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The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

Texas’ deep freeze didn’t just disrupt natural gas supplies throughout Lone Star country—its effects rippled across the country, extending as far north as Minnesota. There, gas utilities had to pay $800 million more than they anticipated during the event, and Minnesota regulators are furious.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The gas and electric markets in Texas are lightly regulated and highly competitive, which has pushed companies to deliver energy at the lowest possible cost. But it also means that many companies were ill-prepared when the mercury dropped. To save money, they had skimped on winterizing their equipment. As a result, gas lines across the state—which has about 23 percent of the country’s reserves—quite literally froze. The spot price of natural gas soared to 70-times what it would normally be in Minnesota, and gas utilities paid a hefty premium when they used the daily market to match demand.

In a twist, the biggest gas utility in Minnesota is CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based company that also supplies a large swath of Southeastern Texas. The company said it spent an additional $500 million on gas that week in February, and it has asked Minnesota’s utility commission for permission to add a surcharge to customers’ bills. The surcharge not only seeks to recoup the additional money CenterPoint spent on natural gas, it also includes 8.75 percent interest. The company expects that each customer would shoulder a burden of $300 to $400.

Crazy, huh? I heard about this from friends on a recent Zoom call. CenterPoint is not only pushing to bill their Minnesota customers more to make up for the price differential, they’re asking to begin doing that in May instead of in September when price adjustments are normally made. They’re doing this because they say they’re in a cash bind, while at the same time their CEO is assuring investors that their cash position is just fine. They sure know how to make friends, don’t they?

The WaPo story has more details. This bit at the end caught my interest:

The state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former Democratic member of Congress, has filed a strongly critical response to CenterPoint’s plan.

It notes that over the two-year payout schedule, the interest charged to customers would amount to $60 million, “at a time when many of them are already behind on their bills.”

CenterPoint argues that the interest charge reflects its own capital borrowing costs and that it is an appropriate item to add to its bills.

“The company has already had to pay most of the natural gas costs from February, but these costs will only be recovered over an extended period of time,” [CenterPoint spokesperson Ross] Corson wrote. “Until recovered, CenterPoint Energy must finance these costs through a combination of debt and equity. Given the unprecedented magnitude of this financial commitment, it is appropriate to include finance charges.”

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of a nonprofit called the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, asked in an interview why CenterPoint didn’t appeal for voluntary reductions in gas use when it saw prices spike.

She said the utilities should demonstrate why they had to rely so heavily on the spot market. But, she added, “there’s no getting around it — these are big costs that someone is going to have to incur.”

Natural gas, though, is an “essential good,” she said, adding that ordinary Minnesotans, collateral damage in the Texas disaster, are blameless.

“You know, somebody made a lot of money off people needing to heat their homes,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

There’s talk that Minnesota AG Ellison may file a lawsuit against CenterPoint over this. I can already hear the caterwauling from certain local politicians if that happens.

On a side note:

An updated analysis of February’s Texas power crisis by experts at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows that lost wind power generation was a small component of the huge losses in electric generation that plunged much of the state into darkness during the severe cold weather.

While Texas Republicans were quick to blame renewable energy during the storm — and have continued to target renewable energy for reform during this year’s legislative session — a recently updated report on the causes of generator outages during the week of Feb. 14 show that the most significant cause of the low power supply to the grid came from natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather, equipment failures and natural gas shortages.

In ERCOT’s first preliminary report on the causes of the power crisis, released in early April, the grid operator included a chart that appeared to show power generation losses from wind as just slightly smaller than natural gas generation losses that week. But that analysis used the capacity of the state’s wind turbines to generate electricity, not what wind turbines would have actually generated if not for the outages.

Wind power feeds into the grid depending on weather conditions, and renewable energy sources typically have much higher potential to generate electricity than what is actually produced on a day-to-day basis; sometimes renewable power generates a lot and at other times none or very little. ERCOT uses detailed weather forecasts to estimate how much wind and solar power will be available to the grid.

In the updated analysis included in a Wednesday ERCOT meeting, the grid operator calculated that for the week of Feb. 14, natural gas power losses were several times that of wind generation.

[…]

The analysis also provided a more detailed picture of the reasons for natural gas outages, showing that disruptions in natural gas supply to the plants were a bigger share of the outages than initially estimated. Still, weather-related problems and equipment problems remained the biggest reasons for natural gas plant outages.

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

Sure would be nice if the Legislature spent less time attacking transgender kids and renewable energy, and more time working to make the grid more reliable and less likely to produce another big freeze, wouldn’t it?

So we bail out the electricity providers

I guess I don’t know enough about our weird electricity market to suggest a viable alternative to this, but it sure doesn’t speak well of our system.

An approximately $2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.

The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.

House lawmakers sent House Bill 4492 to the Senate on Thursday after a 129-15 vote. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate.

Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.

Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.

Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.

“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.

“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.

Hard to say how much this will increase the average monthly electric bill, but I’m sure someone will study that. Having a bunch of bankruptcies would be bad for a variety of reasons, so this is what we’re doing, but let’s take a moment to review the bidding on our deregulated electricity market. Massive statewide blackouts (and water failures) during the freeze because there was no requirement to weatherize the systems (even though we had experienced similar, though smaller scale, blackouts before, in recent memory), which led to a huge financial crisis in the industry that is now requiring a state bailout as well as a large state investment in weatherization, because otherwise that was never going to happen. All this, and we have higher consumer prices than other states. Is this a great system or what?

Meanwhile, in other ERCOT news:

During February’s deadly winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott and many state lawmakers quickly criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because several members of its large governing board reside outside Texas.

Many of the out-of-state board members are experts in the electricity field, but resigned following criticism of the agency’s oversight of the state’s main power grid during the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in freezing temperatures.

State lawmakers are now trying to change the way ERCOT is governed by requiring members to live in Texas and giving more board seats to political appointees — changes that experts say may do little to improve the power grid.

One former board member who resigned after the storm, Peter Cramton, criticized legislation for politicizing the grid operator’s board.

“These people would be political types without electricity expertise,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Texas House has already approved House Bill 10, which would remove independent outside voices on the ERCOT board and replace them with five political appointees. The governor would appoint three of those people, while the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint one. None of the appointees would be required to be electricity experts. The only requirement is that appointees live in Texas.

Senate Bill 2, which has cleared the upper chamber, would give the governor five ERCOT board member appointments.

[…]

The political appointees replace what are now called “unaffiliated members,” who mostly served as outside expert voices. The other board members currently represent regions across the state that make up the ERCOT grid, as well as non-voting members such as the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Some power grid experts have said in legislative testimony, at industry events and in interviews that they don’t see how giving more power to the political class — and making minor tweaks like requiring all board members reside in Texas — could improve the grid operator.

“From the consumer standpoint, we really depend on those unaffiliated directors to make decisions that are in customers’ interest and in the interest of the overall health of the ERCOT market,” Katie Coleman, who represents Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, said at a recent industry conference.

Seriously, WTF are we even doing here?

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

How our water systems failed during the freeze

Good analysis of something that has received far less attention than the blackouts that resulted during the freeze. Which is interesting because the blackouts were the main cause of the water outages and resulting boil notices. And the fix here is relatively simple.

There generally are two sources of drinking water in Texas: underground wells and surface water, drawn from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Both require pumps to move the water to storage tanks, purification plants and out to customers. And pumps require power.

In Houston, most drinking water is pulled from lakes Houston, Conroe and Livingston. The city’s issues during the freeze began at the Northeast Water Purification Plant, one of its three primary treatment facilities, where some of its generators did not turn on as designed that Monday, Feb. 15, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Internal reports, emails and texts obtained through public information requests by the Chronicle illuminate the problems. The emergency generator failures reduced the plant to about 20 or 30 percent of its normal capacity, according to situational reports from the Office of Emergency Management. This started a drop in pressure that workers struggled to halt.

NRG, which operates the generators, was supposed to be able to start them remotely. The generators were providing power to the grid when it collapsed, which caused them to trip offline, the company said. NRG employees taught Public Works officials how to reset them by phone. The city also had left two breakers in the wrong position prior to the storm, complicating the efforts to switch to back-up power, according to Houston Public Works. The power was restored three hours after it went out.

“Nearly lost the water system,” [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock texted another city official later that afternoon, “but recovered it sort of.”

Meanwhile, eight of 40 city-operated generators failed at wells that pull water from underground. Though workers tested the generators monthly, checking their oil and fuel, Haddock told state lawmakers earlier this month the machines “were not prepared for starting in 12 degrees.”

One froze and was not functional again until temperatures rose. Another at the Katy Addicks well started initially before its supercharger failed. Others had mechanical issues related to the cold.

City staff chased outages with portable generators, recalled Phillip Goodwin, Houston Public Works’ regulatory compliance director. As power came on in one place, it would go out somewhere else in the system.

Water pressure in the city dropped, and by late Tuesday Houston officials saw a few readings below the state-mandated levels.

Haddock texted Turner at 8:13 p.m.: “I can tell you we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Some 13 hours later, Turner announced a boil water advisory was in effect, per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements when water pressure drops too low.

It would be four days before the water was declared safe to drink. Dallas never needed a boil notice; the advisories in San Antonio and Austin lasted longer than Houston’s.

Turner said the bottom line is that the generators did not work as intended. He has instructed his departments to review what went wrong and build more “resiliency and redundancy” into the system.

“When you have power outages of that magnitude, it’s going to impact your systems across the board,” Turner said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position to prevent it from reoccurring, or at least at that magnitude.”

[…]

At the peak Friday, more than 1,800 of some 7,000 public water systems were under boil water advisories. Hurricane Harvey, by comparison, prompted some 200 systems to issue boil advisories, said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. Houston was not one of them.

The TCEQ, which monitors boil notices and provides emergency assistance, plans to survey and hold roundtables with local providers to figure out what went wrong. They are forming a group to look at helping water systems get listed as critical infrastructure with electricity providers, among other issues.

Public Utility Commission rules say water facilities may be defined as “critical load” like hospitals, but the water utility must notify its electricity provider and be deemed eligible.

I certainly would have thought that water systems would be considered critical infrastructure. It would have saved a lot of trouble if the water treatment plants around the state had not lost power during the freeze. That might have caused more homes to lose power, perhaps, but if we’re forcing the power plants to weatherize then maybe that will be less of an issue. Requiring backup generators and a regular schedule for testing and maintaining them would also help. HB2275 would create a grant fund for infrastructure fixes – there may of course be some federal money coming as well, but we can’t count on that just yet – and I guess it’s up to the TCEQ to decide if water systems are “critical infrastructure” or not.

I mean, look, most of us were able to get by for a couple of days with the boil notices and maybe using melted snow as flush water. We won’t have the latter during a summer power-and-water outage, but never mind that for now. All I’m saying is that for a state that loves to brag about luring businesses here, this is some bad advertising for us. We have plenty of other challenges right now, many of them being perpetuated by the Lege. We should try not to add to them.

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

It was worse in Harris County during the freeze

Very interesting.

Harris County residents were far more likely to have lost electricity and water during February’s winter storm and blackout crisis than residents of other Texas counties, a survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found.

The findings may help explain why Harris County residents account for a third of the almost 200 deaths so far attributed to the storm, while only accounting for 16 percent of the state’s population. Most froze to death in their homes or while exposed to the elements, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning or died when medical devices failed without electricity.

“During the week of the winter storm, Harris County residents were significantly more likely than other Texans to lose electrical power, lose internet service, lose access to drinkable water, be without running water, lose cell phone service, have food spoil, suffer economic damages, and experience difficulty finding a plumber,” the survey authors wrote.

Ninety-one percent of Harris County survey respondents said they lost power during the blackouts, compared to 64 percent of respondents from the other 212 counties on the state’s main power grid. Asked if they had lost water, 65 percent of Harris County residents said yes, compared to 44 percent of those in other counties. Thirty-eight percent of local respondents said they suffered burst pipes.

On average, Harris County respondents were without electricity for 49 total hours and 39 consecutive hours, confirming that the outages were not rotating as the grid operator, ERCOT, had hoped. CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s electricity distributor, said during the crisis it could not rotate blackouts because the drop in available power to distribute was so severe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Harris County respondents said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that the power outages were distributed in an equitable manner.

[…]

The survey also measured how Harris County respondents rated the performance of government officials and entities during the storm. President Joe Biden and County Judge Lina Hidalgo scored the highest, with more than 45 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly approving of their handling of the crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state government as a whole were rated poorly, with about 21 percent somewhat or strongly approving of their performance. ERCOT polled the worst, with 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disapproving of the power grid operator’s performance.

The survey found broad support among Harris County residents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and independents for a series of reforms. More than 70 percent of these respondents said they supported requiring the electric grid and natural gas pipelines to fully winterize and giving the Public Utilities Commission greater oversight over the electric grid.

Fifty-three percent of respondents, however, said they were unwilling to have higher utility bills to ensure the grid is better-prepared for severe weather.

The landing page for this poll is here. The data for Harris County is here and for the state as a whole is here. The poll was done via a webpanel, with a sample of 1500 adults in total, and an oversample of 513 adults in Harris County. Note that as before, the partisan makeup of the sample is more Democratic than it would be if we were talking about registered voters. In Harris County, it was 38% Democrats, 36% Independents, and 18% Republicans, and statewide it was 32% Dem, 30% Independent, and 25% Republican. I sent an inquiry about that, and was told that among those who reported voting in the 2020 election, Trump won by a 51-47 margin, not far off from the actual 52-46 spread. In other words, if there’s a Democratic skew it’s among the non-voters.

I say all that up front because there were approval ratings in the polls, at least for how the freeze was handled. For the statewide sample:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 15%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 15%, somewhat disapprove 10%, strong disapprove 38%
Your County Judge: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 26%, somewhat disapprove 7%, strong disapprove 16%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 14%, neutral 27%, somewhat disapprove 8%, strong disapprove 17%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 21%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 21%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 32%

And for Harris County:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 12%, somewhat approve 9%, neutral 17%, somewhat disapprove 9%, strong disapprove 47%
County Judge Lina Hidalgo: Strong approve 35%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 18%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 27%, somewhat approve 19%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 19%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 36%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 20%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 19%

Again, bear in mind the partisan breakdown of the sample. There’s a lot more to the polls, and a separate set of questions about lifting COVID-19 restrictions that I’ll write about separately, so go check it out.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

SCoTX punts on ERCOT lawsuit question

Wimpy.

The Texas Supreme Court punted Friday on a question dogging millions of Texans affected by last month’s catastrophic power failure: Can ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, be sued?

The state’s highest court ruled 5-4 that it won’t decide — at least not now — on closely-watched case between Dallas electricity generator Panda Power and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The $2.2 billion case filed by Panda Power in 2016 raised the question whether ERCOT is a governmental agency that has sovereign immunity protecting them 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 that has received such protection.

Five justices led by Justice Jeff Boyd said the Texas Constitution prohibits them from ruling on the case after the trial court issued a final judgment dismissing the case. Based on a finding of sovereign immunity by an appeals court, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the dismissal by the lower court made the case moot and that it no longer had the authority to rule in the case.

“Because the trial court’s interlocutory order merged into the final judgment and no longer exists, we cannot grant the relief the parties seek,” the majority opinion written by Boyd stated. “As a result, any decision we might render would constitute an impermissible advisory opinion, and these consolidated causes are moot.”

Four dissenting justices led by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, argued they should rule on the case because the public has an interest whether ERCOT can be sued in the aftermath of last month’s storm. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state grid manager, including over the deaths of an 11-year-old boy and a 95-year-old man, who were both found dead in their freezing Houston-area homes.

“The answer to the immunity issue in this case has become perhaps more important to the public than even to the parties,” the minority opinion, written by Hecht stated. “The parties want to know. The public wants to know. The court refuses to answer.”

The ruling by the high court has widespread implications in the wake of last month’s deadly and devastating blackouts, which contributed to more than 50 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage.

David Coale, an appellate partner with Dallas-based law firm Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann, said the Supreme Court could still decide on ERCOT’s immunity as appeals from the Panda Power case come up through the legal system. In the meantime, ERCOT’s immunity — upheld by a Texas appeals court in 2018 — remains intact, but the state grid manage faces an onslaught of legal cases without any guidance from the Supreme Court.

“The court may have punted, but it didn’t walk away,” Coale said. “It acknowledged that another appeal involving the same parties is on its way up to them, and it can revisit these issues then.”

See here and here for some background. I guess I can understand the “let’s do this all in the correct order” idea, but as the story notes the question about whether ERCOT has sovereign immunity or not is very pertinent right now. Maybe if the ultimate decision is that ERCOT cannot be sued it would be nice to let all those folks who are now suing them know, so they won’t waste a bunch of time and money pursuing their cases. I’m not a lawyer, what do I know? You can find all the relevant opinions and concurrences and dissents here if you need a little light reading for the weekend.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Harris, Fort Bend, and Travis Counties submitted amicus briefs urging SCOTUS to find in favor of ERCOT not having sovereign immunity. This Bloomberg article, which is behind their paywall but which you might be able to see if you haven’t exceeded your monthly allowance, details those filings.

Our rinky-dink critical infrastructure

Good Lord.

On Valentine’s Day, the major utility that supplies electricity to West Texas readied for a severe winter storm. Hired contractors prepared to fix power lines, managers started up the storm emergency center, and operators reviewed the list of facilities that should — no matter what — keep power during an emergency: 35 of them on Oncor’s list were natural gas facilities that deliver fuel to power plants.

As Sunday turned to Monday, Allen Nye, the CEO of Oncor, one of the state’s largest transmission and delivery utilities, thought his team was ready.

But the situation rapidly deteriorated as the storm bore down on Texas. At 1:20 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, ordered the first cut of power to bring demand down to match an extremely low power supply as the frigid temperatures caused power plants to rapidly trip offline.

Oncor’s team, along with other utilities, began a plan to roll outages at 15- and 30-minute intervals. But just before 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered them to take even more power offline — then kept ordering more reductions. By late Monday morning, ERCOT had ordered 20,000 megawatts of power offline; Oncor’s share was 8,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.6 million homes.

Rolling the outages “quickly became impossible,” Nye said. “We sat there praying that electrons showed up.”

With millions of Texans without power, Nye got an urgent request from DeAnn Walker, then chair of the Public Utility Commission: She needed Oncor to flip the switch back on to certain natural gas facilities that couldn’t deliver fuel to power plants without electricity. A PUC spokesperson said Walker was “ceaselessly” on the phone, calling Nye about dozens of natural gas facilities that weren’t on Oncor’s “critical” list.

That meant that Oncor, which delivers power to the Permian Basin — the state’s most productive oil and natural gas basin — had unwittingly shut off some of the state’s power supply when it followed orders to begin the outages.

The desperate scramble to power up natural gas facilities again exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Oncor and other utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed, company executives, regulators and experts said.

[…]

“In my opinion, if we had kept the supply [of natural gas] on, we would’ve had minor disruptions,” James Cisarik, chairman of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, told legislators. “[Texas] has all the assets, we just have to make sure we evaluate every link in that chain to keep it going.”

The failures were years in the making: There is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.” And a trend toward electrifying key components of the state’s natural gas infrastructure in recent decades, plus the lack of a single agency to oversee all parts of the electric delivery system, created what Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at the Rice University’s Baker Institute, called a “single point of failure” — one that state regulators were blind to.

“That’s a failure of regulation,” said Medlock, who is also the senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice. “That’s all it is. It’s relatively simple.”

That’s one way to put it. “Infuriating” and “inexcusable” also come to mind, along with a bunch of swear words. As someone once said, there’s a lot more to gain by avoiding stupid mistakes than there is by coming up with genius solutions. This is the sort of thing that the Legislature should be focused on. If this kind of simple, no cost fix is not implemented, you know who to blame. The Chron has more.

The state of the Public Utility Commission

News item #1:

While many Texans last week were worried about sky-high electric bills from February’s winter storms, the state’s sole utility commissioner was privately reassuring out-of-state investors who profited from the crisis that he was working to keep their windfall safe.

Texas Monthly has obtained a recording of a 48-minute call on March 9 in which Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Arthur D’Andrea discussed the fallout from the February power crisis with investors. During that call, which was hosted by Bank of America Securities and closed to the public and news media, D’Andrea took pains to ease investors’ concerns that electricity trades, transacted at the highest prices the market allows, might be reversed, potentially costing trading firms and publicly traded generating companies millions of dollars.

“I apologize for the uncertainty,” D’Andrea said, promising to put “the weight of the commission” behind efforts to keep billions of dollars from being returned to utilities that were forced—thanks to decisions by the PUC—to buy power at sky-high prices, even after the worst of the blackout had passed.

Billed as “Learning the Texas Two Step: A Chat with the PUCT,” the call originally was scheduled for early February but was postponed until after the winter storm. The conversation shows a coziness between a top Texas regulator and some of the biggest players in the electricity market at a time when the PUC’s oversight is under fire from lawmakers. At one point, during a discussion about whether natural gas, which also saw huge price spikes during the crisis, would be “repriced,” D’Andrea said no, adding that most legislators understand that gas is priced by global markets and is out of their purview. “But I’ll let you know if I hear anything crazy on it,” D’Andrea said.

You can click over and listen to the audio and read the explanations for the words that D’Andrea used if you want. In the meantime, here’s news item #2, from later that same day.

Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D’Andrea, the only remaining member of the three-seat board that regulates Texas utilities, is resigning from his post, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday night.

Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D’Andrea’s resignation and plans to name “a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency.” D’Andrea’s resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D’Andrea’s resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month’s deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The reason for D’Andrea’s resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday.

I think we have a reasonable hypothesis about it – this article goes on to mention that Texas Monthly story about D’Andrea’s phone call. None of the members of the PUC – all of whom were appointed by Greg Abbott – remain. Heck of a job, there. Be more mad at the PUC. Kimberley Reeves has more.

The opening bid on power outage response

Not bad, but there’s a long way to go and not a lot of detail just yet.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the winter weather crisis last month that left millions of Texans without power.

The proposals include overhauling the governance of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; mandating “weatherization” of power facilities and establishing a statewide disaster alert system. There is also legislation to ban variable-rate electricity pricing plans such as were offered by the company Griddy, which was recently effectively shut down in the state after customers were hit with bills in the thousands of dollars.

Phelan’s office called the proposals the “first phase” of the House’s proposed reforms in the wake of the winter storm. Not all the bills have been filed yet, so the specifics of some proposals have not yet been made public.

“We must take accountability, close critical gaps in our system, and prevent these breakdowns from ever happening again,” Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

[…]

House Bill 10, for instance, aims to reform ERCOT by restructuring its board. The legislation would replace the board’s “unaffiliated” members with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. The bill would also mandate that all board members live in Texas. And it would add a new board member to “represent consumer interests,” according to Phelan’s office.

Some other ideas could prove challenging. House Bill 11, for instance, would order the Public Utilities Commission to require power generators to implement measures to avoid service outages during extreme weather events, including winter storms and heat waves. But retroactively equipping power plants and the state’s energy system to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be difficult and costly, energy experts have said. Building energy infrastructure that from the start is designed to perform in winter conditions is easier and cheaper, they have said.

Phelan’s office described another bill, House Bill 14, which hasn’t yet been filed, that would require the Railroad Commission of Texas to require pipeline operators to update their equipment to ensure reliability during extreme weather. It’s unclear how much either bill would cost the state or the power generators. Abbott has indicated in the past that he is interested in funding at least some of the weatherization.

These fall under the emergency items declared by Abbott, so they can be taken up ahead of other legislation. Once they’re written and filed, of course. I don’t have any immediate complaints – the general direction is good, and they seem to have hit the high points – but it’s very early in the process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for shenanigans and just plan resistance, so as always we will have to keep an eye on it. The pushback from the energy industry seems to be that the power outages themselves were the main driver of the natural gas shortage, not the wells and pipes freezing up. There’s probably something to that, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to take their word for it. At least three of the bills will be carried by Democrats – Reps. Richard Raymond, Ana Hernandez, and Joe Deshotel. We’ll see what we get, and we should very much remember that a lot of this is about undoing or at least mitigating the effects of Republican deregulation, but this is a decent start.

Congress has questions for Abbott

Will he answer them? That’s the bigger question.

Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Reps. Marc Veasey of Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, are conducting a probe into Gov. Greg Abbott and why Texas’ electrical grid was unprepared to handle last week’s snowstorm.

In a recent letter to the governor lead by Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, members picked apart Abbott’s response to the crisis, including the governor’s visit to Fox News in which he spread lies about wind and solar energy being the chief culprit behind the blackout.

“These statements either suggest a lack of understanding of the Texas power grid’s fundamental operations or were an attempt to shift blame away from the very real issues that have existed within the state’s energy structure for years,” read the letter.

“The response to this ongoing crisis raises significant questions regarding Texas’ grid design, preparation, and whether the state is taking appropriate action to aid citizens in this crisis,” the letter continued.

The members of Congress criticized Texas’ isolated power grid for being unable to import enough power from other states while it was under extreme stress — an issue of resiliency they said would be needed to be solved in the face of changing climate and more frequent extreme weather events.

Lawmakers also requested Abbott answer several questions relating to the crisis, including why Texas failed to implement weatherization recommendations made by a 2011 federal report that was conducted after a snowstorm caused blackouts in Texas that same year.

[…]

Members of the energy committee said they had “broad jurisdiction” over energy policy and requested Abbott deliver the answers before March 22.

They may indeed have jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean Abbott will recognize or respond to it. Look at how spectacularly unsuccessful Congressional Democrats were at getting anyone from the Trump administration to respond to subpoenas. Like so many other norms, the custom and expectation that such subpoenas would be heeded was shredded by Trump and his goons. The problem here is not jurisdiction, it’s enforcement. No one is going to show up at the Governor’s mansion with an arrest warrant if Abbott sticks that letter in the round file. The worst he can expect is some carping from Congressional Democrats, and maybe a tut-tutting editorial or two. I’m not saying that Congress shouldn’t try to get answers from Abbott. I am saying that all they can do is ask. Until and unless they can do more than that, we shouldn’t expect better results.

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

Why is Greg Abbott doing so little to help Texas recover from the freeze?

If this Politico story doesn’t make you mad, then either you’re a Greg Abbott shill or you really need to check your priors.

Assessing the effectiveness of disaster response is a famously fraught political game. What looks like a master class in bureaucratic crisis management from inside an emergency operations center can seem laughably insufficient to the people bundled in blankets outside an overwhelmed food bank. But all sorts of Texans, from shivering private citizens to frustrated public officials, say that Texas’ state leaders failed them.

In the face of a monstrous storm Abbott’s response was tepid, at best. He didn’t deploy the National Guard in any sizable numbers before, during or after the storm. There are no state aid facilities handing out water or food. In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, Abbott asked for direct financial assistance and help with emergency services. Normally, governors, including Abbott, request military help, money for local governments and hazard mitigation to make sure properties are habitable, and even social services. But not not this time. His request was comparatively minuscule. His office in Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

The storm revealed an uncomfortable power-play between GOP leaders in Austin and their mostly Democratic counterparts in the state’s big cities. In Texas, examples of local autonomy routinely run afoul of a governor who jealously guards his prerogatives to override everything from plastic bag bans to mandatory mask orders. But when the cities are in crisis, the sense is that it’s their problem to sort out, not his. Millions of Texans have nearly frozen in the dark and have been on a boil-water notice, without running water in days.

“The state government must provide emergency assistance to repair water infrastructure, or we risk millions being without water for a week,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, pleaded on Twitter. Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”

[…]

In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.

In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.

Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.

“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”

“Federal assistance is needed to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety,” he wrote to Biden without mentioning the long tail of the storm, prolonged lack of water, and the likelihood of continuing financial turmoil about how to pay bills as simple as essential as next month’s rent. And potentially worse: the rising specter of hunger in the poor parts of San Antonio and all of South Texas.

With little help from the state, the aid task has fallen on the local government, private citizens and local charities. Bexar County here was one of dozens forced to issue boil-water notices. Now, the city is still distributing water bottles for 14 days straight. Firefighters and fire department cadets loaded 31 pallets in cars at the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake University on Sunday, Feb. 21.

“We still have lots of people without water,” said the firefighter in charge, who would only identify herself as Bertha. “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen nothing like this.”

[…]

So, FEMA has shipped generators, for example, but there is little need for them now that the power is back on. The usual National Guard and active military response is almost completely absent. At FEMA’s direction, the Air Force has been ferrying water from Joint Base Charleston, S.C. and Joint Base Travis, Calif., aboard C-17s to Texas, according to military officials. Marines in Fort Worth and Army troops here in San Antonio have handed out water on the order of local commanders. But that’s it. That’s all the military help there is.

Asked if the lack of military help, which was out in force during Ike and Harvey before, wasn’t coming because the governor hadn’t asked, a Defense Department official sheepishly responded: “I didn’t want to say that but yes. Usually, the governor asks for help.”

Critics of the governor see Abbott’s political ambitions at play. He is running for reelection and said to be eyeballing a presidential run. And so, the less he asks of the federal government the more he can claim in 2022 or 2024, that he doesn’t ask Washington for help. He can’t seem beholden to Washington, pressed from his right by hard-liners West, or his powerful right-wing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Abbott doesn’t want to be seen with both hands out to the government,” said Henson, at the University of Texas. “If Republicans can get away with doing the bare minimum, they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know any of this before I read this story, and as much as I can’t stand Greg Abbott, it had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t ask the feds for all the help he could get. I still can’t quite fathom it. However angry you are at Greg Abbott, you need to be angrier, and you need to make sure everyone you know is angry at him. This cannot stand.

The freeze effect on farmers

As you might imagine, single digit temperatures are not good for agriculture.

Well before the sun finally broke through the cloudy and icy haze in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley last week, Dale Murden knew he was in for a bad spell.

After a few days of clearer skies and warmer weather let him assess the damage to his grapefruit orchard in Harlingen more closely, the South Texas citrus grower confirmed his fears.

“As time goes on, it’ll start to look worse,” said Murden, who is also the president of Hidalgo County-based Texas Citrus Mutual.

The winter storm that paralyzed Texas for days last week is going to have lasting effects on Murden and his fellow citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley after the extended freeze killed millions of pounds of citrus. The storm also brought the state’s dairy industry, concentrated in the Panhandle, to a near standstill when widespread power outages halted processing.

Though it’s still too early to put a dollar amount on the losses, industry leaders are urging patience as they try to restock grocery shelves.

“As a grower, I would appeal to consumers to stick with us and, when we do get back on the shelf, please support us,” Murden said.

The 20-year annual average for grapefruit produced in the Rio Grande Valley is about 460 million pounds, Murden said. More than half of this year’s yield will be lost after the storm, and Valencia oranges, which are considered late-season harvests, will be nearly a total loss, he added. The damages will extend into next year because the freeze also damaged citrus blooms that would become fruit for the next season’s harvest.

“This will last well into 2021 and 2022,” he said. “The ability for Texas grapefruit growers to get it to your shelf right now is zero until we start growing a crop.”

The effects on the state’s dairy industry will be shorter, but the duration will depend on how quickly milk and other products can be processed, said Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. Most of Texas’ livestock survived the harsh weather, he said, but a loss of power meant processing and production was at a standstill and will need time to recover.

Turley said Panhandle livestock are used to severe winter weather, “But our natural gas was turned off and so much of our processing relies on that.”

It was reported during the freeze that a lot of milk was being dumped by dairy farmers (who still had to milk the cows because otherwise they stop producing) because there was no power for them to process it. Unlike the citrus growers, their supply should bounce back pretty quickly.

More from the Chron.

The kids in sweaters pix were cute, tho

Constant Ngouala pulled carrots from the ground on his farm, a Plant It Forward site in Southwest Houston, and held up the intact bunch victoriously for his team to see. The vegetable is one of the few that survived the winter freeze in Texas last week. Ngouala lost 80 percent of his crop.

In the raised beds around him, vegetation was wilted to the ground, some slimy and still wet from the snow and freezing rain, others dried and a lifeless shade of brown.

This is a familiar scene on farms across Texas after the historic February storm. The state was plunged into darkness as temperatures dropped in the teens, leaving millions without power, heat or water for days. On farms and ranches, the freeze decimated crops and killed or hurt livestock.

The Plant It Forward team had prepared for the storm, harvesting everything they could the weekend before. Some crops were ready, others weren’t quite but could still be sold. What remained in the ground was protected by frost cloth or mulch for insulation.

Ngouala and his teammate Guy Mouelet lifted a tarp on Saturday to assess damage. It wasn’t long enough to cover the bed’s whole length. Small, just-emerging heads of romaine lettuce were still bright green under the cloth, but browning around the edges outside it. Ngouala thinks the onions, radishes and other root vegetables that were underground during the freeze will be fine, but he has to wait for them to sprout up to confirm.

Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward, said even though the farm lost a lot, she had expected it would be even more dire. The damage is worse than Hurricane Harvey, but the 2017 storm prepared them well for this.

They were in good spirits that day, but there was work to do. Ngouala has to clean his beds and replant with spring crops as soon as possible in order to have cash flow 30, 40, 50 days from now.

[…]

Within the larger food system, shoppers will feel the freeze’s effects at the grocery store in the weeks to come.

“Prices for consumers are going to go up, there’s no question,” said Texas Department of Agriculture communications director Mark Loeffler. “The vast amounts of gaps that have been caused in the food supply chain are pretty amazing.”

Loeffler said significant impacts could last between six to eight weeks, depending on the industry. Some sectors’ long-term recovery could take months or years.

In the same way that this past year has been a great and necessary time to support your local restaurants, this is a great and necessary time to buy your food from local farms as much as possible. Check out the labels, visit a farmers’ market or two, and buy from local growers. We’re all in this together.

Biden starts with decent approval numbers in Texas

Keep it up.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, who today is making his first visit to Texas since his January inauguration, starts his term with about the same numbers of voters giving him good and bad marks for job performance, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Among registered Texas voters, 45% approve of the job he’s doing and 44% disapprove. Those results include 30% who said they strongly approve of his performance and 39% who strongly disapprove. The partisan lines are strong: 80% of Republicans disapprove, while 89% of Democrats approve.

“Election season always hardens partisan attitudes. That didn’t end with the election,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t know that we ever got out of election mode.”

Biden’s grades for responding to COVID-19 are better, with 49% approving what he’s doing and 36% saying they disapprove. That’s an improvement over his predecessor: In the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, 45% of voters approved Donald Trump’s coronavirus response, while 48% did not — including 43% who disapproved strongly.

“He’s starting out, in a Republican state, with fairly respectable numbers,” Daron Shaw, a government professor at UT-Austin and co-director of the poll, said of Biden.

The assessment of Gov. Greg Abbott’s COVID-19 response has improved a bit since October. In both polls, 44% said the governor is doing a good job, and the number who giving him bad marks has fallen 5 percentage points, to 41% from 46%. Public approval for Abbott’s handling of the pandemic peaked at the beginning; in the April 2020 UT/TT Poll, 56% of Texas voters approved of his responses and 29% disapproved.

[…]

The governor’s numbers held steady, with 46% of Texas voters giving him an approving job review and 39% giving him a disapproving one. In October, his results were 47% – 40% — virtually the same.

The same was true for [Sen. Ted] Cruz: 45% positive and 43% negative in this poll, compared to 46% – 42% in October.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn got positive marks from 32% of voters, and negative marks from 42% — a more negative showing than either Cruz or Abbott. In October, right before he was reelected, Cornyn’s job performance was rated positively by 39% and negatively by the same percentage.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s job review was flat: 37% of voters say he’s doing a good job and 36% saying they disapprove of his work. The state’s newest legislative leader, House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, elevated to that post by his peers just a few weeks ago, still hasn’t made an impression on most Texas voters; 60% said either that they have a neutral or no assessment of how he’s doing his job, while 22% gave him positive grades and 18% were negative.

As the story notes, the poll was in the field during the freeze week, almost entirely before Ted Cruz’s excellent adventure in Cancun. It’s likely his numbers would have dipped if the poll had been done a week later. It’s possible the same is true for Abbott, though that’s harder to say for sure. Even a modest decline for him would still be decent, and this is where I remind you again that his UH Hobby School poll numbers were not in fact bad.

There is one person of interest whose numbers are not noted, but we do have them in this story.

Texas voters are almost evenly split on the question of whether Donald Trump should be allowed to mount a comeback, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Asked whether “Trump took actions as president that justify preventing him from holding future elected office,” 45% said he did and 48% said he did not. Not surprisingly, 84% of voters who identified themselves as Democrats say he did, and 81% of Republican voters say he didn’t. Among independent voters, 38% said barring Trump would be justified, and 47% said it would not be justified.

“Almost all of the Democrats say he should be barred, along with 13% of Republicans,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

[…]

Trump is viewed about as favorably now in the state as he was in the UT/TT Poll in October 2020, right before the election: 46% of Texas voters view him favorably and 46% have an unfavorable opinion of the former president. In October, his favorable/unfavorable numbers were 49%-46%. And Trump remains in better light than he did right before his election four years ago. In an October 2016 UT/TT Poll, 31% of Texans had a positive opinion of him while 58% had a negative one.

“He has completely consolidated his Republican base in Texas,” Shaw said.

Well, he lost three points of favorability while his unfavorable rating remained the same. He’s a net zero, while Biden is a net plus one on his approval ratings. It could be worse, that’s all I can say. Note that we’re comparing “favorable/unfavorable” to “approve/disapprove” here, which isn’t quite the same thing but will have to do for these purposes.

Who watches the utility overseers?

Apparently, nobody. At least, not anymore.

Late last year, as winter approached and power companies prepared for cold weather, Gov. Greg Abbott’s hand-picked utility regulators decided they no longer wanted to work with a nonprofit organization they had hired to monitor and help Texas enforce the state’s electric reliability standards.

The multiyear contract between the Public Utility Commission and the obscure monitoring organization, the Texas Reliability Entity, was trashed. Over the next months, right up until the crippling storm that plunged millions of Texans into the dark and cold, the state agency overseeing the power industry operated without an independent monitor to make sure energy companies followed state protocols, which include weatherization guidelines.

The Public Utility Commission’s decision in November to end its contract with the Texas Reliability Entity didn’t cause the historic grid failures that this week transformed Texas into an undeveloped country, leaving large swaths of the state without power or water as temperatures dropped and stayed below freezing. A PUC spokesman said the agency still had ample protections to ensure energy companies followed state rules and guidelines.

On Thursday, Abbott called for a state law requiring power plants to be better weatherized. Yet over the past quarter-century, state leaders have refused to require the companies to prepare for severe weather, even as once-in-a-lifetime storms have arrived with increasing frequency.

Critics say the utility commission’s move to strip away a regulatory layer, especially with potentially severe weather approaching, was just the latest example of the consistently light touch Texas politicians have used to oversee the complex industry that generates and distributes power.

“It’s astonishing to me that the PUC would get rid of the independent reliability entity with no plan to replace it,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, who sits on the Texas House Energy Resources Committee. “No staff, no oversight on reliability.”

Anchía said he would demand answers from PUC brass on the independent monitor function next week when House members will hold a hearing to investigate the factors that led to the Texas blackout.

I will admit, I had never heard of the Texas Reliability Entity before reading this story. There’s a lot of nuance in this story – it’s not clear that the Texas RE was doing an adequate job, but it’s also not clear that the mandate they had amounted to much – so read the whole thing. The main takeaway for me is that the state as a whole has basically taken the reliability of the power grid for granted, partly because of the belief that we don’t have sufficiently bad weather (non-hurricane division) to worry about, partly because we believe in the exceptionalism of our lightly-regulated system, and partly because I think we’ve just never thought about it. We’re thinking about it now, and I’d say we need a top-to-bottom review of what we want out of the power grid, what responsibilities and enforcement powers the regulators will have, and how often we inspect and audit these things and report on them to the public. We should have learned all these lessons in 2011 but we didn’t, and we really have no excuses if we don’t learn them now.

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.