Thursday Reads: Texas Is A Third World StatePosted: February 18, 2021
I hope everyone is staying safe and warm. Winter storms are raging across the U.S. Here in New England, we’ve gotten a lot of snow in February and there’s more coming today, tonight and next week. But at least we know how to deal with winter weather–I’m sure glad I don’t live in the South–especially in Texas.
Here’s the latest on the crisis in the Lone Star state.
Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.
While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state’s energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze….
Energy and policy experts said Texas’ decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choice to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.
Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.
“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.
“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies’] rush for profits,” he said.
It is possible to “winterize” natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.
Maybe this crisis will finally turn Texas blue again.
An Op-ed by Richard Parker at The New York Times: Texas Could Have Kept the Lights On.
A cold, sharp dagger has slashed through Texas, America’s largest and proudest producer of fossil fuels, while stranding millions without heat or light. The frigid disaster has also laid bare the fallacy, still prominent in the Lone Star State, that oil and gas are more important than impending climate catastrophe, embarrassing a political class that just weeks ago pledged to defend the oil and gas industry — its own Alamo —from the Biden administration.
The fallacy is hard to unwind even as people are dying. But some Texans are also furious about how their state’s ruinous laissez-faire governance led to a cascade of human-caused disasters of epic proportions. Indeed, this was no act of God.
Last week, 29 million Texans learned that the weather would turn unseasonably cold. It would be no ordinary blue norther: As the planet warms, so does the Arctic, disrupting the jet stream, which usually keeps the polar vortex of frigid air in place there. Now there is an emerging, if not unanimous, view among climatologists that the vortex is wobbling and dipping south, paralyzing Madrid, freezing the American Midwest and blanketing the Sierra Nevada, all since the start of this year.
Yet the folks over at the Texas power grid appear to have been caught flat-footed by spiking demand in energy to keep houses warm and phones charged. In general, there’s a storage problem in Texas when it comes to natural gas. Utility companies often don’t bother to buy gas reserves: It’s easier, cheaper and more profitable to tap the gas in the field with a pipeline — usually.
But the moment to invest in resilience has passed. The spot price in early February was under $3 per million British thermal units; this week those spot prices have soared to all-time highs. After a cold snap in 2011, the power companies were supposed to better winterize their plants. Ten years later, they hadn’t done it. It’s hard to believe they couldn’t afford it: Oncor, the giant power utility serving Dallas, reported $651 million in net income in 2019.
Read more at the NYT.
Another opinion piece from Andrew Exum at The Atlantic: I’m Freezing Cold and Burning Mad in Texas. The state’s power outages have revealed the difference between performative governance and actually governing.
The great winter storm of 2021 has terrorized Texans, overwhelmed our energy grid, and made a mockery of our politicians and our much-vaunted independence.
Here in Dallas, my family and I have intermittently been without power for three days. On Monday night, the coldest night on record in three decades, we were without power for 12 long hours. I pitched a tent in my children’s bedroom, and all of us—Mom, Dad, three kids, Scout the dog—huddled together for warmth under sleeping bags and heavy blankets.
Most houses in Texas are poorly insulated, to put it mildly. Poor Scout’s water bowl in the kitchen froze solid overnight. Indeed, when power was restored for a few hours on Tuesday morning, my wife and I scrambled to unfreeze any pipes that had seized up in spite of the fact that we had left the faucets dripping. At one point, my wife—a tough woman, and a water and sanitation engineer by training—climbed under the house and thawed out a pipe with a blow-dryer.
We have been, we must admit, very lucky. Each night, as we have said our prayers, we have thanked God for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon us. As has been apparent since the start of this emergency, the worst effects of this storm have been visited upon the most vulnerable. I shudder to think about the ways in which the poor, the homeless, and the elderly have suffered in this crisis.
Major cities across the state have opened “warming centers,” and churches and schools have opened their doors, but when the roads are so treacherous, one wonders how the vulnerable are supposed to reach shelter. The entirety of North Texas has just 30 snowplows—or about as many as you would expect to see deployed in a single neighborhood in Chicago.
The biggest story for Texans, however, is the failure of our state’s electrical grid, managed by the inaccurately named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Texas, as part of its regular and continuing efforts to distance itself from federal oversight, maintains its own electrical grid—unique in the nation—which has been overwhelmed by the storm’s effects.
Read the rest at The Atlantic.
More wild weather is in all of our futures, thanks to climate change.
The Associated Press: US needs to brace itself for more deadly storms, experts say.
Deadly weather will be hitting the U.S. more often, and America needs to get better at dealing with it, experts said as Texas and other states battled winter storms that blew past the worst-case planning of utilities, governments and millions of shivering residents.
This week’s storms — with more still heading east — fit a pattern of worsening extremes under climate change and demonstrate anew that local, state and federal officials have failed to do nearly enough to prepare for greater and more dangerous weather.
At least two dozen people have died this week, including from fire or carbon monoxide poisoning while struggling to find warmth inside their homes. In Oklahoma City, an Arctic blast plunged temperatures in the state capital as low as 14 degrees below 0 (-25 Celsius).
“This is a different kind of storm,″ said Kendra Clements, one of several businesspeople in Oklahoma City who opened their buildings to shelter homeless people, some with frostbite, hypothermia and icicles in their hair. It was also a harbinger of what social service providers and governments say will be a surge of increased needs for society’s most vulnerable as climate and natural disasters worsen.
Other Americans are at risk as well. Power supplies of all sorts failed in the extreme cold, including natural gas-fired power plants that were knocked offline amid icy conditions and, to a smaller extent, wind turbines that froze and stopped working. More than 100 million people live in areas under winter weather warnings, watches or advisories, and blackouts are expected to continue in some parts of the country for days.
The crisis sounded an alarm for power systems throughout the country: As climate change worsens, severe conditions that go beyond historical norms are becoming ever more common. Texas, for example, expects power demand to peak in the heat of summer, not the depths of winter, as it did this week.
At least the Democrats are once again in charge in Washington DC.
The dire storms come as President Joe Biden aims to spend up to $2 trillion on infrastructure and clean energy investment over four years. Biden has pledged to update the U.S. power grid to be carbon-pollution free by 2035 as well as weatherize buildings, repair roads and build electric vehicle charging stations.
“Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role” in creating jobs and meeting Biden’s goal of “a net-zero emissions future,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
More stories to check out today:
Dallas Morning News: At least 6 dead in 133-car pileup in Fort Worth after freezing rain coats roads.
Houston Chronicle: Perry says Texans willing to suffer blackouts to keep feds out of power market.
The Daily Beast: Rush Limbaugh Spent His Lifetime Speaking Ill of the Dead.
Justin Peters at Slate: Rush Limbaugh Wasn’t Funny.
The New York Times: A Grim Measure of Covid’s Toll: Life Expectancy Drops Sharply in U.S.
The Washington Post: Democrats to formally introduce Biden’s citizenship bill.
Have a great Thursday Sky Dancers. If you’re in the path of the storms, please stay safe!