The Texas Blackout Is the Story of a Disaster Foretold

“it wasn’t as if those running the Texas energy system’s various fiefdoms—the grid, the power plants, the natural gas–production facilities—hadn’t been warned about the dangers of severe weather. Hell may not freeze over, but history suggests that Texas’s energy system does—and with some frequency. In 1989, in 2003, and in 2011, the state experienced, to varying degrees, simultaneous shutdowns of power plants and parts of its natural gas–producing infrastructure, as significant swaths of both of those critical systems were incapacitated by arctic temperatures, triggering blackouts.

The frigid weather during the first four days of February 2011 knocked off enough power generation throughout ERCOT—about 29,000 megawatts of capacity—that ERCOT initiated blackouts affecting about 3.2 million customers, according to a voluminous postmortem of the failure produced in August 2011 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. That report suggested the state add teeth to its effort to gird its energy infrastructure for wintry weather. Among its policy recommendations was that in states in the Southwest, including Texas, legislatures require power companies to submit winterization plans and give their public-utility commissions the authority to require senior executives of power companies to sign off on those plans and the authority “to impose penalties for non-compliance.” Magness, the ERCOT chief, said that in the wake of the 2011 report he and others met with Texas power generators to suggest that they better winterize their facilities. He was asking, not telling. “It wasn’t a conversation like, `I’m your regulator and you have to do this,’” he recalled. “It was sharing those best practices.””

“Under the deregulation scheme passed by the Legislature more than two decades ago, Texas has a market design that allows generators to make money only by selling juice—not for investing in equipment that could help produce extra power in the event of an emergency. Critics contend that this approach, part and parcel of Texas’s aversion to regulation, makes the state’s energy system less reliable, even as it boosts profits for some market participants. Based on their biographies on the ERCOT website, at least eleven of the fifteen ERCOT board members have current or prior ties to the energy industry.”

“Texas lawmakers, as they investigate what went wrong this past week, ought to explore weatherization mandates.”

“better weatherizing power infrastructure, like inducing electricity producers to invest in extra generating capacity, likely would raise Texans’s electricity rates. “Is it worth the cost to consumers?” he asked. I asked him if ERCOT had any answer to that question. “I am not aware,” he said, “that we have ever conducted a real cost-benefit analysis on that topic.””

“the electricity blackout and frozen pipes in Texas had significantly curtailed the state’s production of oil and natural gas. IHS estimated that nearly 20 percent of natural-gas production, and perhaps an equal or greater percentage of oil production, in the continental U.S. in the first half of February had been shut in—and that the Permian Basin, the big oil-producing region that sits largely in West Texas, accounted for the biggest share of that production drop.
A couple of hours later, the governor, who earlier in the week had called for top ERCOT leaders to resign, issued an announcement. Years after Texas officials had been advised to do so, Abbott said he would ask the Legislature to mandate the winterization of power plants across the state—and to “ensure the necessary funding” for it.”

Why the Texas power grid is struggling to cope with the extreme cold

“For residents of the Lone Star State, the problem stems from both a record spike in electricity demand in a place that rarely gets this cold, as well as an unexpected drop in the supply of energy from natural gas, coal, wind, nuclear, and solar sources besieged by cold and ice.

This combination of shortfalls has forced power grid operators to conduct rolling blackouts, where power is shut off to different areas for a limited period of time. Local utilities are asking customers to conserve power and set their thermostats lower. For some customers, these blackouts aren’t rolling, instead stretching on for an unknown duration. On Tuesday afternoon, grid operators told Texas legislators that outages could last for days and that they weren’t sure when the power outages would end.”

“Ordinarily, ERCOT plans for winter to be much warmer and anticipates a lower energy demand. Power providers often schedule downtime and maintenance during the winter months to prepare for the massive annual surge in electricity demand in the hot Texas summer. The state’s ample wind and solar energy resources are also diminished in the winter, so ERCOT doesn’t depend on them to meet much of the demand they anticipate.

However, the cold itself posed a direct challenge to the power sources that the state was counting on. Wind turbines iced up. Coal piles froze.

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.”

“The Texas blackouts may also be a symptom of a lack of proper upkeep. “The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the department of economics at the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.””

Renewable Energy Is Not the Chief Cause of Texas’ Power Outages

“Most of the shortfall in electric power generation during the current cold snap is the result of natural gas and coal powered plants going offline.”

“Of the 34 gigawatts generation capacity forced offline, Schauer estimates that about 27 gigawatts of coal, nuclear, and gas capacity is unavailable in part because the cold has driven up demand for natural gas for heating. “That’s the bigger problem,” he told Bloomberg News. The pipeline system is not able to deliver enough natural gas to supply both higher demand for home heating and power generation.
In fact, similar state-wide power outages previously occurred in February 2011 when wind and solar power constituted less than 4 percent of Texas’ generation capacity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s report on the 2011 weather event noted that 193 generating units failed, resulting in rolling power outages that affected 3.2 million customers. Most of the outages in 2011 occurred as a result of frozen sensors and valves and natural gas shortages. The same problems with insufficiently winterized equipment appear to be happening now.

With respect to the current episode, about half of Texas’ wind turbines did freeze up. However, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a power grid operator, generally calculates that the turbines will generate only about 19 to 43 percent of their maximum output during the winter months. It is worth noting that winds from the storm were boosting power production from the unfrozen coastal wind turbines and thus offsetting some of the other power generation losses.

Maintaining electric power grid reliability while integrating ever more renewable power supplies is not a simple problem, but that does not seem to be the main issue with the current outages in Texas.”

‘Seditious abuse of the judicial process’: States reject Texas effort to overturn Biden’s election

“Officials from four presidential swing states forcefully criticized an effort by Texas and President Donald Trump to enlist the Supreme Court to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, with Pennsylvania calling the last-ditch legal effort “seditious” and built on an “absurd” foundation.

“The Court should not abide this seditious abuse of the judicial process, and should send a clear and unmistakable signal that such abuse must never be replicated,” Pennsylvania said in a 43-page brief signed by Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his deputies.

“In support of such a request, Texas brings to the Court only discredited allegations and conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact,” the attorneys wrote. “Accepting Texas’s view would do violence to the Constitution and the Framers’ vision.”

The briefs from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — states targeted in Texas’ lawsuit, brought by Attorney General Ken Paxton, which Trump is attempting to join — directed their fury largely at Paxton. And they pleaded with the justices to reject the suit out of hand, warning that anything else would give states unprecedented power to sue each other to enforce their will, leading to waves of partisan retribution that shake the foundations of federalism.”

“Texas’ lawsuit drew skepticism even among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have broadly been supportive of the president’s efforts to undermine faith in the democratic system. Some Texas GOP lawmakers, including Sen. John Cornyn, raised questions about the merits. Rep. Chip Roy called it “a dangerous violation of federalism,” and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy twice dodged questions about whether he backed the legal effort.

However, a group of 106 House Republicans signed a friend of the court briefing, arguing the defendant states acted illegally and that their electors should be prevented from voting.”

California Infections Rise; N.Y. Restaurant Curfew: Virus Update

“Texas’s Covid-19 caseload topped 1 million as the second most-populous U.S. state contends with some of the worst local outbreaks of the pandemic’s latest wave.

Texas cases reached 1,010,364, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. The Lone Star state has surpassed California’s tally, despite having just three-fourths the population. Almost 20,000 Texans have perished from the virus.”

Testing mess leaves Texas in the dark as cases spike

“More than one-in-five Texans who are tested for coronavirus are positive, the worst statewide rate in the country. But the number of people getting tests has plummeted in the last two weeks, which could understate how widespread the virus really is as schools reopen and hospitalizations and deaths remain near record highs.”

“Public health experts say a number of factors may have depressed demand for tests, including long wait times and changing rules for who is eligible and the effects of Tropical Storm Hanna, which battered the southern part of the state late last month and disrupted services near the border with Mexico.
But the biggest reason may be an apparent false sense of security. The drop off in testing coincides with a decline in infections after Abbott ordered people to wear masks, reimposed seating limits in restaurants and closed down bars again. That worries disease trackers who suspect any positive news will breed complacency and make people willing to ignore the possibility they could be infected without showing symptoms. Without widespread testing, new Covid spikes could pop up and go unnoticed.”

“Texas’s drop in testing is part of a larger nationwide trend that’s seen the average number of coronavirus tests fall from more than 800,000 a day in late July to roughly 700,000 over the last week.”

“But the testing problems aren’t all linked to Texans’ behavior. There also are questions about flaws in the state’s data collection that may have distorted who was sick and where. Texas at the end of July had 1 million completed tests whose results had not been assigned to a particular county. Officials are now sorting through the backlog, which could have had the effect of making the tested population appear smaller than it really was.”

“Abbot said testing numbers should rebound in the coming days. There will be a surge in Houston, the governor said, where he aims to test an additional 50,000 people over a 10-day stretch.”

A Texas Supreme Court decision could disenfranchise millions during the pandemic

“The overwhelming majority of states allow any lawful voter to obtain an absentee ballot without having to justify their request. Texas, by contrast, allows only a minority of voters to obtain one. One provision of state law allows elderly voters to vote absentee. Another permits absentee ballots if a voter will be away from their home county on Election Day. A third provides that “a qualified voter is eligible for early voting by mail if the voter has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health” — a requirement that, according to the state Supreme Court’s decision in Texas, applies only to people who are ill or disabled.

Civil rights groups and the state Democratic Party argued that this third provision should be broadly interpreted to allow anyone who could become infected with the coronavirus to vote absentee. The words “physical condition,” they argued, includes the physical condition of being susceptible to a deadly pandemic disease. In other words, during a pandemic that requires social distancing to control the spread of said disease, nearly everyone has a “physical condition” that should enable them to vote absentee.

In recent elections, older voters have tended to prefer Republican candidates over Democrats. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, objected to the broader interpretation of the law. At one point, his office even threatened to bring criminal prosecutions against any organization that encourages younger voters to request an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court’s nine Republican justices ultimately sided with Paxton, although two of the nine did so for different reasons.

The court’s decision in Texas will not be the last word on whether younger Texans may vote absentee in November. In a separate Texas lawsuit, a federal trial judge ruled last week that the state cannot discriminate against younger voters. Among other things, he determined that the Texas law violates the 26th Amendment, which permits all otherwise eligible voters over the age of 18 to cast a ballot.

But the federal decision has been appealed to the notoriously conservative US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and may ultimately be heard by a US Supreme Court that is frequently hostile to claims of voter suppression. So it is far from clear that younger Texans will be allowed to vote absentee.”

Texas just became the first state to shut the door on refugees

“Texas became the first state to refuse to take in refugees..under an executive order from President Donald Trump that allows state and local authorities to block refugees from settling in their areas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the State Department Friday saying that while Texas has historically welcomed more refugees than any other state, it will not resettle any additional refugees in the 2020 fiscal year. “

The extraordinary danger of being pregnant and uninsured in Texas

“From 2012 through 2015, at least 382 pregnant women and new mothers died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services; since then, hundreds more have likely perished. While their cases reflect the problems that contribute to maternal mortality across the United States — gross medical errors, deeply entrenched racism, structural deficiencies in how care is delivered — another Texas-size factor often plays a significant role: the state’s vast, and growing, problem with health insurance access.

About one in six Texans — just over 5 million people — had no health insurance last year. That’s almost a sixth of all uninsured Americans, more than the entire population of neighboring Louisiana. After trending lower for several years, the Texas rate has been rising again — to 17.7 percent in 2018, or about twice the national average.”

“Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country; a third were without health coverage in 2018, according to a State Health Services survey. In some counties, mainly along the Mexico border, that estimate approaches 40 percent.”

“How Texas came to have the worst insurance gaps in the country is no mystery: It was an accumulation of deliberate policy choices by state lawmakers going back decades, driven largely by an aversion to government-mandated insurance and a desire to keep taxes low.”