bank balance looks better if you skip them. For a while, Karen Cosby saved money by contracting for variable-rate electricity through Griddy. But this week she lost far more than she had ever saved.

The reason we have government regulations is precisely to remove short-term temptations (for both individuals and corporations) that have negative long-term effects. You could save money by buying a car without seatbelts or airbags, for example, but the government won’t let you. When Hooker Chemical started burying barrels of chemical waste in Love Canal in the 1940s, that probably looked like the most economical way to deal with it. But a few decades later it had caused a public-health disaster that cost $400 million to clean up. So in the long run it wasn’t economical at all. If there had been an EPA in the Roosevelt administration, Hooker undoubtedly would have complained about the cost of its regulations, and how much they added to the price of chemicals. But in the long run those regulations would have saved not just lives, but money as well.

Warnings. You can’t fault leaders for failing to see something that is truly unforeseeable. But while this winter storm was certainly unusual, there had been warnings that such things were possible. The Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 similarly led to rolling blackouts, for the same reasons as played out this week:

Post-analysis indicated that the cold temperatures had caused over 150 generators to encounter difficulties; loss of supply, instrumentation failures, and gas well-head freezing were some of the source causes

After that event, the Texas Public Utilities Commission issued a report. The Austin Statesman article on that report quoted a previous report from 1990 about a 1989 winter storm.

“The winter freeze greatly strained the ability of the Texas electric utilities to provide reliable power to their customers. Record and near-record low temperatures were felt throughout the state resulting in a significantly increased demand for electrical power.

“At the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line.” As a result, it noted, the state suffered widespread rolling blackouts and “near loss of the entire ERCOT electric grid.”

A state senator in 2011 recalled the 1990 report and said:

What I don’t want is another storm and another report someone puts on the shelf for 21 years and nobody looks at.

But the only difference this time around is that the report only sat for 10 years rather than 21. (Which, BTW, is exactly what climate change predicts: Extreme weather events will happen more frequently.) Both reports listed ways ERCOT and the generating companies could make the system more resilient in the face of cold weather. But in typical Texas fashion, most of the recommendations were neither mandated by law nor motivated by subsidy. They were simply best practices that a responsible company should follow, even if the market pulls them in another direction.

So here we are again.

Political response. In a state like Texas, where one party has been in power since George W. Bush became governor in 1995 and the GOP gained full control of the legislature in 2003, I suppose it’s too much to expect the political leadership to say, “Wow, we really screwed up. But now we’ve got religion about winter storms and regulation, so we’re going to do better.” Even so, you might hope for a blame-free let’s-focus-on-the-future stance that more-or-less deals with the reality of the situation.

That’s not what has happened. Instead, the process seemed to go like this: What Republican talking points are lying around to respond to unreliability in the energy grid? How can we use those pre-established frames to shift the blame onto liberals?

For years, the fossil fuel industry’s criticism of solar and wind power has been that it’s unreliable: Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but you can always burn coal or natural gas. Republican politicians like ex-President Trump frequently echoed that claim:

You know, Hillary wanted to put windmills all over the place. Let’s put up some windmills — when the wind doesn’t blow, “just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind — please turn off the television quickly!”

So that explanation was sitting in Republican voters’ heads, ready to be activated when Governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity:

This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. … Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.

Right-wing media picked that up and ran with it. Tucker Carlson described Texas as “totally reliant on windmills”.

Then it got cold and the windmills froze, because that’s what happens in the Green New Deal. … Now the same energy policies that have wrecked Texas are going nationwide — coming to your state.

And again:

So it was all working great until the day it got cold outside. The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.

Windmills functioning normally on Ross Island in Antarctica. https://mashable.com/article/wind-turbines-texas/

Trump-administration Energy Secretary Rick Perry arguably is more to blame for this week’s disaster than anyone else, because he was the governor who received and ignored that PUC report on the 2011 storm. But rather than apologize for his failures, he criticized President Biden:

If this Green New Deal goes forward the way that the Biden administration appears to want it to, then we’ll have more events like we’ve had in Texas all across the country.

National Memo’s Joe Conason points out the larger pattern:

If the fatal farce in Texas seems all too familiar, then you may be noticing an eerie resemblance to the botched pandemic response of the Trump administration. The impulse of Republicans in government is not to govern but to shift responsibility and try to affix blame, almost always on “liberals” or “socialists” or some other partisan goblin. What they seem utterly unable to provide are honest leadership and real solutions.

https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/ted-cruz-rival-beto-orourke-eviscerates-senator-flying/story?id=76000237

And finally we come to Ted Cruz. If these events ever become a major movie, Ted Cruz is going to be the comedy relief, the buffoon whose self-centeredness is so absurd that the audience can only laugh. You’ll see footage of a family shivering in their car or some elderly woman hoping her daughter will return soon with a fresh oxygen canister, and then you’ll see pot-bellied Ted Cruz standing in the Cancun airport wearing his flag-of-Texas face mask. (All that’s missing is somebody to play Laurel to his Hardy.)

Because that’s leadership in Texas: When the people they represent are suffering in the cold, leaders jet off to a nice warm beach, taking police away from emergencies to provide an escort to the airport.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/02/19/cartoons-ted-cruz-cancun-texas/

After he’d been spotted and the story was blowing up on social media, Cruz did what any good father would do and blamed his pre-teen daughters.

Like millions of Texans, our family lost heat and power too. With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.

That statement wasn’t just craven, it was misleading: Dropping the kids off wasn’t in the original plan. Ted’s original ticket had him staying through the weekend. Anyway, the jokes practically wrote themselves: When a failed state can’t provide basic services, who can blame a father for leading his family across the Mexican border to find a better life?

Almost as bad as Cruz’ original decision was the way that right-wing media defended him: He’s just a senator. What could he possibly do?

The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics.

Moving his family to a pricey beach resort was, in fact, the responsible thing to do.

People who can take care of themselves and their families in an emergency should take care of themselves and their families in an emergency, if only to remove the possibility of their having to be taken care of by the public. Of course, Senator Cruz probably will be more comfortable in Cancun than he would be in River Oaks, but it is no less the case that by absenting himself from the scene, he has given Houston — including its utility providers and its emergency services — one fewer person to worry about. From that point of view, Senator Cruz has a positive moral obligation to be in Cancun.

Atlantic’s David Graham makes the proper response:

Cruz’s error is not that he was shirking a duty he knew he should have been performing. It’s that he couldn’t think of any way he could use his power as a U.S. senator to help Texans in need. That’s a failure of imagination and of political ideology.

You know who thought of something he could do? Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost to Cruz in 2018. He organized volunteers to call Texas senior citizens, find out if they needed anything, and help them access available resources.

BIG THANKS to the volunteers who made over 784,000 phone calls to senior citizens in Texas today. You helped to connect them with water, food, transportation, and shelter. And you made sure that they knew we were thinking about them and that they matter to us.

Somebody else who came through was the congresswoman right-wingers love to hate: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used her fame and connections to raise millions of dollars for Texas relief. Ted knows a bunch of rich people who supposedly care about Texas. Do you think maybe he could have done that?

https://www.facebook.com/moveon/photos/a.61232960492/10158086792585493/

But Ted couldn’t lift a finger, because doing so would just promote the idea that the public good is a real thing, that people should expect politicians to care about them, and that government has a role to play in dealing with forces beyond the scale of individual action.

And if people started to believe things like that, the Republican Party would be toast.

https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/bagley/2021/02/17/bagley-cartoon-texas/
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Comments

  • vog46  On February 22, 2021 at 11:08 am

    This is the republican mantra. Blame someone else, blame something else then don’t correct the issue. Politics is all about blame of course so you expect the blame game.
    But when it comes to fixing things? I expect better, from BOTH parties, especially republicans. We have not gotten anything of substance from republicans for decades.
    Which is why I am registered here in NC as a non – affiliated voter

  • Jacqueline (Bonin) Gargiulo  On February 22, 2021 at 12:45 pm

    The GOP “leadership” response gets anywhere ONLY because of the media bubble avaliable to them. It is absolutely and obviously absurd and reveals their $ > people philosophy. Criminal, really.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On February 22, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    It’s hilarious to hear conservatives defend Cruz with “he’s a senator – he can’t do anything about conditions in Texas.” These are the same people who blame Nancy Pelosi for the homeless situation in San Francisco.

  • G. M. Lupo  On February 23, 2021 at 4:20 am

    Money talks, and who showed up in Texas with millions in emergency relief? AOC, and somehow conservatives will find a way to condemn her for that. The right-wing has been nothing but a disaster in the US, and now, we’re seeing the fruits of their war on average citizens. The sad part is that even with the lessons of the past four years, no one gets it. We’ve collectively learned nothing and are doomed to suffer from it for years to come.

  • Bill  On February 23, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    This article has some truths but is just as bad as right wing articles. Cannot wait for the day when both political parties stop using all natural & man made event to further there power over the people. Real sad thing is way the people can not rely on a media that will just report the truth

  • ccyager  On February 23, 2021 at 6:51 pm

    It saddens me what happened in Texas. I have a childhood friend who lives near Houston I haven’t heard from since before the storm. But it saddens me more that Texans only proved it true that “You get what you pay for.”

  • Craig E Jackson  On February 25, 2021 at 10:37 am

    One thing that I haven’t seen in any coverage is the likelihood that Texas residential power usage is highly non-linear with respect to cold weather. The south has been widely using heat pumps for a long time. The heat pumps of 50-60 years ago were ineffective below about 20 degrees, requiring a resistive element to heat below that. The resistive elements draw far more power than the heat pumps do.

    The net effect is that as the cold swept over the state, all of a sudden the load went up sharply, at the same time the supply was experiencing failures.

    I believe modern heat pumps are effective down to perhaps 5 degrees, but even those would have problems this time.

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