Brief thoughts on the Texas catastrophe

This past week, I spent so much mental energy worrying about the fate of Scott Alexander that I almost forgot that right here in Texas, I’m surrounded by historic scenes of Third-World-style devastation: snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures for which our infrastructure was completely unprepared; impassable roads; burst gas and water pipes; millions without electricity or heat or clean water; the UT campus a short walk from me converted into a giant refugee camp.

For all those who asked: my family and I are fine. While many we know were without power for days (or are still without power), we lucked out by living close to a hospital, which means that they can’t shut off the electricity to our block. We are now on a boil-water notice, like all of Austin, and we can’t take deliveries or easily go anywhere, and the university and schools and daycares are all closed (even for remote learning). Which means: we’re simply holed up in our house, eating through our stockpiled food, the kids running around being crazy, Dana and I watching them with one eye and our laptops with the other. Could be worse.

In some sense, it’s not surprising that the Texas infrastructure would buckle under weather stresses outside the envelope of anything it was designed for or saw for decades. The central problem is that our elected leaders have shown zero indication of understanding the urgent need, for Texas’ economic viability, to do whatever it takes to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Ted Cruz, as everyone now knows, left for Cancun; the mayor of Colorado City angrily told everyone to fend for themselves (and then resigned); and Governor Abbott has been blaming frozen wind turbines, a tiny percentage of the problem (frozen gas pipes are a much bigger issue) but one that plays with the base. The bare minimum of a sane response might be, I dunno,

• acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on,
• building spare capacity (nuclear would be ideal … well, I can dream),
• winterizing what we have now, and
• connecting the Texas grid to the rest of the US.

If I were a Texas Democrat, I’d consider making Republican incompetence on infrastructure, utilities, and public health my only campaign issues.

Alright, now back to watching the Mars lander, which is apparently easier to build and deploy than a reliable electric grid.

68 Responses to “Brief thoughts on the Texas catastrophe”

1. Shaked Koplewitz Says:

Looks like the predominantly famous Texas democrat is taking your advice https://twitter.com/BetoORourke

2. Léon Planken Says:

For anyone interested, The Daily from the NYT has a good podcast episode on the background of the Texas blackout.

3. tas Says:

Another thing that should be fixed is how the grid sheds load when electricity generation is insufficient.

It seems the only option currently is to shut off power entirely for certain areas, which sucks.

But we have the technology to allow certain non-essential appliances to be shut off remotely, while leaving other appliances running. Back in my home country, electric hot water cylinders can be remotely turned off to reduce load at peak times.

But getting everyone to install a remote control cut off would require regulation…

4. choia Says:

Not sure how your Hebrew skills are, but I would like to refer you to a facebook post by an energy economics expert (his day job) where he explains that nuclear power stations are not economical for more than a decade now, and that’s one of the reasons why not many of them are being built world wide.
I think you’ll enjoy it as he gives all details and calculations.
https://www.facebook.com/Chu.Tziel/posts/10159074058773593

5. Sniffnoy Says:

My understanding is that a similar but lesser disaster happened 10 years ago, and another one several decades before that, and in each case the state was warned by experts that it needed to winterize its electrical infrastructure, so in fact there was plenty of warning here, and there is no “freak once-a-century event” excuse.

I’m not clear what’s supposed to be so wrong with Ted Cruz hopping off to Cancun though. I mean yeah obviously it looks bad, because he’s a high-positioned guy so people expect him to be displaying sympathy and all, but he’s part of the federal government, not the Texas government; it’s not clear to me what he would do from Texas that would actually be helpful.

6. Bob Jacobs Says:

“acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on”
I feel like we need to be careful that we don’t make climate change appear unfalsifiable with these kinds of statements. AKA If it’s really warm we say “oh look the planet is warming” and if it’s really cold we say “looks like the weather is going crazy thanks to climate change”.
I’m not saying crazy weather patterns shouldn’t be pointed out or linked to climate change, I’m just saying we need to very carefully lay out the causal connection between the two instead of assuming people will know how these are linked.
(PS longtime lurker, first time poster, I really enjoy your stuff)

7. Jon Awbrey Says:

My wife, my youngest brother, and I drove a caravan of 3 cars from Michigan to Houston in the Blizzard of ’89, driving 35 mph all the way. By the time we got to Oklahoma trucks were falling off the ramps and overpasses left and right — Down South they build the grades too steep for any ice at all, and no salt on the roads. When we got to our new home in Clear Lake there was no water for a week — unless you like yours green and slimy — someone panicked when the power went brown and shut down the purification plant first. Good Times …

That was not my first “100 year storm” in Texas … and it wasn’t my last … makes me feel like Methuselah …

8. Nick Says:

Here’s a tip for cat owners living in the cold. If you leave the litterbox outside overnight, the clumps of cat piss will freeze solid. This makes cleaning the litterbox easier, as the clumps will not break up.

9. YD Says:

How does this compare to the 2015 snowstorm, back when you were still at MIT?

10. Tim H Says:

Don’t forget this was all analyzed and covered in a report in response to the rolling blackouts of feb 2011 that was promptly ignored:

https://www.ferc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/08-16-11-report.pdf

Immediate highlights of which there are of course numerous more,

– no natural gas storage on site at power plants when transport becomes difficult and prices spike as power plants start competing with residential heating gas suppliers

– natural gas wells freezing so supply further tightens

– no winterization at plants causing cooling systems to freeze (this took out 1 of 2 reactors at the south Texas nuclear project, their cooling pipes froze)

– the ERCTOT spot market pricing lets you pay for power, but not capacity. California and other spot markets let you bid on reserve capacity and pay plants to stay online and ready, but not producing. that incentivizes maintenance of idle power plants. the ERCOT pricing model incentivizes running your plant all-out until failure

11. Scott Says:

tas #3: I was thinking the same thing! Why cut power to entire neighborhoods for days and let people freeze to death, rather than getting everyone to ration? Appliances that automatically shut off would be one approach; another would simply be surge pricing, ideally with digital meters so people can see exactly how much they’re paying to use inessential appliances.

12. Scott Says:

choia #4: The reason why nuclear is so expensive is almost entirely

(1) unimaginable amounts of regulation, holding nuclear to an orders-of-magnitude higher safety standard than oil or coal or anything else, and

(2) all the innovation that never happened and all the good people driven away from the field because of that regulation.

Nuclear could have, and would have, saved civilization from climate change, were it not for the antinuclear turn that started in the 1970s. For more see the book Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall, which I recently read and am hoping to blog about soon.

13. dankane Says:

Scott#10

I don’t think surge pricing is a great solution. This leads to wealthy families using more power than the actually need while letting poorer ones choose between electric bills they cannot afford and freezing to death.

I think that rationing might actually be better here. Give everyone an hourly power ration and a meter and if anyone goes over, cut them off for the rest of the hour [and I guess stagger when the hour starts so that you don’t overload the grid at the top of the hour].

14. Scott Says:

Sniffnoy #5: If state X is facing a historic disaster, and a senator from state X goes ahead with a scheduled tropical vacation in the middle of it, it’s effectively a gigantic middle finger to the state’s constituents—or at least, to all those constituents who believe that a central purpose of government is to prevent such disasters. So it’s not the vacation itself that’s the issue; rather it’s that Cruz believes he can get reelected despite sending such an f-you signal, and has policies 100% consistent with the kind of person who’d send it. I.e., it’s an accurate shorthand for who and what he is.

15. Scott Says:

Bob Jacobs #6: What would falsify the theory of anthropogenic climate change would be weather patterns consistent with the historic norms of the last few centuries. Instead the last few decades have seen one record-breaking disruption after the next (this latest, of course, because the polar vortex is no longer confined to the Arctic)—consistent with the most nai¨ve expectation for what introducing massive new greenhouse gas forcings might do. It’s not just that you don’t need any sophisticated climate models to see this; rather it’s that, in my opinion, the empirical reality that we’re now living is ultimately more persuasive than the models are.

16. myst_05 Says:

“acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on”

While I agree that extreme events will happen more often, this doesn’t necessarily apply to freezing weather in Texas. Check out this article by a meteorologist: https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2021/02/is-texas-cold-wave-caused-by-global.html

17. James Gallagher Says:

Agree with you that the anti-nuclear movement are partly to blame for unreliable power now, we never really hear of this in France, where they have 70% reliance on nuclear:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/768066/electricity-production-france-source/

But the climate change angle seems more problematic, I do wonder why there are still quite well publicised predictions of no more snow and sub-zero temperatures in the likes of southern England, and other people are claiming this storm is due to climate change.

Do the climate scientists not have a consensus on this?

eg on 9th December the BBC posted this article

Climate change: Snowy UK winters could become thing of the past

then the UK had a very cold January and heavy snow in February

UK weather: Storm Darcy leads to heavy snow and ice

Is it just southern England that is predicted to have no more snow in coming decades, any climate experts help on this?

(btw If you go to https://earth.nullschool.net/ you can get realtime (hourly) data on the planet (for temps you need to click on “earth” for the menu and select it as an overlay) , currently there seems to be nowhere on Earth above 40C, which may or may not be unusual)

18. Rahul Says:

A recurring theme with these catastrophes is that we, as a society, have prioritized efficiency over robustness.

We will all choose a slightly cheaper utility, airline, cellphone plan, hotel etc. which very often has made trade-offs on reliability, redundancy etc.

Great ideas from Scott regarding appliances that turn themself off and digital meters but do you think people will pay more for such devices that are mostly for the greater good of the network?

Problem is that efficiency has a good signalling mechanism: price. Whereas robustness and resiliance are harder to signal especially when they are designed to protect against rare events.

And hence ruboustness gets increasingly sacrificed in favor of low prices.

19. Scott Says:

YD #9: Oh, I’ve been through dozens of worse snowstorms in the Northeast, not only the 2015 one! The issue is not at all the absolute size of snowstorm; rather, it’s that Texas is totally unprepared for even a relatively mild storm—stuff like de-icing the roads and winterizing critical infrastructure that’s completely standard up north.

20. Scott Says:

Incidentally, in the now-infamous Facebook rant by the (former) mayor of Colorado City, I was struck by a social Darwinist comment — that a whole state losing power, heat, and water is completely fine since it simply means that the strong families will survive and the weak ones will perish (yes, he said that!).

It occurred to me that “group selection” might actually be the more appropriate level of description here: those cities, states, and countries whose leaders think this way will perish; those whose leaders don’t think this way will survive.

21. Richard Gaylord Says:

One have be very careful that the State (in this case, the Texas state) does not take this ‘opportunity’ to expand its power and control by imposing permanent interventions on either its economy and on the behavior of its citizens. Any laws, rules, or regulations that are passed to deal with the current crisis (crises if you include the pandemic) or any other situation, should contain a sunset clause.

22. Rick Fleischer Says:

As a nation and as a people, we don’t like to spend money or effort on the future. Outraged finger-pointing, when the price of neglect comes due, requires so little effort, that it is our preferred response.

23. Michael Says:

@Sniffoy#5, @Scott#14- Also, according to Matt Glassman, there’s a lot Ted Cruz could have done:
https://twitter.com/MattGlassman312/status/1362424817404829697
“In most situations, members of Congress are legislators, not executives. But in local emergencies, they often take on a role that mimics executive decision-making, as they become a federal coordinator / POC for local executives.”

24. fred Says:

Glad to see you’re okay, Scott, I was wondering.

About the nuclear option, over the years I’ve changed my mind about this. In practice, we always end up with accidents.
It’s not just Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, there are dozens of other incidents that could have been way worse. I recommend checking this engineering channels deconstructing all those accidents https://www.youtube.com/c/PlainlyDifficult/videos

About the power grid, in engineering school, the class on practical electrical engineering was one of the toughest. Not because of the equations, but because the mechanics of the flow of the energy for AC current on a large scale are quite unintuitive. Also, there’s very little control on demand, and extra capacity is hard to build (especially while trying to stay profitable). Connecting all the grids together isn’t as simple as it sounds – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003

25. Ernie Davis Says:

Adding onto Michael’s comment #23 on what Ted Cruz could have done instead, there was a fine article by David Graham in the Atlantic.
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/ted-cruz-no-hypocrite/618060/

26. Tom Grey Says:

Surge pricing should be done and is better for normal ranges – rationing plus surge pricing is better than full blackouts in disaster events.

“acknowledging the reality that climate change means that “once-per-century” weather events will be every couple years from now on”
Very much yes – hotter hots, colder colds; wetter wets, drier droughts. Floods and droughts and dry forest fires will cause increasing amounts of damage over the coming years, unless specifically engineered and maintained to avoid the unlikely (but now less unlikely than in the past) bad events.

All infrastructure, and especially water related, need better maintenance.

Falsifiability is a big issue. If the IPCC issues a 2001 report with 6 or 7 different models predicting temperature increase ranges, yet the reality is lower temps than all of those ranges, when can one say those models have failed?

Too many environmentalists are also anti-capitalist, explicitly. Poor voters are most concerned with the price, and will mostly choose the cheapest available. And such folk understand that “Green” means “more expensive”. Like a carbon tax means higher priced gas.

A carbon tax would be a lot more popular if it 100% of the revenue was sent back as rebates to car owners (1 per adult), monthly, who pay for gas, or choose otherwise. Say the estimated tax revenue works out to some $600/ year, the Federal gov’t would send out$50 each month to each adult who was a registered car owner. Getting the cash to compensate, or more than compensate, for higher gas prices is the way to develop political support. Alternative is to divide the carbon tax revenue by the # of US citizens for a smaller rebate, maybe $40/month sent only to adult car owners. Others get it as an income tax payment for a larger refund. 27. Raoul Ohio Says: Scott #12: I hope you are joking. Otherwise I will be worrying that the pressure is getting to you. 28. Jean Passpartout Says: There is no solid empirical evidence that these extreme cold events are becoming more frequent. You could say “well I just saw a bad one where I live so they are becoming more frequent for me.” That might be true in some way, but statistics on rare events are tricky. 29. Scott Says: Raoul Ohio #27: No, I really do view the abandonment (or better, strangling) of nuclear energy and the subsequent climate crisis as one of the great tragedies of human history, I’m tired of beating around the bush or equivocating about it, and I invite anyone to explain why I’m mistaken. 30. Laurence Cox Says: Back in 1979, the renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, published his autobiography, called “Disturbing the Universe”. In one chapter of that book “Little Red Schoolhouse” he described his experiences as part of a team designing an inherently-safe nuclear reactor, later sold by General Atomics Inc as the TRIGA. There are other designs of inherently-safe reactors like the accelerator-driven subcritical reactor. But the question is, why did countries not build reactors that were inherently safe? The answer is that the countries pushing nuclear power (USA, Soviet Union, UK, France, China etc) had an ulterior motive that they also wanted to generate the material for nuclear weapons (principally Pu-239) which they could do by irradiating U-238 with neutrons in a nuclear reactor. So the design of reactors was dictated by the need to produce fissile material at least for the early generations of reactors. At that point we were all heading in the wrong direction, towards engineered safety, rather than inherent safety. It is difficult to change course 180 degrees in a market economy, where the financial risk of failure is carried by companies rather than by governments. 31. northierthanthou Says: “If I were a Texas Democrat, I’d consider making Republican incompetence on infrastructure, utilities, and public health my only campaign issues.” Sounds like a damned good plan. 32. JimV Says: There seems to be a noise source somewhere claiming that IPCC climate models are way off. The blog Real Climate recently updated their ongoing plot of average world temperature (which is what the models try to predict) vs. the climate models, with the 2020 data point. The graph shows that all new data since the climate models were made, circa 2000, have been well inside the published uncertainties and usually within 0.1 degree (C) of the models’ average. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2021/01/update-day-2021/ A more recent post summarizes all the known bets between climate modelers and deniers (e.g., would there or would there not be a new temperature record within ten years of the so-called “pause” of 1998), all of which have been won by the climate modelers. My feeling on nuclear is that engineers work on new stuff by trial and error. Lots of steam boilers blew up and killed people in the 1800’s as steam power was developed. We know more now and don’t make the same kinds of mistakes, but new technologies have new possible mistakes, and nuclear power mistakes are capable of doing lots more damage than steam boilers. It seems likely to me that we (as a civilization) have abandoned nuclear power just about when we could have gotten all the bugs out. However, the money and effort went largely into solar power and that has developed well. (It has also killed people, mostly from falling off roofs during installation.) The grid situation, last I heard, is that there are three grids: Eastern, Western, and most of Texas. El Paso happens to be one of the places in Texas connected to the Eastern grid, and did not lose power as a consequence. There was a doable plan to connect the Eastern and Western grids proposed by a department under Energy during the Trump Administration, but someone from the coal lobby was on the review committee and she nixed it, since it would save energy and require less coal burning. 33. James Gallagher Says: Fred #24 Three Mile Island and Fukushima are non-events really compared to potential extinction of life on Earth due to fossil fuel burning for last 4 decades. Laurence Cox #30 France and Japan really did embrace nuclear power due to lack of natural fossil fuel supplies – not so much with the ulterior military aim (which undoubtedly was true for the others, and France a bit) They also demonstrated how the world could have been saved from the climate catastrophe now, being two economic giants who managed relatively low carbon emissions for last 4 decades. Even if fusion reactors are made possible in next decade and the woke social media hordes allow them built near big cities, the failure to switch to old-style nuclear power in the seventies may have caused irreversible change to the planet now. I kind of wish the magnetic poles would flip sooner than later so we don’t have to suffer a slow century long agonising extinction. 34. asdf Says: The issue about winterizing TX power stations is that the financial incentives are against it, a la Enron: The current incentives in electricity markets harm residential electricity consumers. Texas electricity generators, with multiple plants on the interconnection grid, receive much more money if they do not weatherize a few of their plants properly. As a consequence, these poorly weatherized plants must shut down during cold weather. All generating plants that remain online receive the spiking electricity prices, and the generating company makes much more money than if all their plants were operating properly. This is only one way privatizers are gaming the Texas electricity market: using laws and rules set up by their lobbyists. That quote has been making the rounds for a few days. It is from an article written in 2014: source. 35. OhMyGoodness Says: This sounds like a really super big idea. How do you propose bringing four billion years of climate change to a complete stop? It must require planetary scale engineering. Is your proposal to periodically modify Earth’s orbit with directed close passages of asteroids? What have you determined is the optimal global temperature please? Could you nudge things enough to circular orbit so no seasons where I live and it has Honolulu’s year round temperatures please but with no hurricanes, tornados or other band windstorms, no flooding events, no hot temps, no chilly temps, and of course no ice EVER (see Honolulu). I can provide more specific parameters on request. The temperature criteria that Astro biologists are using to identify planets that are more prone to life then Earth, somewhat warmer than Earth (call it Goldilocks with a fever), actually sounds good at my location. I hope you don’t intend to move Earth farther from the sun! BTW I am nearly finished my first World War Z type series of novels. After I determined the plot I would have likely stopped reading except it was set in Austin. The poor protagonist bemoaned the loss of Torchy Taco and Hopdoddy. 36. OhMyGoodness Says: You will of course need to modify and stabilize the axis of rotation also. 37. J Says: Scott #29, one could argue that, while you’re right that nuclear energy is way safer than messing up with CO2 levels, there are both better options (at least now that costs are dropping for wind power, solar and power storage) and significant other sources of CO2 pollution. James #33, +1, except they only demonstrated how we could have low emissions electricity. In retrospect, promoting cars and planes over tramways, metros and trains, was nearly as much a mistake as coal over nuclear. 38. John Says: Ted Cruz has nothing to do with this. He is an elected official representing Texas at the federal level. State level officials are those having anything to do with the Texas debacle. Ted Cruz is a scapegoat for the left because they want him gone from the senate. THAT is the root cause of why anyone is making a big deal out of Ted Cruz. It’s a propaganda campaign and unfortunately many any brainwashed enough to not notice. 39. OhMyGoodness Says: I can imagine the UN General Assembly debate to decide closer or farther away from the Sun. Presenting the argument for farther would be (much to the chagrin of her cold climate countrymen), the beloved climate expert Greta Thunberg. The primary presenter for closer is less clear to me but say Roy Spencer, et al. The face of skeptics is vague but the face of believers is as clear as Sam Kinison in mid rant. 40. Radford Neal Says: James Gallagher #33: While I do think it would be good to let nuclear power attain its natural economic place in power production without undue hindrance, your post in support of this contains an alarming level of alarmism. There is no “potential extinction of life on Earth due to fossil fuel burning”. This is not possible. Not even close. Not. At. All. Even extinction of just humans due to climate change from fossil fuel burning is not at all a possibility. If you’ve somehow come to believe this, you need to (a) stop paying attention to completely unhinged and unscientific sources of information, and (b) develop some common sense. You also say, “I kind of wish the magnetic poles would flip sooner than later so we don’t have to suffer a slow century long agonising extinction.” This is if anything an even more unfounded belief. The magnetic poles have flipped many, many times in the past, with no noticeable effect on life. They haven’t flipped in historic times, so we don’t know in detail how it works out. Perhaps there are some negative effects. But it’s obvious that they are not catastrophic. 41. Deepa Says: A friend of mine who is an energy expert seems to think the ERCOT team is actually excellent. Some quotes : I think they missed impact of extreme cold on wind availability — they were completely blind sided by this. Natural gas freeze offs was not new— happened about 9 years ago. Most people make the lazy assumption of grid diversity— both fossil fuels and renewables can fail at the same time. It is also Nassim Taleb-esque. People over-prepare for the small risks and completely under-prepare for the big ones. 42. Deepa Says: Also, I want to say, as someone who grew up in the 3rd world, specifically the state of Tamilnadu, that waiting in line for water because nothing comes out of your faucets, multi-day power cuts… happen all through the year, every year. However, I think it is true that America might be getting more like that…maybe it is the impact of covid. When I visit India, it is obvious that things in India are getting more 1st world (I see huge HUGE improvements… and I’ve been away from India for almost 30 years) although there is much that’s still dysfunctional there. 43. DoYourResearch Says: “In some sense, it’s not surprising that the Texas infrastructure would buckle under weather stresses outside the envelope of anything it was designed for or saw for decades.” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/18/state-energy-winter-protections-lacking-reports-have-suggested/4490501001/ 44. James Cross Says: #29 Scott Power generation is only one contributor to green house gases. I think it accounts for about one third of the US contributor. So nuclear power, even if it totally replaced all other green house gas emitting forms of power production, would only reduce greenhouse gases by a third. That would be useful and movement in the right direction but wouldn’t solve the problem, especially since China and the Third World isn’t going to go nuclear any time soon either. 45. Corey Says: Scott #11: What do you imagine a surge pricing model for electricity looks like in general? What safeguards and regulations do you think would be needed to actually make such a system useful during extreme events? I’m generally dubious about allowing surge-pricing systems anywhere near essential services in potentially life-or-death scenarios. Electricity certain fits the bill in this regard. It’s worth noting that there are actually electricity providers in TX which operate on a pricing model similar to surge-pricing (but not exactly), and we have case studies from this past week for what that looks like in an emergency: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/us/texas-storm-electric-bills.html 46. KT2 Says: Scott, I’d say in nuclear you may have been correct. And as time passes you will be challenged. I’d suggest a chat to John Quiggin to econimically nuance your “I’m tired of beating around the bush or equivocating about it, and I invite anyone to explain why I’m mistaken.” **** “A path from the left to nuclear power “The University of Queensland professor proposes ending the ban on nuclear power in return for the immediate introduction of a carbon price. His proposal would reshape the energy economy. Quiggin would initially set a$25 per tonne price for the right to emit carbon dioxide, which would rise to \$50 in 2035. Total emissions would be reduced by 40 to 60 per cent by 2030, relative to the year 2000.

“By 2050, after taking into account the effects of carbon farming and other forms of atmospheric amelioration, Australia’s net emissions would reach a Gilead-like zero.

“Quiggin must know that his plan would be devastating for coal.

Too cheap to meter

JOHN QUIGGIN
19 OCTOBER 2020

Ultra-low interest rates have fundamentally changed the arithmetic of renewable energy
****

https://insidestory.org.au/too-cheap-to-meter/

Texas!

If Texas put in an interconnector across a state boundary, they then have to deal with federal laws, such as having to rate wind turbines down to -30.

“Texplainer: Why does Texas have its own power grid?

“Basically, Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with — you guessed it — the feds. But grid independence has been violated a few times over the years — not even counting Mexico’s help during blackouts in 2011.

BY KATE GALBRAITH
FEB. 8, 2011
UPDATED: FEB. 15, 2021

“Why does Texas have its own electric grid?

“Texas’ secessionist inclinations have at least one modern outlet: the electric grid. There are three grids in the Lower 48 states: the Eastern Interconnection, the Western Interconnection — and Texas.

“This event, known as the “Midnight Connection,” set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence..

https://www.texastribune.org/2011/02/08/texplainer-why-does-texas-have-its-own-power-grid/

Thanks.

47. Laurence Cox Says:

James Gallagher #33

Long before Chernobyl or even Three Mile Island, there was the notorious Windscale fire of 1957:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire

It doesn’t do anything for public confidence in nuclear power when governments, as the UK government did, cover such things up because the information always leaks sooner or later.

In the days when governments were less concerned about terrorism (the late 1970s), I was able to visit Hinckley Point A (one of the generation of Magnox reactors), and see it in operation. In those days, you could simply book a visit in advance and turn up at the gate. They didn’t even require the names of all the group, just the group leader’s.

In one sense it was the discovery of first gas and then oil under the North Sea that caused the UK to turn away from nuclear power, hardly anybody thought about the environment in those days and combined-cycle gas turbine plants are (relatively) quick and easy to build as well as being highly (>50%) efficient.

48. Scott Says:

Corey #45: Maybe surge pricing is a terrible policy in practice (especially in such a regulated market as electricity), I’m not sure. The idea would be to impose a cost on wasting electricity during a crisis, and thereby achieve rationing via a market mechanism, without needing to arbitrarily choose millions of homes to completely shut off power to in the middle of a winter storm. The obvious problem is that rich people would just pay the surge prices and leave poor people to do the rationing. Supposing it were politically possible, I’d want to address that via just a direct subsidy to low-income households (and corresponding tax on high-income ones) that would take effect during such emergencies.

49. Scott Says:

Deepa #41: Those quotes strike me as totally undermining your friend’s opinion about the excellence of the ERCOT team! 🙂

50. Scott Says:

James Cross #44: In the parallel earth that never faces a climate crisis, of course nuclear (plus solar and wind) became the standard all over the planet, and of course the cars were electric and thus ultimately powered by renewables as well, and of course deforestation was stopped and people found a thousand other ways to cut emissions. But holy crap would nuclear be a huge piece of it!

51. Scott Says:

OhMyGoodness #39: You’re hereby banned from this comment section for 3 months, on account of every single comment from you contributing nothing but smug snark over a long period.

52. Scott Says:

John #38: I won’t deny that I want Cruz gone from the Senate for a hundred other reasons, and that I hope this scandal contributes to his defeat. But your comment ignores that a US senator has a huge amount of soft power in helping to coordinate a disaster response in their state (calling up business leaders, etc etc) — besides, of course, their obvious role in securing federal aid. But a prerequisite is to believe in a role for government in responding to such emergencies!

53. Scott Says:

Incidentally, while Cruz left for vacation, Beto has been on the front lines bringing food and water where it’s needed. Now, is there political calculation involved? Is it relevant that Beto might try again to unseat Cruz in 2024? Obviously, yes. But on reflection, if this is pandering then I’m fine with it! Beto is doing precisely what one wants a politician to do in a crisis — namely, modeling prosocial behavior for everyone else — while Cruz abdicates his responsibilities, as if to thumb his nose at the idea that he has any.

54. Deepa Says:

Scott #41. True. I should have chosen more quotes…He said that their handling extreme summer temps was outstanding.

He said there was freeze in TX 9 years ago, they ought to have learned from it. They did not. That is a big problem. But he says they’re generally an extremely well run organization.

I have no clue…this is not my field. I was trying to understand a few details and pattern match so I could figure out if it was ERCOT incompetence or honest mistake.

Disaster preparation is a tradeoff though, right? Between cost now versus possible cost later.

I wish they’d warned us ahead of time about the PLANNED power cuts. Maybe that was the city govt’s job. Then I’d have bought a space heater. I did warn friends in TX so they could get some time to plan better.

55. Deepa Says:

Scott #53: Do we really want politicians modeling anything for us? In the UK, they have royalty for exactly that purpose and even that makes no sense to me. It would be nice to have a leader-type figure saying soothing words at such times. Obama was so good at that. Trump was the exact opposite.

I have never looked to my senators as role models. Or presidents, for that matter.

56. Deepa Says:

Sorry, I have one more comment on this again : Cruz has done far worse things than fleeing to Cancun, like supporting the Trump cult (which was all about what one man wanted, not what was good for the country) presumably hoping to inherit his voters. I think that’s why he must go! Fleeing a crisis is quite ordinary for politicians.

57. Sniffnoy Says:

Scott #14:

That’s a pretty different statement, though. Like, your original response pretty clearly implies that Cruz is doing something wrong here. But your response #14 instead says, well, it demonstrates how confident he is that Texas will vote for him. But that’s a substantially different claim!

Basically in agreement with Deepa here; yes, politicians typically do this sort of thing, but it’s not in their job description. He could be doing more and that would be good; and people may expect him to and so not doing so is bad for his image (but that’s his own problem, not that of the people of Texas); but I don’t think him not doing so is a failure of him as a senator. And as Deepa says, plenty else to blame Cruz for!

58. Candide III Says:

James Cross #44: China is building and planning many times more nuclear reactors than anyone else. About 1/3 of the number and net capacity of reactors under construction today is in China. Russia, and to a much lesser extent China, are actively pushing nuclear power to Africa and other 3rd world countries.

59. James Gallagher Says:

Radford Neal #40

I hope your optimism is correct, but because you didn’t even get my reference to recent news reports that the last magnetic pole flip caused extinction of neathanderthals doesn’t give me confidence in your opinions…

Laurence Cox #47

Agree with all that, and I wish the western nations could have got their act together with nuclear power before the 1960s, when basically EVERYTHING became subject to mass social movements’ decisions.

btw. I think I may have over-rated Japan’s low carbon emissions compared to France, which really was great compared to the other G7 nations since 1970s, but Japan had to deal with the psychological impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and being very prone to Earthquakes – remarkable what they achieved compared to western nations (except France)

60. Jon Awbrey Says:

Somehow or other I was raised or trained to see crises and problematic situations in general as learning experiences and teachable moments. Later I ran across the following old tag and adopted it as a motto —

But I recently noticed a strange thing during Facebook exchanges where anyone taking an attitude like that toward the Big Freeze In Texas would find themselves roundly lambasted by a certain sort of person. After some reflection I recognized the pattern and summed it up this way —

Have you noticed the First Rule of Energy Policy —
“Don’t talk about Energy Policy if there’s a current Energy Tragedy”
Imitates the First Rule of Gun Control —
“Don’t talk about Gun Control if there’s a current Tragic Shooting”
Coincidence? I don’t think so …

61. Radford Neal Says:

James Gallagher #59:

“…because you didn’t even get my reference to recent news reports that the last magnetic pole flip caused extinction of neathanderthals doesn’t give me confidence in your opinions…”

Not being aware of a study published two days earlier, to which you gave no reference or link, seems a pretty slight basis for deciding that I’m an idiot. In any case, the summary of the study in the Guardian provides no support for the idea that magnetic pole reversals are so catastrophic that if one happened you would quickly die from the effects, thereby luckily avoiding the experience of slowly dying from the effects of fossil fuel use, which is what you were saying.

62. Jon Awbrey Says:

In a related story …

On this day in Texas History the Siege of the Alamo commenced and Commander William Barret Travis flew to Cancún to work on his tan …

63. John Baez Says:

Jon Awbrey #60 wrote:

Have you noticed the First Rule of Energy Policy —
“Don’t talk about Energy Policy if there’s a current Energy Tragedy”
Imitates the First Rule of Gun Control —
“Don’t talk about Gun Control if there’s a current Tragic Shooting”
Coincidence? I don’t think so …

People of a certain limited creativity copy phrases and rhetorical tricks that seem to work for other people… varying them slightly. Another recent member of this family is “Now is the time for unity!”, shouted right after a bunch of Republicans tried to overturn the election and then, failing that, invade the Capitol.

I think these tricks are effective simply because they create a momentary stunned silence: how can you respond to something so stupid?

We need to get better at nipping these rhetorical tricks in the bud. For example, much too late to do any good, I realized we should start applying the term “Trump derangement syndrome” to people who do things like babble about Jewish space lasers or run around the Capitol building wearing horns.

64. asdf Says:

The Jewish space lasers are necessary because of the pandemic. By doing all circumcisions from autonomous satellites in high orbit for the duration of the crisis, they avoid turning mohels into super spreaders.

65. botnet-client Says:

I guess Texas is better equipped to deal with hurricanes, which dissipate after a hundred miles inland, than with blizzards. As a Californian, global warming won’t increase the probability of once in a century events. Read somewhere that a lot of people who survived New Orleans moved to Texas.

I always find it surreal that many people don’t maintain supplies of basic food staples and canned food to last a week, as well as something to burn fuel in (a clay pot is the minimum for that). Only thing I think I’m missing is a bag of charcoal.

66. Bill Says:

I find it amusing that anytime there is a disaster in one state, other states like to act as if it could never happen there (and then when it does the act as if it was a “black swan” that couldn’t possibly be predicted). I live in the NJ NYC suburbs, and we lost power for a week the year before Sandy because trees had leaves and there was a snowstorm in late October – trees came down and ripped down tons of power lines, and people died. Similarly, for Hurricane Sandy, I have a house in NC, and people there were amazed that all of the NYC area was a disaster for weeks or months because of something that wasn’t even a Cat 1. They literally couldn’t understand – how was it possible to be so unprepared and have so many people die. Similarly, it is easy to be astonished that Texas would have a problem like this – if you live in a place where it gets really cold pretty often. I lived in Austin as a kid, and in ’72 or so we got about 2″ of snow and everything was shut for 2 days. Texas is super easy to criticize – if only the Feds ran their system – however, my understanding is that the neighboring states that had interconnected grids had more power outages than Texas. Also, let’s not forget the grid problems California has all the time.

67. grickm Says:

Significant disasters usually develop from a confluence of events. TX had a heavy freeze in 1983/4 where Houston was below freezing for 5 days straight. Those conditions were worse than this year’s freeze because it was cold for a longer time. We had no power problems then. In the intervening decades politicians decided to subsidize windmills, which IMO in conjunction with desire to hold electricity costs down focused investment away from the backup power systems any reasonable person knows must be available when wind power is absent. And because we hadn’t had a significant freeze for nearly 40 years, the the newer natural gas backup systems that replaced coal fired plants were inadequately protected against severe conditions. Net result was unreliable primary and backup systems that were over-stressed by an unusual weather event.

68. Pierre Says:

Love the blog, lurk a lot ! I think you need to be so careful with climate change on this, it’s like Trump looking at the rain and saying “see there’s no global warming”.

It’s not like there’s no climate change, and that it won’t have an impact in general, but I just feel uneasy as if I was witnessing people looking at a solar eclipse crying in angst that disaster was upon us.

At least, try not to state it as so obvious that there is a link between American shamefully polluting -> atmosphere keeping more warm -> temperature rising -> countless climate systems changing in new ways -> mysterious ellipsis …-> your local university swarmed with winter refugee because Texas has a weird relationship with capitalism and electricity grid regulation.