Analysis: Working political angles instead of solving problems
As Texans struggle with terrible winter weather, electric utility failures affecting more than 4 million households, a pandemic and a botched vaccine rollout, a natural question arises: Do state leaders know what they're doing?
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Between winter electricity blackouts, a haphazard rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the Texas government’s overall response to the pandemic over the last year, the theme of the current legislative session and the next election cycle ought to be easy.
Do the people running state government in Texas know what they’re doing?
It’s still freezing outside, and millions of Texas households have been without power for more than 24 hours. It’s dangerous and infuriating; the similarities between outage and outrage don’t stop at spelling.
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
How can I get updates?
Sign up for news updates from us by texting “hello” to 512-967-6919 or visiting this page.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event. Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans. An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy. “Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
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The justified anger when the people who are hired to keep us safe are not keeping us safe makes for rough politics — as it should. That’s one reason you see so much of the political herd working as hard on blame and shame right now as on the state’s widespread utility failures during this disastrous winter storm.
Or on the bumbling rollout of vaccines. Or the meandering, confused responses to the pandemic itself, beginning just under a year ago. It’s all fuel for reasonable doubts about the Texas state government’s ability to meet big problems.
The winter power disaster doesn’t have the novelty of the pandemic. Texas hasn’t seen a pandemic for a century. It’s only been a decade since a long freeze disrupted the state’s electric service.
A winter storm in 2011 — not as big as the one we’re in now — prompted rolling blackouts that affected 3.2 million electric customers. A federal inquiry done by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. found some familiar-sounding problems in the state’s handling of a multi-day hard freeze.
Then as now, the utilities and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s power grid operator — expected to have the electricity supply needed for a surge in demand. “They all had adequate reserve margins, based on anticipated generator availability,” the report said. “But those reserves proved insufficient for the extraordinary amount of capacity that was lost during the event from trips, derates and failures to start.”
At the worst point, about a third of the generation was unavailable. “These extensive generator failures overwhelmed ERCOT’s reserves, which eventually dropped below the level of safe operation.”
And look at this part: “Had ERCOT not acted promptly to shed load, it would very likely have suffered widespread, uncontrolled blackouts throughout the entire ERCOT Interconnection.”
Here we are again. Demand spiked in the face of cold weather, as it was expected to. But the amount of generated electricity fell, too — far short of what was projected and short of what was needed.
As a result, demand exceeded supply, “rolling blackouts” were ordered, and more than 4 million Texas households lost power, putting people in sometimes hazardous conditions that state elected officials and regulators are supposed to manage.
It appears that wind and solar power produced more electricity this week than they were expected to produce, but at this time of year, that’s a relatively small part of the expected statewide generation. Generation from gas and coal plants was far below expectations, causing supply to fall as demand rose. How much of that is bad design — a case where the system should be reworked — and how much was operator error is still to be sorted out.
House Speaker Dade Phelan wants two committees — Energy Resources and State Affairs — to hold hearings on Feb. 25 “for the express purpose of helping Texans understand what went wrong and how we can prevent these conditions from happening again.
“We must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders about the factors that contributed to generation staying down at a time when families needed it most, what our state can do to correct these issues and what steps regulators and grid operators are taking to safeguard our electric grid,” he said Tuesday in a news release.
Gov. Greg Abbott, a little while later, used a declaration of an emergency order — a way of raising the profile of something to get the Legislature’s attention — to point his finger at ERCOT.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” he said. “Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions.”
Later, on Houston's KTRK-TV, Abbott said the leaders of ERCOT ought to resign. “This was a total failure by ERCOT," he said.
And he might turn out to be right, too, but his information is incomplete at this point. What if lawmakers connect the dots between the current emergency and the emergencies that were underway a week ago, when it was 70 degrees outside? What if their inquiries put someone else on the hot seat?
Texans might turn to the people elected and hired to protect the rest of us in the face of life-threatening disasters, whether from disease or weather or hostile humans. Political strength and popularity comes from competence.
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