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Anger at Abbott

I want to believe, I really really want to believe.

It was clear by Tuesday afternoon that Texas was in a full-blown crisis – and Gov. Greg Abbott had largely been out of sight.

More than 4 million households did not have power amid dangerously low temperatures, and an increasing number did not have heat or running water. Some families were burning furniture to stay warm, grocery stores were emptying, and people were dying. In the freezing darkness, many desperate Texans felt they were left to fend for themselves.

Abbott, a Republican, emerged that evening for a series of television interviews. In short, curt sentences, he told Texans in the Lubbock and Houston areas that he had issued an emergency order and called for an immediate legislative investigation of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electrical grid. He angrily accused the council of not having a backup power supply and not sharing information with Texans, “even with the governor of Texas.”

Then he went on Fox News.

“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said, looking more relaxed as he chatted with host Sean Hannity, falsely blaming his state’s problems on environmental policies pushed by liberals.

This deadly disaster is one in a series that Abbott has faced in his six years as governor: Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which resulted in the deaths of 68 people, at least six major mass shootings that left more than 70 people dead, and a pandemic that has killed nearly 42,000 people in the state. Now, at least 32 people have died in Texas because of this storm.

In each crisis, Abbott often carefully studied the situation – and its political ramifications – before taking action, usually demanding future legislative changes that may never happen. He is known to deliver different messages to the various constituencies in his state, all while trying to build a national profile as a conservative leader.

[…]

Critics have said Abbott and his administration failed to take the storm’s threat seriously or issue sufficient emergency warnings throughout – with meteorologists giving ample warning of a serious storm that could bring record cold, cause power demand to spike, and threaten electrical infrastructure more than a week in advance. Texas Republicans have been accused of neglecting winterization upgrades recommended to the electrical grid more than a decade ago.

“He hasn’t done anything,” said Conor Kenny, a Democrat who is a former planning commission chairman in Austin. “All he has done is call for an investigation into his own administration.”

Abbott’s staff declined to make him available for an interview and did not respond to a list of questions.

Some longtime Abbott supporters are worried that this crisis could politically hurt the governor, who is up for reelection next year. Several prominent Democrats are eyeing the race, and a group of liberal activists – some of whom worked on former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign – started a political action committee last year called the Beat Abbott PAC.

“Short-term, I am absolutely certain that the governor’s popularity will suffer as a result of this,” said Bill Hammond, a Republican lobbyist and former head of the Texas Association of Business. “He is the head of state government at this time . . . and it’s just like the quarterback, the blame and the credit go to the quarterback.”

But Hammond said he expects that Abbott will quickly rebound, as he has before. Abbott can make upgrading the power grid a defining goal and will be well-positioned to be reelected to a third term, he said.

“He was upset as anyone could be about this,” Hammond said. “Our [political competitors] will use this against us, no question about it, but we have plenty of time before next winter, and then we will come out of this stronger.”

[…]

Harry LaRosiliere, the Republican mayor of Plano in fast-growing Collin County near Dallas, said the power and water shortages are exposing how too many Texas politicians did not invest in the everyday needs of residents, such as highways, schools and public utility projects. A few years ago, LaRosiliere said, a major company decided not to relocate to Plano because it worried that Texas would eventually run out of water.

Instead of making investments to keep up with population growth, LaRosiliere said politicians in Austin are too often focused on divisive social issues including setting rules on which bathrooms transgender individuals can use and expanding gun rights.

This was a WaPo story reprinted in the Chron, so if it seemed like it was written for people who didn’t know much about Texas, that’s the reason. The quote from Mayor Harry LaRosiliere aside, it’s mostly Dems who think Abbott will pay a price for his lackluster leadership, and mostly Republicans who think he’ll be fine. Whatever you think about Bill Hammond, he’s right that the next election is a long way off, and there is the time and opportunity for Abbott to do something – or at least make it look like he’s done something – that voters will like. And while multiple articles have cited that UH Hobby School poll that showed Abbott with a 39% approval rating (including the next story I’m about to comment on), no one ever mentions that his overall approval was one of the best from that poll, and it’s just one poll. I want to believe, I really want to believe, but we’re way too far out from November 2022 to make any assessments.

If the freeze and blackouts were tough on Greg Abbott, they provided Beto O’Rourke with an opportunity to show what a different kind of leadership could bring to Texas.

While Ted Cruz was getting clobbered for fleeing Texas amid its historic winter storm, the Democrat he defeated in 2018, Beto O’Rourke, was already deep into disaster relief mode — soliciting donations for storm victims, delivering pallets of water from his pickup truck and once again broadcasting his movements on Facebook Live.

It was part of an effort orchestrated by O’Rourke and his organization, Powered by People, in response to the crisis. It was also, to Texas Democrats, a sign that O’Rourke the politician is back.

The former congressman and onetime Democratic sensation acknowledged last month that he’s considering running for governor in 2022, and he has discussed the possibility with Democratic Party officials and other associates. The drubbing that Texas Republicans are taking in the wake of the deadly storm may provide him with an opening — even in his heavily Republican state.

“After all of Texas freezes over because of poor leadership, I think it’s a different state of Texas than it was two weeks ago,” said Mikal Watts, a San Antonio-based lawyer and major Democratic money bundler.

If O’Rourke runs for governor, Watts said, “I think he could catch fire.”

Say it with me now: I want to believe, I want to believe. (I say that as I remind you that I’m still Team Julian, and he gave the barest of hints that maybe he could possibly be running as well.) I will say this, the one thing that might help drive down Abbott’s approval is an opponent who gets a lot of attention and who is good at focusing people on Abbott’s myriad failures as Governor. Whatever Beto and Julian ultimately decide to do next year, as long as one or both of them are doing that much, it’s a good thing.

Dan Patrick’s priorities

They haven’t changed. He might have had to shoehorn in a thing or two because he’s not stupid and he knows he had a close call in 2018, but the essence of Dan Patrick is eternal.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday unveiled his top 31 priorities for the 2021 legislative session, a mix of newly urgent issues after last week’s winter storm, familiar topics stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and a fresh injection of conservative red meat into a session that has been relatively bland so far.

Patrick said in a statement that he is “confident these priorities address issues that are critical to Texans at this time” and that some of them changed in recent days due to the storm, which left millions of Texans without power. After his top priority — the must-pass budget — Patrick listed his priorities as reforming the state’s electrical grid operator, as well as “power grid stability.”

Patrick’s specific plans for such items remain unclear, however. Almost all of his priority bills have not been filed yet, and the list he released refers to the issues in general terms.

The priorities echo much of the agenda that Gov. Greg Abbott laid out in his State of the State speech earlier this month, including his emergency items like expanding broadband access and punishing local governments that “defund the police.” Fourth on the list is a cause that Patrick himself prioritized recently — a “Star Spangled Banner Protection Act” that would require the national anthem to be played at all events that get public funding.

However, besides the fresh focus on the electrical grid, perhaps the most notable takeaway from Patrick’s agenda is how far it goes in pushing several hot-button social conservative issues. Patrick’s eighth and ninth priorities have to do with abortion — a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as well as an “abortion ban trigger” that would automatically ban the practice if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said he wanted to further restrict abortion in his State of the State speech but did not mention those two proposals specifically.

Abortion is not the only politically contentious topic on Patrick’s list. As his 29th priority, Patrick put “Fair Sports for Women & Girls,” an apparent reference to proposals that would ban transgender girls and women who attend public schools from playing on single-sex sports teams designated for girls and women. He also included three items related to gun rights: “Protect Second Amendment Businesses,” “Stop Corporate Gun Boycotts,” and “Second Amendment Protections for Travelers.” It was not immediately clear what specifically those three bills would entail.

Coming in at 10th is another proposal that was left unmentioned in Abbott’s speech despite popularity with the GOP base: banning taxpayer-funded lobbying. That is considered one of the big pieces of leftover business for conservatives after the 2019 session.

You can see the list here. And yes, that Star Spangled Banner Protection Act slots in at number 4, behind the budget (the one bill the Lege is required to pass) and the two hastily-added power grid items. Which means that in the absence of last week’s freeze and blackouts, that would have been Dan Patrick’s top legislative priority. And that, even before you get to the rest of the garbage on his list, tells you all you need to know about Dan Patrick.

Actually, there is one more thing to point out. Note that tenth item, about the capability for cities and counties and school districts to hire lobbyists to advocate for their issues at the Legislature. As we have discussed, the power companies have plenty of well-paid lobbyists at the Capitol representing their interests. Those lobbyists are funded by your power bills. Dan Patrick is just fine with that. This is what he’s about. The Chron has more.

We need more focus on the Public Utility Commission

Let’s start with this tweet:

Now keep that in mind when you read this.

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas’ largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state’s electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the “critical failure points” that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of “weather design limits.”

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and “may or may not identify the ‘weak links’ in protections against extreme temperatures.”

“Each weather event [is] dynamic,” company representatives told regulators. “Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless.”

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state’s electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

I get that everyone is mad at ERCOT, and I’ve certainly tossed that name around quite a bit myself. But the real power is in the PUC, and the PUC is appointed by the Governor. That’s where the buck stops, and as this story demonstrates, they have a lot to answer for.

This is a long story, which goes deep into the failures by the PUC to force power companies to do anything as well as the failure of the Legislature to take any meaningful action, and I want to encourage you to read the whole thing. If there’s one bit of good news in all this, it’s that this massive screwup happened at the start of the legislative session, so not only is it all fresh in everyone’s mind, there’s also the time to do something about it if we want to make it a priority and we don’t get buried under self-misinformation. Dan Patrick does have “ERCOT Reform” and “Power Grid Stability” high on his priority list, one spot ahead of the extremely pressing matter of sports teams not playing the national anthem before games (which you just know he would have had higher had it not been for the blackouts), but note that he’s focusing on ERCOT and not the PUC. Note also his item about preventing cities and counties from hiring lobbyists, and then read this:

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn’t been previously reported, is an example of the industry’s outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

“Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC,” said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. “Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want.”

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company’s opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state’s power plants.

“Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system,” Webber said. “Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down.”

Emphasis mine. You can be sure that the Capitol will be swarming with energy company lobbyists for the rest of the session. But then, Dan Patrick is “not in the business of trying to tell everyone what to do”, so don’t be surprised when he fails to deliver any tangible results.

The economic hardship of the freeze

We may have power and water again (mostly), but some things that were lost can’t easily be gotten back.

Last Tuesday, as Houston temperatures hovered below freezing for much of the day, Gloria Sanchez’s lights — and heat — cut off and on. For Sanchez and millions of other Texans, necessities usually taken for granted — including warmth, water and access to food — had suddenly been thrown into question. Then she got a call from her manager at one of the two jobs she works to make ends meet. Bath & Bodyworks would close because of unsafe driving conditions.

With that, 32 hours of wages disappeared.

“It broke my heart,” Sanchez said. “Because I knew my check was going to come out short.”

The winter storm will likely cost the country $50 billion in damage and economic loss, according to an estimate from forecasting company Accuweather. Much of the economic impact will be felt by hourly workers like Sanchez, economists said.

“You need to think about what’s permanently gone and what has just been delayed,” said Patrick Jankowski, an economist at the Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group.

Oil and gas production can ramp back up to meet demand. Sanchez’s 32 hours without pay are gone forever.

[…]

“It’s a kick while you’re down to all of the service industries, restaurants and others who were already battling through the pandemic,” said Peter Rodriguez, an economist and dean of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “So regrettably, it really exacerbates the pain for them, more than it creates new pains for other industries in particular.”

Last week had to have been especially tough for restaurants and retail, which have been dealing with the pandemic for a year already. Support your favorite neighborhood places, they could really use it right now. The one bit of good news for workers is that the federal COVID relief bill, which will include the additional $1,400 payments to many people, is on track to be passed soon. It may still take some time for the funds to actually get out to the recipients, though. It’s just going to be rough for a lot of folks this month.

The longer-term picture has some warning signs, too.

As for long term impacts, Rice’s Rodriguez fears employers may think twice about relocating their businesses, both to Texas generally and to Houston — no stranger to natural disasters — in particular. He said the prolonged outages could make it look like the state has unreliable infrastructure.

“It’s true that this is very rare, but that’s not the way it will play into the memories of people making investment decisions,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll wonder about just our overall ability to manage crises.”

We really need to get our act together. No one who hasn’t guzzled the Kool-Aid is still talking about Texas exceptionalism with a straight face.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

President Biden will visit Houston on Friday

Here he comes.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden plans to come to Texas on Friday in the wake of extensive winter storm damage in the state.

The president and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Houston, according to a White House announcement. Biden has engaged from afar with state and local officials but stated a reluctance to come to Texas too soon because he didn’t want his traveling entourage to pull resources from the crisis at hand.

“When the president lands in a city in America it has a long tail,” he told reporters on Friday.

At a briefing soon after the announcement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden would “meet with local leaders to discuss the winter storm, relief efforts, progress toward recovery and the incredible resilience shown by the people of Houston and Texas.”

“While in Texas, the president will also visit a COVID health center where vaccines are being distributed,” she said.

Psaki said more details of the trip are coming together and that the White House will have further information soon.

See here for the background. I’m sure Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo will be among those “local leaders”. I remain curious as to whether any Republicans will care to meet with him. I expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick will have been invited, but who knows what they will do. There was a time when this would not have been particularly mysterious, but here we are. The Chron has more.

Suing Griddy

This is going to be interesting.

A Chambers County resident filed a class-action lawsuit against electricity retailer Griddy on Monday, accusing the provider of price gouging customers during last week’s freeze. She is seeking $1 billion in relief for affected customers.

Attorneys for Lisa Khoury said in the lawsuit that her bill spiked to $9,340 the week of the storm, compared to her average monthly bills that range from $200 to $250. Griddy drafted payments from Khoury’s bank account several times, according to the lawsuit, pulling $1,200 before she blocked further charges from her bank. She still owes thousands.

Griddy passes wholesale electricity rates directly to customers, who in turn pay the company $10 a month. This differs from fixed-rate electricity plans which offer a consistent rate regardless of market conditions.

But because of a price hike fueled by a shortage of supply and skyrocketing demand, some customers were faced with bills charging tens of thousands of dollars. While electricity bills are likely to rise across the board, Texans on variable rate plans faced immediate and alarmingly high prices.

Texas’ Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9 per kilo-watt hour — a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour — in response to rising demand. The hope was power generators would be enticed to produce more electricity.

“Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply,” the order stated.

Representatives for Griddy could not immediately be reached for comment. The electricity retailer addressed concerns of price gouging on its website and firmly placed the blame on the Public Utility Commission. The company states that it did not profit from raised prices.

A quick perusal of Griddy’s Twitter shows that they are blaming the PUC, and that they did suggest alternate electricity providers for their customers to switch to during freeze days; there are several news stories, including this one that ran in the Chron, about that as well.

This is one of those situations where the system is working exactly as designed – here are a couple of stories that explain the mechanics of this. I guess the courts could rule that what the PUC did violated the state’s laws on price gouging, but that seems like a stretch to me. I Am Not A Lawyer, so if you know better than me, please speak up.

More likely, there will be some kind of legislative solution to this. This Trib story goes into that option.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas lawmakers are promising relief for Texans hit with massive electric bills after a winter storm bludgeoned the state’s power grid, leaving millions of residents freezing without electricity.

But how they’ll accomplish that remains unclear. The state’s deregulated electricity market not only allows for staggering price spikes, but effectively compels them for some customers.

While many Texans are on “fixed rate” electricity plans that insulate them from market swings, others pay rates tied to the spot price of wholesale electricity, which skyrocketed during the storm.

As the bad weather bore down, it froze natural gas production and wind turbines, choking off the supply of electricity as demand skyrocketed. In response, the Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, let the wholesale market price of electricity rise to $9 per kilo-watt hour, a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour.

The rate hike was supposed to entice power generators to get more juice into the grid, but the astounding costs were also passed directly on to some customers, who were suddenly being billed more for electricity each day than they normally pay in a month.

[…]

Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the costs would be passed on to customers one way or another.

“If they [the electric provider] don’t have a mechanism that allows them to do that in the immediate — like on the next bill or the next several bills — it’ll end up getting rolled into the overall cost of service,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to get passed on in an immediate way, in a shocking way … or spread out over time.”

Tim Morstad, associate state director with the Texas AARP, said “prices are going to rise” but with a delay for those not on variable rate plans.

“Forgive me for stepping back to say — this system is truly designed to have high prices and huge fluctuations. And putting consumers through that by design is a bad process. It’s setting people up for pain,” he said.

Texas has an unusually deregulated electricity market that’s touted for offering customers the ability to pick from hundreds of plans offered by dozens of electric providers. Parts of the state are carved out, including cities like Austin, that get energy from a municipally owned utility, or people served by cooperatives. Those too could see cost increases down the line.

Lawmakers and Abbott have pledged to protect consumers from the big bills, and excoriated the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the outages last week. The reliability council, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, is overseen by a Public Utility Commission.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about what options were on the table.

Lawmakers have demanded that the utility commission roll back its decision to allow the huge rate increases, or suggested cobbling together some package of emergency waivers or relief money to buffer Texans’ from the high bills.

“We cannot allow someone to exploit a market when they were the ones responsible for the dire consequences in the first place,” said state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa.

I have no idea what Abbott will suggest. He’s nobody’s picture of a creative thinker, and “solving problems” is not in his skill set. I’m hardly an expert either, but it seems to me that the first order of business is to prevent people from getting multi-thousand-dollar electric bills, and the simplest way to do that is probably just to order everyone’s bill capped at some value that relates to their usual experience, and have the state pick up the difference since the providers do in fact have the legal right to charge these amounts. That’s the easy part. The much harder question, at least for the leadership we are stuck with, is what to do about it for the future. That either involves some form of re-regulation that puts limits on how “free” the electricity market is, or ignoring it and hoping you survive electorally. I know what I’d do, but I’m not a Republican. Good luck with that.

One more thing, as long as we are talking about freeze/blackout-related lawsuits:

The family of an 11-year-old boy who died last week in Conroe during power outages while Texas endured a freezing winter storm is suing Entergy Texas and operator of the state’s power grid for a total of $100 million.

In the lawsuit filed Saturday, the family said Cristian Pineda died of hypothermia after the temperature in his house plunged due to the forced blackouts. Pineda’s family of five shared a single room for warmth, and Cristian shared a bed with his younger brother, the lawsuit states.

His family found Cristian unresponsive in the morning. The Houston Chronicle first reported news of the lawsuit.

The family is suing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the decentralized electrical grid system. The Texas grid is not governed by federal regulations.

As the story notes, our old buddy Tony Buzbee is filing this lawsuit, along with at least seven others, against ERCOT. Whether or not he can do that is an open question.

ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

The ruling by the high court will have widespread implications in the wake of last week’s blackouts. It would not only determine whether Texans can use the legal system to hold ERCOT accountable for power outages that led to more than 48 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage, but also the future of ERCOT and the state’s power markets if the court opens the door to the likely flood of lawsuits.

[…]

“The political rhetoric around ERCOT and the weather emergency has embraced transparency and accountability,” Rottinghaus said. “A ruling that holds ERCOT immune from such lawsuits may run against that. It could be a political liability.”

Panda Power filed suit in 2016 against ERCOT, alleging the grid operator issued “seriously flawed or rigged” energy demand projections that prompted the Dallas power company to invest $2.2 billion to build three power plants early last decade. The plants ended up losing billions of dollars, with one forced into bankruptcy.

ERCOT’s reports calling for more power generators came in the aftermath of a major ice storm in February 2011, which crippled Texas power plants and forced rolling blackouts across the state.

Panda Power’s case was halted in 2018 when an appeals court in Dallas asserted ERCOT was protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The Texas Supreme Court in June 2020 said it would review the appellate court decision, heard the case in September 2020 and is expected to render a decision before it recesses in June.

We’ll see about that. There’s definitely some pressure, on the courts and on the Lege and on Greg Abbott, to Do Something about all this – and again, I remind you, that the “all this” in question is what was supposed to happen based on existing laws. How long that pressure lasts, and what happens if there are no legal or legislative outlets for it, that’s the big political question.

UPDATE: Multiple ERCOT board members have resigned. All are folks who did not live in Texas, which yes is one of the weirder things about ERCOT. Not directly related to this story, but this is as good a place as any to note it.

On informing the public during an emergency

Another thing the state didn’t do well.

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

[…]

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” [Austin resident Suzanne] Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

We received numerous alerts from the city of Houston and Harris County, before and during the disaster. There were automated calls to the landline and to our cells, plus emergency alerts on the cell and emails. Not all of these worked during power and Internet or cellular outages, but a lot of people still have good old-fashioned landlines (ours is now VOIP and so less useful at these times, but we still had those other methods). If power and cable are down, AM/FM radio still works. There were plenty of options available to the state, and there’s no reason why a lot of information couldn’t have been broadcast by all available means well in advance of the freeze. Space City Weather was warning about arctic conditions five days in advance of Monday’s frigid temps. Not everyone will get the message, of course, and not all who do will heed it, but a lot more could have been done. It’s of a piece with the overall lack of planning to keep the electric grid up and running in the first place.

Even worse than all that is stuff like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office has heard from the White House during this week’s winter freeze, but Gov. Greg Abbott has not reached out at all.

The mayor first raised the lack of communication in an interview Friday morning with MSNBC, telling Stephanie Ruhle he had not heard from the governor’s office as millions went without power and water this week.

“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis,” Turner said. “I have not talked to the governor, but we’re pushing forward.”

At a press conference later Friday morning, Turner said the state has sent National Guard troops to help staff a warming center at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Texas Department of Transportation also has been “very, very helpful,” the mayor said.

“Between TxDOT and the National Guard, they have provided some assistance,” Turner said.

Asked whether he or his staff has reached out to Abbott, Turner said: “I have been very laser-focused on dealing with the situation right here in the city of Houston. The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”

It’s not just Mayor Turner and Houston that have been ignored by Greg Abbott. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have said the same thing. I don’t even know what to think about that. I have no idea what Abbott is doing. He was actually pretty visible during Hurricane Harvey, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do this sort of thing, and he surely knows that being out in front of an emergency and being visibly in charge and helping others is a boon to one’s image (unlike some other politicians I could name). But by far the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by local officials and third parties. It’s beyond bizarre.

The traveling Paxtons

Seriously?

Ski bunny

While millions of Texans languished in their homes last week without heat, many of them racking up astronomical electricity bills, the state official in charge of consumer protection left to take an out-of-state trip.

According to a campaign spokesman, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton left the state during the middle of the power outage crisis to meet with a fellow attorney general in Utah for a “previously planned meeting.” Hs wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, was also on the trip, reported the Dallas Morning News, which first broke the story.

The revelation marks the third instance of a Texas public official leaving the state during the disaster that affected nearly every one of the state’s 254 counties.

[…]

Ken Paxton spokesman Ian Prior said that Paxton met with Utah AG Sean Reyes to discuss several matters, including their multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

Reyes’ spokesman Richard Piatt confirmed that Paxton was in Salt Lake City for meetings on Wednesday and Friday, and had “lengthy discussions” on the Google case.

Prior said Paxton also attended a demonstration of Utah’s law enforcement scenario simulator, which includes a wide variety of situations law enforcement must deal with and is used for training. He said Paxton is considering the program for Texas. Reyes said that meeting would have taken place in the suburb of Murray, about a 15-minute drive away.

“While there, AG Paxton had a number of meetings with the Utah Attorney General over the course of several days,” Prior said. “I cannot further share additional details or the specific reasons on the need for the meeting concerning Google as it involves an ongoing investigation.”

Prior did not respond to questions about the timing of the Paxton’s trip, why the trip was not postponed or whether taxpayers funded the trip.

I’ll bet he didn’t. Not likely to be any good answers to those questions. Oh, and did we mention that Mrs. Paxton, a/k/a State Sen. Angela Paxton, was also there?

On the day of Paxton’s Wednesday meeting, the state’s electrical grid operator reported 2.7 million households in Texas remained without power. Water infrastructure in many cities was also being strained. By Thursday, nearly half the state had had its water disrupted in some way. Many lost running water altogether, while others were issued boil-water notices.

“AG Paxton did lose power, but did not leave Texas until after power had returned to most of the state, including his own home,” Prior said in a statement.

Follow up questions about whether the attorney general was back in Texas on Monday were not answered.

A spokesperson for Angela Paxton confirmed that she was also on the trip, which she said “included meetings that benefit her efforts to promote human dignity and support law enforcement.”

While away, Ken Paxton’s office did send a handful of advisories about his office’s plans to investigate the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — the state’s grid operator — “and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather.”

“We will get to the bottom of this power failure and I will tirelessly pursue justice for Texans,” he said in a press release Friday. The release made no mention of his whereabouts.

I’m sure you’re aware that I have a very low opinion of the Paxtons, as I do of Ted Cruz and all the other malfunctioning members of our Republican state government who have no call to service. But even I would have expected them to have slightly better political instincts than this. State Rep. Chris Turner speaks for me:

I don’t begrudge people a certain amount of business travel, but come on. This very easily could have been done remotely, and let’s not forget we are still in a pandemic, which makes any kind of air travel highly questionable at this time. And all of that is before the refusal to answer questions about the specifics of this little jaunt. What is wrong with these people? The Current has more.

Have Texas Republicans finally damaged themselves?

Some of them have. How much remains to be seen.

The brutal winter storm that turned Texas roads to ice, burst pipes across the state and left millions of residents shivering and without power has also damaged the reputations of three of the state’s leading Republicans.

Sen. Ted Cruz was discovered to have slipped off to Mexico on Wednesday night, only to announce his return when he was caught in the act. Gov. Greg Abbott came under fire over his leadership and misleading claims about the causes of the power outages. And former Gov. Rick Perry suggested Texans preferred power failures to federal regulation, a callous note in a moment of widespread suffering.

It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians. The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage.

“Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,” JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with POLITICO.

“The Texas electric grid is not secure,” said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers “have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),” but “every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge … Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.”

[…]

Democrats sought to heighten the contrast between Cruz and his 2018 Senate opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, by pointing out that the senator went to Cancun and tweeted about the death of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh while his former rival stayed in El Paso and tried to marshal his social media followers to help fellow Texans.

“It’s extremely important in governing and politics to be seen doing things,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas Republican strategist. “It’s important to be seen leading.”

Steinhauser said Abbott established himself as a leader in previous crises but took longer after the storm because he “had to find his footing. At first, he probably didn’t think the blackouts would last as long as they did.”

We’re at peak bad news for these guys – and now you can add State Rep. Gary Gates to that list – but who knows how long it will last. It’s also hard to take anything JoAnn Fleming says seriously, as she’s one of the major wingnut power brokers in North Texas. It’s one thing for someone like her to be mad at these guys, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to vote for a Democrat against them.

And that’s ultimately what this comes down to. Greg Abbott doesn’t have an opponent yet (though hold on, we’ll get back to that in a minute), Ted Cruz isn’t on any ballot until 2024, and Rick Perry is a Dancing with the Stars has-been. If there’s anger at them for their words and deeds and lack of action, that’s great, but it only goes so far. What if anything will this be channeled into?

One possible vehicle until such time as there’s a candidate running against Greg Abbott is President Biden. He’s done all the Presidential things to help Texas recover, and he’s coming for a visit next week, both of which have the chance to make people like him a little bit more. This is an opportunity for him as an example of good leadership, and also for future legislative proposals. If that translates into better approval/favorability numbers for Biden in Texas, that should help the Democratic slate next year. The longer the national GOP remains in disarray as well, the better.

The leadership example, if it can stand as a contrast to what Abbott et al have been doing, can serve as the baseline argument in 2022 and beyond for change in our state government.

What happened over the last four or five days, as the state became the subject of national and international pity and head-shaking, could undo years of economic development promotion, corporate relocation work and tourism campaigns.

It makes it a lot easier on the competition. Who wants to go to a failed state? Sure, there is no income tax. But we’re rationing gas, turning off electricity for millions of households and boiling water so it doesn’t poison us. Austin even closed a hospital and moved the patients when they couldn’t rely on heat or water.

In a hospital.

The light regulation here has been a key part of the business pitch. But the dark side was showing this week in the failures of our basic infrastructure.

Electricity here is cheaper than many other places, and it works, most of the time. But at some point, the corners we cut to keep electricity prices low turn into reliability problems. The cost-cutting shows up in the quality of the product. And the product, when it comes to infrastructure, is critical to the quality of life and the economy.

It’s a great state with a faltering state government. The political people running things too often worry more about their popularity than about their work. Too many of them are better at politics than they are at governing. And governing is the only real reason any of the rest of us have any interest in them.

Putting that another way:

Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.

I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.

During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.

I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.

This is an opportunity for someone to say “It doesn’t have to be like this” and maybe get heard in a way that’s been nigh-impossible for Texas Democrats in recent years, Beto in 2018 semi-excepted. Even if the main effect is to make normal Republican voters less excited about supporting their team in 2022, that helps too.

But first we need someone to step up and make that argument. We know Beto is thinking about it, and at last report, Julian Castro was not inclined to run. But that Politico story also has this tidbit:

“Whether it’s Abbott’s failed response or Cruz’s abandoning of our state, we shouldn’t put people in charge of government who don’t believe in government. They fail us every time,” said former federal Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a Democrat who’s considering a bid against Abbott or Cruz.

Emphasis mine. Who knows what that means, or how it’s sourced. I mean, despite that earlier story about Castro, he’s a potential candidate until he’s not. Who even knows if Ted Cruz will run for re-election in 2024 – we all know he wants to run for President again, however ridiculous that may sound now – so considering a bid against Abbott is the only one that makes sense. I’d like to hear him say those words himself before I believe it, but I feel duty-bound to note that paragraph. We can hope from there.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

Now we get to worry about food

Because the supply chain also suffered from the massive power outages.

Now would be a good time to donate

The state’s week of weather hell started with a deadly 133-car pileup outside of Fort Worth. A winter storm unlike any Texas has ever seen quickly followed, and seven days later, millions are without power and reliable water.

And now Texans are running out of food. From farm to table, freezing temperatures and power outages are disrupting the food supply chain that people rely on every day.

Across the state, people are using up supplies they had stockpiled and losing more as items start to spoil in dark refrigerators. Some are storing their remaining rations in coolers outside, and trips to the grocery store often do little to replenish pantries.

“It was out of meat, eggs and almost all milk before I left,” Cristal Porter, an Austin resident, said about her local Target which she visited Monday. “Lines were wrapped around the store when we arrived. … Shelves were almost fully cleared for potatoes, meat, eggs and some dairy.”

Two days later, one of Porter’s neighbors went to that same Target, and the store was completely out of food, with no sign of additional shipments arriving or employees restocking shelves.

With grocery stores across the state shuttered for lack of power, supermarkets that remain open have seen supplies dwindle, shortages that ripple over to food pantries that count on grocery store surplus to keep their own shelves stocked.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley have frozen over in what The Produce News described as a “Valentine’s Day produce massacre.” School districts from Fort Worth to Houston have halted meal distributions to students for the next several days, and Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said dairy farmers around the state are pouring $8 million worth of milk down the drain every day because they can’t get it to dairies.

Celia Cole, the CEO of hunger-relief organization Feeding Texas, said that so far, eight food banks have asked the state for extra help feeding their communities. Several food banks affiliated with Feeding Texas have also started providing food supplies to emergency warming shelters in the state’s major cities. Wednesday afternoon, the Central Food Bank of Texas canceled its deliveries scheduled for Thursday in Austin and Rockdale.

“The Food Bank’s fleet, equipment, facilities and operations have been adversely impacted by the extremely low temperatures, and hazardous road conditions are hindering our staff and volunteers from getting to our building safely,” the organization announced in a media alert. “These conditions are also keeping us from distributing food safely.”

[…]

Between the current strain on grocery stores and the potential for huge damages to the state’s agricultural sector, this storm could hamper food access for weeks to come. Miller and Cole emphasized that it’s impossible to know the extent of the losses until power returns, but the food supply will continue to drain unless farmers and stores get electricity back soon.

“They’ve been very, very badly hit – the agricultural sector, generally —by the pandemic, so they’re already struggling,” Cole said. “And so I think although the impact if the power gets restored quickly might not be huge in absolute terms, it’s hitting a sector that’s already reeling from the pandemic.”

There’s likely not much that we could have done about the effect the weather had on the crops and animals themselves. But the loss of power, and the extreme disruption it has caused not just in people’s daily lives but in the food supply chain, that’s a risk that cannot be considered acceptable. I’ve gone into this plenty of times now and won’t repeat myself here, but it’s important to keep the human misery factor in mind as much as the actual dollars-and-cents cost of this past week. That’s as good a segue as any to this reminder that the Houston Food Bank needs all the help it can get right now to meet the need caused by the storm and the blackouts.

Like many others in Harris County, residents at Big Bass Resort in Jacinto City had run low on groceries by Thursday. After the winter storm iced roads and kept millions holed up without water and power, Texas officials anticipate major food shortages in the days and weeks to come, prompting the Houston Food Bank to kick start mass food giveaways that are already ramping up through the weekend.

Calls from residents in need have led the food bank to expect long lines at facilities where its partner groups distribute their food. The food bank has a massive reach across southeast Texas, with 159 million meals provided across 18 counties during the past fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Paula Murphy.

“The food bank and all the partners we work with, we’re almost like the last resort,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of the organization. “It can, for a lot of households, be the difference between getting by and tragedy.”

Aside from any issues grocery stores might have restocking their shelves, most food shortages equate to income shortages, Greene said. Families who were already struggling financially – some still recovering from past floods and others laid off during the pandemic – might be experiencing rougher situations after losing a week’s worth of income due to an inability to work during the freeze.

Some money that was spent on food before the storm likely went to waste, as a lack of electricity caused refrigerated or frozen items to spoil, Greene said. And unforseen expenses from building damage can make affording food difficult.

Greene expects food shortages to mirror experiences during hurricanes. A large number of households need aid in the first few days after a storm, and then the number trickles down to low-income households that sustained significant damage, he said.

Because of the anticipated needs, Harris County officials have urged out-of-state supporters to donate to the food bank.

“Even as the lights come back on, we’re facing a food and water crisis in Harris County, Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted Thursday.

If you’re not Ted Cruz and are looking for a way to help go to and make a donation or sign up to volunteer. Direct your out-of-town friends and family who want to help there as well. This really is like the immediate after-effect of a hurricane.

We also have to worry about water

Hopefully not for too much longer.

On Friday, as the ice melted and lights flickered back on in homes and businesses across the state, Texans were melting snow into their toilet tanks and mopping up water from busted pipes.

The state’s power outage disaster had firmly transitioned into a water crisis.

The state’s power grid operators declared the worst is behind us, as most Texans have their power restored and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is no longer calling for forced outages. They said residents can resume normal consumption of electricity.

But about half of the states’ population is still battling water infrastructure problems because of the cold weather — made worse as temperatures ticked up above freezing leading to pipes and water lines bursting.

For Texans who do have water, millions are being told to boil it before consuming in cities across the state including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The state is accelerating efforts to restore water to Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Friday press conference. The state will connect overloaded local facilities with other labs to expedite clean-water testing efforts and grow the number of plumbers available to fix broken pipes, he said.

More than 1,180 public water systems in 160 counties reported disruptions from the winter storms, affecting 14.6 million people as of Friday morning, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.

“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”

Water pressure improved noticeably at our house from Friday to Saturday – it feels pretty close to normal now, though I can’t say for certain. There’s likely a lot of stress on the system as well, as people who are newly back in their powered homes are showering and washing dishes and laundry. It’s hard to resist, but do try to keep your usage modest for the next few days.

Of course, if your pipes are busted, you’re not using any water anyway.

City and county leaders on Friday said tens of thousands of area residents and business owners suffered burst water pipes or other damage from the winter storm this week, with the resulting property damage likely costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Harris County engineer’s office estimated 55,000 homes in unincorporated portions of the county likely have pipe damage. The city reported it has received some 4,900 calls to its 311 system for water breaks, a figure officials said likely pales in comparison to the number of residents who have not reported the damage to City Hall.

“That number is higher, probably much higher,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that many people — including himself and some City Council members — shut off their water without calling the city. “There are still breaks that exist in our city that have yet to be reported, and the water is still running.”

With power restored to nearly all residents, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the most serious problems remain access to water and food.

“We’ve been in touch with the major grocery stores, and they said the supply chains will catch up by this weekend,” Hidalgo said. “The issue, of course, is hoarding. So, I’ve been asking folks to only purchase what they need for their own families.”

Turner has said the city will work with the county to launch a fund to help residents confront the costs of repairing their pipes and the damage water has done to their homes, though details on that fund have not been announced yet.

The major disaster declaration may help with that as well. We dealt with busted pipes on Thursday – we were fortunate that our regular plumber put his regular customers at the top of his priority list, and that meant he could deal with us. We had something like nine cracked pipes, all under the house, all now replaced. Not cheap, but we’re in a position to be able to afford it. (The total amount was less than the deductible on our homeowners insurance, so it was all on us to pay, in case you were wondering.) Lots of people are going to need help with their repairs, and they should get it with as little resistance or red tape as possible.

We should also remember, it can always be worse.

Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.

The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.

That story is from Monday, before we all froze solid. I’m sure the frigid weather, and the fact that you can’t fix water than has benzene in it by boiling it, has made the situation that much worse. I don’t know how things are today in San Angelo, but I sure hope those folks are getting the help they need.

Here comes President Biden

Visiting next week for disaster-related matters, itinerary TBD.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden said Friday that he’ll sign a major disaster declaration for Texas after millions in the state suffered power outages and water disruptions during prolonged freezing temperatures. He’s also expected to visit Texas soon.

Biden already signed an emergency declaration for Texas on Feb. 14, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide the state with critical equipment, like generators, and other resources like water and diesel to alleviate the effects of the disaster. A major disaster declaration is distinct from an emergency declaration. It essentially provides a wider range of assistance through “federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure.”

“I’m going to sign that declaration once it’s in front of me,” he said Friday.

An emergency declaration functions as a supplement to state and local emergency services, while a major disaster declaration is issued if the president determines a disaster “has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond,” according to FEMA’s website.

The declaration allows for various assistance programs at the discretion of the governor’s specific request, and it can include programs for crisis counseling, disaster case management, disaster unemployment assistance and legal services, among others. Biden told reporters on Friday that he has already directed various federal agencies, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, to continue assisting Texans through the crisis.

The major disaster declaration has been singed. Nice to have a President who doesn’t require some bizarre loyalty tests before performing the normal duties of serving the public, isn’t it? I seem to recall President Obama was like that, too – it’s hard to remember things from so many millions of years ago, but that’s the way I remember it. I will be very interested to see who besides Greg Abbott, who I presume will have to be there, will greet him. Might be a bit awkward, what with the whole sedition-and-insurrection thing. Dan Patrick might chip a tooth, he’d be gritting his teeth so hard. If we don’t get at least one meme-worthy photo out of this, I will be mildly disappointed. Anyway, maybe there will be a public appearance or two, so keep your calendar open.

Republicans are determined to learn the wrong lessons from the blackouts

It’s kind of amazing, and yet completely on brand.

With millions of Texans having lost power during the winter storms, key players in the Legislature say one of the most immediate reforms they will push for is recalibrating the state’s electricity grid to ensure more fossil fuels are in that mix and fewer renewables.

While all energy sources were disrupted during the historic freeze, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature say renewables have been given all the attention over the years, yet proved to be unhelpful during the state’s crisis.

“It’s cool to be into wind and solar these days, but the problem is it leaves us frigid in the winter,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who leads the GOP caucus in the Texas Senate.

Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said most of the generating plants that went offline this week were natural gas, coal or nuclear facilities. But still, Republicans have singled out wind and solar as targets over the objections of Democrats and renewable energy advocates.

Texas utilities ratepayers have funded more than $7 billion over the last eight years building transmission lines to take wind power from West Texas to the big cities. It’s made Texas the biggest wind producer in the nation.

But Bettencourt and other Republicans say advantages like federal subsidies for wind and solar have to be evened out.

“We need a baseload energy generation strategy in Texas that is reliable and not based upon renewables so strongly,” he said.

Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, this week reupped a bill he filed last session that would require ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission to write rules that would “eliminate or compensate for market distortion caused by certain federal tax credits.”

“It’s not just the frozen wind turbines; it’s the fact that they even exist that is creating the problem,” said Patterson, who works as an energy consultant. “Their existence, their heavily subsidized existence on our grid is creating a shortage of energy supply because no one else can compete against them.”

[…]

Blaming renewables is misguided and politically motivated, said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

“There is no energy source that doesn’t receive subsidies,” Shelley said. “There have been energy tax credits for fossil fuel sources for a hundred years, so to target the renewable tax credit … it’s pretty disingenuous.”

[…]

But while there may be reforms to ERCOT, not many Republicans are talking about the prospect of ordering the state’s nearly 700 power plants to invest in weatherization and what that would cost.

ERCOT officials said earlier this week in a statewide press conference that while it was recommended power plants weatherize after winter storms in 2011 knocked out power, those were voluntary requests and not mandatory.

Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat and senior mechanical engineer in the oil and gas industry, said he is working on legislation that would build in more reserve energy supply for Texas, such as by hooking up the state to the nationally interconnected system, or offering financial incentives for providers to increase back-up power.

Rosenthal would also like to see reliability standards introduced that require generators to weatherize their systems. He said he knows that adding more regulations will be an uphill battle in the Republican-majority Legislature but believes there is a “happy medium” that can be struck.

“While the common argument ‘we don’t want regulation so we can provide electricity as cheaply as possible’ does provide cheap energy a lot of the time, these disasters are horrendously expensive,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve heard insurance folks saying this could be the costliest ever natural disaster in Texas. So you make a little bit of an investment in your infrastructure to ensure that you don’t have these disastrous consequences.”

He added: “And it’s not just the cost of it. It’s the human suffering.”

How it is that they could have missed the voluminous reporting about how the same freeze we all just endured also caused problems for gas and coal plants since they both involve water and that water was frozen solid is an eternal mystery, but here we are. We’ve literally had thirty years’ of warnings about the need to weatherize our power plants and wind turbines, and this is the response we get from Paul Bettencourt and his cronies. It would cost money – I forget where I read this now, but I saw one back-of-the-envelope estimate of about $2 billion for the whole system – but that can be paid in part by the power generators and in part by the state, with cash from the Rainy Day Fund or a bond issuance if need be.

Doing that might require changing the financial incentives for the operators, and it might require shudder regulating the energy market – certainly, ERCOT or some other governing body will need enforcement power, because simply asking the operators nicely to invest in weatherizing hasn’t worked so far – and it even might require rejoining the national power grid, which has its own pros and cons but would come with federal enforcement of weatherization standards. There are many viable options. We don’t have to choose the stupid, head-in-the-frozen-tundra option that Bettencourt et al seem hellbent on doing.

One more thing, which I find equal parts amusing and puzzling: All this antagonism towards wind energy seems to overlook the fact that a large number of wind farms and turbines are in the Panhandle and West Texas, easily two of the most Republican parts of the state. Do these Republican legislators and other currently trashing wind energy – the Observer quotes a Facebook post by Sid Miller that says “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas”, for instance – not realize that they’re kicking sand on their own people? I don’t even know what to make of that, but I do know that part of the 2022 Democratic message needs to be targeted at those folks. Texas Monthly has more.

The “public service” part of being a public servant

It’s not that hard, though obviously some people make it look easier than others.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [flew] to Houston [Friday] with more than $2 million to help Texas recover from a week of catastrophic blackouts and water outages.

“I’ll be flying to Texas today to visit with Houston Rep. Sylvia Garcia to distribute supplies and help amplify needs & solutions,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Friday morning.

Earlier in the week, Ocasio-Cortez sent out fundraising appeals to her massive campaign donor network and her nearly 13 million social media followers.

“Please chip in what you can afford today and 100% of your donation will automatically be split between these organizations on the ground providing immediate relief,” the fundraising pitch said.

Those organizations include the Houston Food Bank, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, Family Eldercare, Feeding Texas, Corazon Ministries, Central Texas Food Bank, North Texas Food Bank and Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.

Very nice. Also of note:

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and his wife, Reagan, are partnering with the Astros Foundation and Brothers Produce to distribute 18,000 cases of water on Saturday at the Astros Youth Academy.

The event will be a drive-through and a limit of two cases of water per car is in place. Distribution will begin at 9 a.m. and last until cases run out.

The Astros Youth Academy is located at 2801 S. Victory Drive.

Also very nice. And one more:

My point here is that one of the defenses of Ted Cruz that was put forth by various sycophants is that he’s just a plain ol’ US Senator, he doesn’t actually do anything, so why shouldn’t he go off to Cancun for a couple of days while everyone else is freezing in the dark with no potable water? He’s useless and impotent, and no one will miss him. I mean, they’re not wrong in their characterization of Ted Cruz, but they are definitely wrong about the potential for good that someone who is not at all like Ted Cruz can do. You don’t even have to be a public servant to do good, you just have to want to do good and find a way to do it. It’s not that hard, if you’re not like Ted Cruz.

UPDATE: Okay, I stand corrected. Ted Cruz can be good for something after all.

Country music artist Kacey Musgraves is trying to channel the anger over Sen. Ted Cruz’s widely criticized Cancun jaunt into relief for his constituents suffering through Texas’ snowmageddon.

The Lone Star State-based singer is selling a T-shirt on her website to raise money for those affected by the freeze while letting purchasers proudly proclaim just how they feel about the state’s widely reviled junior senator.

The tee is a white ringer with the phrase “Cruzin’ for a bruzin’” printed in bold black letters on the front.

“Regardless if you support him, you gotta admit Cancun was a bad look and that this is funny AF,” Musgraves wrote in an Instagram post revealing the design. “I’m HALFWAY to raising $100k for Texans who really need it. All proceeds are being donated.”

They are on sale through tomorrow, so buy one quickly, while they last.

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.

Winter storm/blackout/boil water situation, Day 439

I may be a bit off in my counting of the days, but it’s close enough. Between my house and my in-laws’ house, I have had power for maybe 14 hours total since Monday morning, with a bit more time for Internet thanks to a backup battery we have here that we can plug the cable modem and Eero router into. For obvious reasons, I’m not able to stay on top of the news as a result. The blackouts will continue for at least another day or so, the water needs to be boiled until further notice, we have a cracked water pipe but at least it’s under the house and not inside a wall and we may try to wrap some plumber’s tape on it while we wait in line to get it fixed, but all things considered we are fine. So many people are so much worse off, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating. If there’s anything you can do to help someone in need – friend, neighbor, complete stranger – please do so. We’re all in this together.

With that in mind, allow me to offer a hearty Fuck You to Rick Perry, for suggesting that all of the suffering and deprivation are a justifiable price that we should be willing to pay for not having a more regulated power generation system. I am truly at a loss for words here. May we all remember this in 2022, when we get to vote on who runs our state.

On the subject of ERCOT and the system we do have, let me key in on one part of this conversation with energy expert Joshua Rhodes about why things are the way they are here.

TM: When it comes to frozen wells and wind turbines, or other infrastructure that is physically affected by the cold, are there preventative measures that could have been taken, such as winterizing?

JR: There are plenty of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. It gets a lot colder there than it does here, even today. There are ways of producing gas. All of that infrastructure is site-specific. I would assume it’s more expensive. We could winterize wind turbines better but it would cost more money. We can winterize pipes on power plants, but it would cost more money. We have to decide, what level of risk are we willing to take and what are we willing to pay for?

TM: How could this have been prevented?

JR: Could we have built a grid that would have fared better during this time? Of course we could have. But we could also build a car that could survive every crash you could possibly throw at it, but it would be very expensive and not many people would probably be able to afford it. At some point we do a cost-benefit analysis of how much risk we are willing to take. We have never had weather like this thrown at us, so it’s not surprising to me that we don’t have infrastructure that can support it.

There are no snow plows out on the road. They’d be handy right now, of course, but we don’t use them very often. We don’t have that capability in the state generally because we don’t want to pay for it. We may decide now as a society that we do, but that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have with our collective self, if you will.

I thought Rhodes was way too deferential to the power generation industry overall, but this here is nearly as tone deaf as Perry’s idiocy. Yeah, sure, we can’t prepare for every possible contingency, but surely we can all recognize that a risk that leaves millions of people without power for multiple days in the midst of freezing temperatures is one that we ought to consider mitigating. As someone who works in cyberdefense at a large company, I can assure you we mitigate the hell out of much smaller risks than that. Actual rolling blackouts that leave a modest number of people without power for a couple of hours at a time is one thing. This was very much not that. Worse, it had already happened ten years ago and was studied at the time, yet nothing of any substance was done. This is a heads-must-roll situation. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is part of the problem.

There’s a lot more out there but I only have so much battery life on the laptop. Stay safe, stay warm, and boil that water – if you have it – until told otherwise.

So what’s going on with the power supply?

First, as a personal update, we have been without power at our house since about 7 PM on Monday, and we had no Internet on Tuesday morning. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening from my in-laws’ house, where they have had both since earlier in the day. Maybe by the time you read this we’ll be able to return home, but maybe not. Expect my output to be spotty for the next few days – I happened to have the two Fort Bend posts queued up over the weekend, so that helped. From here on out, it’s up in the air.

Let’s start with the basic question of what went wrong?

Millions of Texans were without heat and electricity Monday as snow, ice and frigid temperatures caused a catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid.

The Texas power grid, powered largely by wind and natural gas, is relatively well equipped to handle the state’s hot and humid summers when demand for power soars. But unlike blistering summers, the severe winter weather delivered a crippling blow to power production, cutting supplies as the falling temperatures increased demand.

Natural gas shortages and frozen wind turbines were already curtailing power output when the Arctic blast began knocking generators offline early Monday morning.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which is responsible for scheduling power and ensuring the reliability of the electrical network, declared a statewide power generation shortfall emergency and asked electricity delivery companies to reduce load through controlled outages.

More than 4 million customers were without power in Texas, including 1.4 million in the Houston area, the worst power crisis in the state in a decade. The forced outages are expected to last at least through part of Tuesday, the state grid manager said.

CenterPoint Energy, the regulated utility that delivers electricity to Houston-area homes and provides natural gas service, started rolling blackouts in the Houston region at the order of state power regulators. It said customers experiencing outages should be prepared to be without power at least through Monday.

“How long is it going to be? I don’t know the answer,” said Kenny Mercado, executive vice president at the Houston utility. “The generators are doing everything they can to get back on. But their work takes time and I don’t know how long it will take. But for us to move forward, we have got to get generation back onto the grid. That is our primary need.”

Dan Woodfin, ERCOT’s senior director of system operations, said the rolling blackouts are taking more power offline for longer periods than ever before. An estimated 34,000 megawatts of power generation — more than a third of the system’s total generating capacity — had been knocked offline by the extreme winter weather amid soaring demand as residents crank up heating systems.

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, blamed the failures on the state’s deregulated power system, which doesn’t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants.

“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” said Hirs. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.

“For more than a decade, generators have not been able to charge what it costs them to produce electricity,” said Hirs. “If you don’t make a return on your money, how can you keep it up? It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”

Woodfin said ERCOT and generators followed best practices for winterization, but the severity of the weather was unprecedented — “well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter.”

The hit to power generation came as frigid weather froze wind turbines and forced outages among natural gas and other power plants. Most of the power knocked offline came from thermal sources, Woodfin said, particularly natural gas.

Yes, the vast bulk of the drop in capacity came from natural gas.

Failures across Texas’ natural gas operations and supply chains due to extreme temperatures are the most significant cause of the power crisis that has left millions of Texans without heat and electricity during the winter storm sweeping the U.S.

From frozen natural gas wells to frozen wind turbines, all sources of power generation have faced difficulties during the winter storm. But Texans largely rely on natural gas for power and heat generation, especially during peak usage, experts said.

Officials for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages most of Texas’ grid, said that the primarily cause of the outages on Tuesday appeared to be the state’s natural gas providers. Many are not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production.

By some estimates, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures, while freezing components at natural gas-fired power plants have forced some operators to shut down.

“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. While he said all of Texas’ energy sources share blame for the power crisis — at least one nuclear power plant has partially shut down, most notably — the natural gas industry is producing significantly less power than normal.

“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Webber said.

More than half of ERCOT’s winter generating capacity, largely powered by natural gas, was offline due to the storm, an estimated 45 gigawatts, according to Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.

The outages during this storm far exceeded what ERCOT had predicted in November for an extreme winter event. The forecast for peak demand was 67 gigawatts; peak usage during the storm was more than 69 gigawatts on Sunday.

It’s estimated that about 80% of the grid’s capacity, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity, or six gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.

Woodfin said Tuesday that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, is offline and that 30 gigawatts of thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy, is offline.

So don’t blame wind, or at least don’t blame it more than you blame gas. And wherever you’re from, remember to have a little compassion for the suffering of others. Don’t be like this, and especially don’t be like this.

It’s been a long day, and like much of the state, I’m out of energy. If you want to read more, Bloomberg and Gizmodo and other sources are out there. I understand that the ERCOT situation has now been added to the list of emergency items for the Lege to consider. I’d suggest that it’s the only real emergency among those items, and it’s not going to be fixed without a major overhaul of the kind that this Legislature and this Governor will not accept, but at least it’s on the agenda. Assuming they can restore power to the Capitol in time for them to do anything about it, of course. Stay warm and safe, y’all.

UPDATE: Here’s some cheerful news.

Texas’ power grid operators can’t predict when outages might end, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials said Tuesday.

As of 6 p.m. more than 3 million Texans, many of them in North Texas, are enduring extended outages as icy conditions have settled in across the region.

ERCOT, the agency that oversees the state’s power grid, is trying to avoid a total blackout by instructing utility companies, including Oncor Electric Delivery, to cut power to customers.

“We needed to step in and make sure that we were not going to end up with Texas in a blackout, which could keep folks without power — not just some people without power but everyone in our region without power — for much, much longer than we believe this event is going to last, as long and as difficult as this event is right now,” ERCOT CEO Bill Magness said.

When reporters pressed for a timeline, he and Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin could not say how much longer the outages would last. An uncontrolled blackout could leave Texans without power for “an indeterminate amount of time,” maybe a month, Magness said.

We’re going to need some better answers than that.

These blackouts don’t roll

How it started.

Texas’ electrical grid operator is implementing rolling blackouts across most of the state Monday after a massive winter storm brought unprecedented demand for electricity and forced multiple power-generating units offline.

The blackouts began at 1:25 a.m. Central time. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said they would likely last “throughout the morning and could be initiated until this weather emergency ends.”

“Every grid operator and every electric company is fighting to restore power right now,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said in a press release.

The blackouts are designed to reduce demand for electricity until capacity can be restored. ERCOT officials hinted on Sunday that they might be necessary, saying they’d most likely last between 10 minutes to 45 minutes at a time.

How it’s going:

We’ve been without power for 2.5 hours as I write this – we have some battery backup to keep the WiFi going and recharge devices, but not much more than that. They say a little time spent offline is good for you. We’ll see about that. Stay warm, y’all.

UPDATE: We got our power back after eight hours, which makes us very fortunate.

CenterPoint Energy customers who are currently experiencing an outage should be prepared to be without power for at least the rest of the day, CenterPoint said Monday afternoon.

As the Texas electric system faces an unprecedented power shortage due to extreme winter weather, Texans’ electricity consumption is far surpassing the state’s current power generation.

The current estimated number of customers without power due to the request for reduced load is approximately 1.162 million, while an additional 62,500 customers are without power due to other storm related events.

Customers who do have power are asked to reduce their electricity use to the lowest level possible.

On Monday morning, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which is responsible for scheduling power and ensuring the reliability of the electrical network, declared a statewide power generation shortfall emergency and asked electricity delivery companies to reduce load through controlled outages.

As soon as generating capacity is brought back online and ERCOT permits, CenterPoint Energy will deploy resources to restore customers.

However, CenterPoint said if additional generating capacity goes offline, it will result in additional customer outages.

“How long is it going to be? I don’t know the answer,” said Kenny Mercado, executive vice president at the Houston utility. Mercado, said in an interview. “The generators are doing everything they can to get back on. But their work takes time and I don’t know how long it will take. But for us to move forward, we have got to get generation back onto the grid. That is our primary need.”

The power outages rolling through the state are expected to last through today and at least part of tomorrow, the state grid manager said Monday.

Just a thought here, but maybe this is a more important issue than whether or not sports teams play the Star Spangled Banner before their games. Just a thought.

Also, in case anyone was wondering:

Like I said, maybe a more important issue than some of the effluvia that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick have been talking about.

Beware of blackouts

This would not be great.

The nonprofit organization that operates Texas’ power grid warned Sunday that it may be forced to impose rolling outages in the state on Monday and Tuesday as a major winter storm brings record low temperatures and causes massive demand for electricity.

Power reserves in the state were stable Sunday afternoon, but the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is anticipating the need to go into emergency operations from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning, said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT.

“During this fairly unprecedented cold weather event across the entire state, electric demand is expected to exceed our previous winter peak record set in January of 2018 by up to 10,000 megawatts,” Woodfin said. “In fact, the peak demand on Monday and Tuesday is currently forecasted to meet or exceed our all time summer peak demand of 74,820 megawatts.”

Texans purchase their electricity from companies, cooperatives or cities, but ERCOT works with those utility providers to manage the flow of power to more than 90% of the state.

If demand comes closer to capacity, ERCOT can declare a level-one, level-two or level-three energy emergency alert, which allows the council to use additional resources to respond to demand. According to ERCOT’s alert steps, the organization can import power from other regions, request extra power from transmission companies and release generation reserves under these alerts.

Temporary power outages are a last resort and would generally only occur after other resources had been exhausted. Woodfin said outages would be more likely to occur on Monday and Tuesday, but there is “certainly a possibility” that something could change and they could occur Sunday evening.

“If the additional resources available during an EEA (are) still not sufficient to balance generation and load, and we still don’t have enough resources to serve the demand, then we could have to implement what’s called rotating outages … so that we’ve got enough resources to cover what’s what’s left,” Woodfin said.

Outages typically last from 10 to 45 minutes for residential neighborhoods and small businesses, but the exact response would vary by transmission company, according to protocols for emergency alerts from ERCOT. ERCOT has only instituted three systemwide rotating outages in its history. The most recent one was more than 10 years ago on Feb. 2, 2011 in response to a blizzard affecting the state.

So good news, this is a very rare event, and ERCOT has tools at its disposal to make it less likely to occur. Bad news, the fact that they’re talking about it at all, and the fact that it would occur at a time when it’s super duper cold. Bundle up, turn off lights and try not to overdo your own electricity usage, and hope for the best.

UPDATE: Wow.

Nearly half of Texas’ installed wind power generation capacity has been offline because of frozen wind turbines in West Texas, according to Texas grid operators.

Wind farms across the state generate up to a combined 25,100 megawatts of energy. But unusually moist winter conditions in West Texas brought on by the weekend’s freezing rain and historically low temperatures have iced many of those wind turbines to a halt.

As of Sunday morning, those iced turbines comprise 12,000 megawatts of Texas’ installed wind generation capacity, although those West Texas turbines don’t typically spin to their full generation capacity this time of year.

Fortunately for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electric grid, the storm’s gusty winds are spinning the state’s unfrozen coastal turbines at a higher rate than expected, helping to offset some of the power generation losses because of the icy conditions.

It’s going to be a strange couple of days. Hold on.

Will we have enough power?

Maybe not. From the EDF.

It’s understandable that no one seems to have noticed a strongly worded letter to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) last Monday demanding more action to ensure electric reliability in Texas, and asking ERCOT to report back to NERC by April 30 on additional actions taken.  NERC isn’t some federal boogey man either; it’s a corporation founded by the electric industry to create commonly accepted standards for electric reliability across North America, usually through voluntary compliance.  President Bush’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the corporation “the authority to create and enforce compliance with Reliability Standards,” which is where this letter comes into play.

In their 2012 report, NERC highlighted ERCOT as the only region in North America that was not maintaining adequate electric reserves to meet demand, and with this letter they made it very clear that the actions taken to date have not done enough to mitigate that risk.  In the letter, NERC President Gerry Cauley notes that the PUC and ERCOT are continuing to address energy reliability issues, but finds that “solutions have not yet sufficiently materialized to address NERC’s reserve margin concern.”

Cauley goes on to say that “it is still unclear to us how ERCOT intends to mitigate issues that may arise on the current trajectory and when new resources may be available to meet growing demand.”  So according to the corporation whose membership consists mostly of utilities, grid operators, large and small customers, and electric regulators, the actions that the PUC and ERCOT have taken at this point are not enough to ensure we’ll have reliable electric supply, risking blackouts as soon as this summer.

As lawmakers settle into Austin for the next few months they’ll certainly be paying close attention to this issue, though many have indicated they would prefer that ERCOT and the PUC develop the solutions to this problem.  Cauley’s letter serves as notice that the PUC and ERCOT need to be more aggressive if they want to ensure a reliable supply of power in Texas.  Certainly both agencies are putting serious time and effort into keeping the lights on in Texas, including effort so expand existing demand response programs, but NERC clearly thinks they need to be doing more.

This was also noted by Loren Steffy, who says that Texas is now “under more pressure than ever to encourage generation, and that’s likely to mean higher prices at a time when the deregulated market was supposed to be delivering lower prices to consumers”. (He also notes that consumer protections are likely to be weakened, because that’s how we roll in this state.) Thanks to the continued tax credit in the so-called fiscal “cliff” deal, there will be more wind projects gearing up, and ERCOT foresees $8.9 billion in electric transmission projects by the end of 2017, but neither will help in the short term, and it’s still not enough for the longer term. I don’t know what else there is to be done, so just consider this a heads up for when the crunch does hit.

ERCOT hopes this summer is better than the last

That would be nice.

Managers of the state’s primary electricity grid expect to avoid rolling blackouts this summer but not without calling on Texans to turn up their thermostats and conserve power during peak usage on the season’s hottest afternoons.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is also bringing back mothballed power plants — some 35 to 40 years old — to give itself a larger margin of error than last summer’s near-miss on rolling blackouts.

ERCOT has tweaked its program that pays large industrial and commercial users to interrupt their power during emergencies and is adding to the list smaller customers who generate their own power on-site.

“We have taken an ‘all of the above’ approach to meeting Texans’ electricity needs this summer,” said Donna Nelson, who chairs the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

Despite its efforts, ERCOT, which serves 23 million people, expects “a significant chance” it will have to issue several emergency alerts asking Texans to conserve electricity, especially at the usual daily peak usage times of 4 to 7 p.m.

More information here. We’re projected to be low on reserve power by 2014, so enjoy this while you can, and do what you can to bug your elected officials about making energy conservation a priority.

Rolling blackouts may be on the summer horizon

Better hope the mild weather we’re getting in winter translates to mild weather for the summer, because the alternative isn’t pretty.

Inadequate electric power reserves likely will force Texans to cut back this summer to avoid rolling outages if the weather matches last year’s record heat, utility experts warned legislators [last] Thursday.

“We have to have conservation, and everyone made a tremendous difference during the peak of hot, summer days (last) August. We have to have that, plus some, to survive this summer without rotating outages,” H.B. “Trip” Doggett, president and CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told the House State Affairs Committee.

Legislators are looking at the state’s electricity market to find ways to keep lights on in Texas during peak demand periods. A range of issues contributes to the problem, including surging population growth, regulatory influences on the power industry, low natural gas prices that discourage new power plants, and difficulties in borrowing money to build them. Texas faces “a serious problem,” State Affairs Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said after 13 experts spoke to his committee.

“It looks like we’re going to really have to embrace conservation because we don’t have the extra generation,” he said.

I’d say we need to embrace conservation anyway for a whole host of reasons, but in this particular case the need is obvious. One solution suggested in the story to help achieve that is a public relations campaign to explain the situation to residents. I remember Con Edison in New York doing exactly this sort of thing in the 70s. They were a sponsor of Yankee games on WPIX, and their exhortations to conserve electricity, usually given by the Yankees’ broadcasters, were on all the time. If I can remember that 35 years later, it seems safe to suggest this kind of campaign can have an effect. We’ll need a lot more than that going forward, but one hopes this can suffice for now.