The Texas Grid Is a 'Cold Mess'

Anyone know a plumber with hundreds of repair fittings?

Texas and its recent record cold and storms have been in the news. The finger pointing is "fast and furious" (and no, this time it is not a movie). Many fingers are pointing at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

I'm a bit surprised that it has not been worse given the issues with power generation, transmission and distribution in the state due to the storm and cold weather. There have been problems across all of the segments of the system.

Listen to this podcast from The Daily: "The Blackout in Texas." It highlights a number of issues that have contributed to the state's current situation. One is that Texas, being Texas, stands alone when you look at the national grid system in the United States (see The Texas Interconnection).

As noted in a portion of the podcast above, the cold weather "could be" another result of climate change — that's right, not heat, but the Polar Vortex and jet streams being impacted by warmer arctic temperatures. Quoting the description of the podcast, "An intense winter storm has plunged Texas into darkness. The state’s electricity grid has failed in the face of the worst cold weather there in decades. The Texas blackouts could be a glimpse into America’s future as a result of climate change. Today, we explore the reasons behind the power failures." On that note, see this Washington Post Podcast: The lone grid stat‪e‬
which highlights how Texas chose to become an "electrical island" also touches on the changing weather patterns. 

Switching gears, I have some personal memories of being in Texas from 1972-76 while serving at Fort Hood. We planned a family vacation (1973-4 timeframe) in February. My wife and toddler son drove south to Houston. It was bitterly cold for Texas. We went to the zoo — temps were in the teens and there was no one there except us! We visited the Battleship Texas — same story, we had the battleship to ourselves. Then there are the Texas ice storms. The state doesn't have snow plows and doesn't put salt down, so everything comes to a complete halt. You can not move on wheels.

And, as you will hear more about very soon, the housing in Texas is not built for cold! There are going to be so many broken water pipes — if you are a plumber and want to make a gazillion dollars, buy all the pipe fittings you can and drive to the Lone Start State. You will be popular and rich!

There are, of course, interdependency issues. You can't treat water and you can't pump sewage or gasoline if there isn't commercial power. 

The NY Times podcast above highlights how the electrical companies were deregulated and consumers got big breaks on their electric bills. When you are trying to be competitive, you cut back on maintenance and system upgrades that could improve the survivability and redundancy of your system. It all is wonderful until the system is put under stress — you can see the results playing out right now when "mistakes were made." 

Lastly, in 2011 there was another winter blast that shut down the power for many areas, not as widespread as today's event. The failure to "winterize the electrical components" was not heeded. So, call it another "lessons observed and not learned." 

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.