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February 19th, 2021:

It could have been worse

Hard to imagine, but this would qualify.

Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday.

As millions of customers throughout the state begin to have power restored after days of massive blackouts, officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, said Texas was dangerously close to a worst-case scenario: uncontrolled blackouts across the state.

The quick decision that grid operators made in the early hours of Monday morning to begin what was intended to be rolling blackouts — but lasted days for millions of Texans — occurred because operators were seeing warning signs that massive amounts of energy supply was dropping off the grid.

As natural gas fired plants, utility scale wind power and coal plants tripped offline due to the extreme cold brought by the winter storm, the amount of power supplied to the grid to be distributed across the state fell rapidly. At the same time, demand was increasing as consumers and businesses turned up the heat and stayed inside to avoid the weather.

“It needed to be addressed immediately,” said Bill Magness, president of ERCOT. “It was seconds and minutes [from possible failure] given the amount of generation that was coming off the system.”

Grid operators had to act quickly to cut the amount of power distributed, Magness said, because if they had waited, “then what happens in that next minute might be that three more [power generation] units come offline, and then you’re sunk.”

Magness said on Wednesday that if operators had not acted in that moment, the state could have suffered blackouts that “could have occurred for months,” and left Texas in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power overwhelms 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 can take 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.

“As chaotic as it was, the whole grid could’ve been in blackout,” she said. “ERCOT is getting a lot of heat, but the fact that it wasn’t worse is because of those grid operators.”

Okay, you’ve convinced me, that would have been Bad. I can’t even begin to fathom what life in that scenario would look like. But look, what this means more than ever is we didn’t do a proper job of assessing and mitigating the risks that we faced. This was not an unforeseen event, nor was it a “five hundred year flood” situation, since we had extreme weather like this in 2011 and 1989, well within our institutional memory. What’s fascinating about all this is that the folks at ERCOT did a pretty good job estimating the demand that the grid would face. Where they completely missed the boat was on the supply side. Rice professor Daniel Cohan explains:

ERCOT didn’t do too badly predicting peak demand — 67 GW in its extreme scenario. We don’t know how high the actual peak would have been without these rolling blackouts, but perhaps around 5 GW higher, with some conservation by industrial consumers.

Scheduled maintenance played a role too, as plants tune up for summer peaks. Why so much of that maintenance continued amid week-ahead forecasts of an Arctic blast deserves a closer look.

But ERCOT’s biggest miss came in preparing for outages at what it thought were “firm” resources — gas, coal, and nuclear. Those outages topped 30 GW, more than double ERCOT’s worst-case scenario. Just one of those gigawatts came from a temporary outage at a nuclear unit. Most of the rest came from gas.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of individual gas power plants broke down. Most outages came because delivery systems failed to supply gas to those plants at the consistent pressures that they need.

These failures highlight the unique vulnerabilities of relying so heavily on natural gas for power. Only gas electricity relies on a continuous supply of a fossil fuel delivered from hundreds of miles away. And that fuel is also needed for heat. So when an Arctic blast drives up demand and drives down supply of heat and electricity at the same time, power plants languish in line while homes and hospitals get the heating fuel they need.

That makes these blackouts an energy systems crisis, not just a power crisis. Every one of our power sources underperformed. Every one of them has unique vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by extreme events. None of them prepared adequately for extreme cold.

That was adapted from this Twitter thread, and you should read them both. There’s a lot that can and should be done to improve the system, and we need to think of it in systemic terms. Even Greg Abbott seems to think we need to think big:

I mean, I don’t have any faith in anything Abbott wants to do, but at least he’s not talking about something that’s completely disconnected from, or opposite to, the problem. That’s better than what we’re used to. Maybe the Lege can take it from there.

When the going gets tough, Ted Cruz gets going

All the way to Cancun. Smell ya later, suckers!

At least he was wearing a mask

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was feeling the heat Thursday as photos circulated online showing the Texas Republican traveling to Cancún while millions in his home state were left in the cold without power and water, reeling from a major winter weather disaster.

The senator, who was spotted on a Wednesday flight, said in a statement that his family lost heat and power like many, and with school out for the week, his daughters asked to go.

“Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” Cruz said.

It was unclear whether the quick return was originally planned, but it wasn’t quick enough for many regardless. By Thursday morning, the trip had already sparked renewed calls for Cruz’s resignation — six weeks into 2021, the senator with 2024 presidential ambitions has also been the focus of scorn over his objections to certifying Joe Biden’s electoral victory, an effort his campaign used to raise money that also led to calls for his resignation and an ethics complaint from Senate Democrats.

Cruz was also called out earlier this week for having mocked California’s rolling blackouts in 2020.

“I got no defense,” Cruz tweeted in response. “A blizzard strikes Texas & our state shuts down. Not good. Stay safe!”

Political experts in Texas, however, don’t expect all this bad PR to stick. Even after the insurrection at the Capitol, Cruz consistently ranks among the most popular Republicans in the state. He was second only to Donald Trump in a University of Houston poll released last month, easily weathering the outrage from the Capitol attack.

“While he may be one of the most disliked politicians in Texas, he is also one of the most well liked — and his base is not going to budge, even under these circumstances,” said Renée Cross, senior director at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, which conducted the poll.

Republican political operatives, however, were shaking their heads at the Cancún trip, even as they questioned what Cruz realistically could have done about the crisis in Texas that he couldn’t also do remotely.

Derek Ryan, a Republican political consultant in Texas, predicted the photos will haunt the senator for some time.

“‘Whether he can help or not, in 2024 the ads will be, ‘While you and your family froze, Cruz fled to Mexico,’” Ryan tweeted. “Perception is reality.”

“You need to be seen as engaged, you need to be seen as active in your community, helping out,” Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas, said.

“He is a senator, so what can he actually do right now? Most of what they can do is make calls, send emails, make statements … He could argue a lot of those things, I can do from my phone, from virtually anywhere,” Steinhauser said. “But he decided to come back home… he sees this is a perception problem.”

Let’s be clear about a couple of things:

1. Speaking as a dad, I get the desire to make life better for your kids, in whatever circumstance. I thought about packing us all up and going somewhere this week – where, I had no idea – because it did suck to be in a cold, dark house with nothing to do. I don’t actually blame him for that desire, but using the kids as a shield for his own questionable decision, that’s a coward’s move. You made the decision to fly to Cancun, as opposed to driving to a hotel or sleeping over with a friend who had power, or just toughing it out and commiserating the the millions of other Texans in the same boat. Own it.

2. Nobody cuts Ted Cruz any slack because Ted Cruz has earned his reputation as one of the biggest jerks in America. He’s always among the first in line to kick someone else when they’re down – see the tweets about California, or about Austin Mayor Steve Adler and his trip to Cabo a few months ago, which was noted later in the story – so people line up to do the same when he stumbles. He’s also been especially critical of politicians he doesn’t like who dare to take vacations, which again brings up the hypocrisy angle. Ultimately, Ted Cruz gets extended the same grace he extends to everyone else, which is to say none at all. It’s the purest application of the Golden Rule that ever existed.

3. Honestly, what did he think was going to happen here? He’s not only one of the most hated people in the country, he’s also one of the most recognizable. The odds of him travelling to Cancun and back without being noticed were exactly zero. Hell, even his supposed friends are adding to the feeding frenzy (more here).

4. Oh, and did we mention the pandemic that’s still going on? Ted Cruz and his family taking an international flight was a bad idea even without the “constituents freezing in the dark” optics. Go back to the story and review what Cruz said about Steve Adler. It’s almost as if that was completely cynical, because the rules only apply to other people, not to Ted Cruz.

5. I get that the people who love Ted Cruz really love Ted Cruz, but no one’s approval ratings are set in stone. Donald Trump’s approval ratings are now lower than they ever were during his reign of terror, and his sycophants are as zealous as they come. The thing about an event like this is that it doesn’t actually have anything to do with politics or a bill or some other argument that Republicans are having with Democrats. It’s about Ted Cruz doing something that looks to be deeply selfish and indifferent to anyone else. Some number of people who like him will like him less as a result of this. Maybe that’s not a big number, and maybe some of them eventually forgive him. Maybe even those who are done with him will never vote for the next Democrat that runs against him. My point is that with someone this evenly polarizing, it doesn’t take much to tilt the balance that currently favors him in this state. He had an awfully close election last time, though to be fair he was running in a tough year for Republicans. It wouldn’t have taken much to alter the outcome.

6. And he had a HPD escort when he arrived statewide. What a guy.

Anyway. The next time Ted Cruz will be on a ballot is a long time from now. The attack ads will write themselves, but who knows what might transpire between now and then to make us all hate Ted Cruz in a different way. In the meantime, please enjoy the voluminous Twitter snark at Ted Cruz’s expense. Politics is fleeting, but sincere mockery is forever.

UPDATE: Some more Twitter venom for Cruz.