The power went off about 2am while I was having a soak in the tub before heading to bed. I grumbled and then rinsed and dried myself off in the dark and climbed up out of the tub to get dressed again so that I could go find the flashlights and the hurricane candles and make sure the house was set up for several hours of life without electricity in the middle of a nearly unprecedented winter storm.
This is the second time in a month that the power has gone off here at the house. It’s off at the school across the street too which has never happened before, and that bothers me. The school is on a seperate grid set aside for essential services. Most Texas schools were built to be shelters for harsh weather as well as their main purpose as schools, and they are largely self-sufficient architecture if properly maintained. The power being out there was a signal that this was not the ordinary squirrel chewing on transformer wires kind of problem.
The power stayed off until 4:38am. It came back on while I was washing dishes by candlelight. Weirdly that is the same thing I was doing the last time there was a power outage. The power stayed on for ten whole minutes and then it went back off again. I’m going to start a fire in the fireplace soon and start cleaning the shotgun in preparation for the zombie hordes that should be milling about by the time everything thaws in a week. I hope all of you have your zombie plans ready.
This is getting to be a too frequent problem. If I wanted to be on my own for power I would live out in the country. I don’t live in the country because I want services from the city to work when I need them too. I’d like to not have to buy solar cells, a battery backup and a generator just because I as a homeowner can’t rely on the city to keep the power on. This is why we pay taxes. We pay through the nose so that the services we need are there when we need them.
Yes, this is unprecedented weather, a never-before seen type of winter storm for this area. I get that. But this is the second time in a month, and that time the weather was normal and the power was still off all day. The city needs to start making sure that basic services stay on all the time, and just FYI that also includes the internet in this day and age. It’s time for a rethink, as the saying goes. Let’s start getting the city to pay attention to what is really important to us as citizens. What is that?
- Shelter for everyone.
- Clean water for everyone.
- Food for everyone.
- Electricity for everyone.
- Healthcare for everyone.
- Information services for everyone.
When it became clear to me that climate change was a thing some time around 2010, I started thinking that the municipalities and states needed to start making plans to deal with unexpected weather conditions in the future, because we really don’t know what will happen as the planet warms up. Winter storms stalling out in the Southern regions of the United States are perhaps a completely unlikely event to contemplate, but that is what the word unexpected means, and that is also why they changed the nomenclature from global warming to climate change, because the net effect may have been hotter temperatures worldwide, but the individual weather patterns will include things like what we are seeing right now. We need to be planning for this kind of event in the future, and we should have started these plans twenty years ago or even earlier.
We’ve waited too long and now it is time to play catch up, and we’d better start doing the planning in earnest or we’ll be seeing rolling blackouts all summer and winter in the years to come. People dying to unforeseen climate events is something that we should not just be accepting blythely like we are doing right now. How many homeless will freeze to death tonight? How many of them have died so far this year?
In a year marred by uncertainty and loss, homeless Austinites and advocates gathered Sunday morning to remember and read the names of the 256 homeless Austinites who died in 2020 – an increase of more than 70 deaths compared to last year.
Along Auditorium Shores, dog tags representing each life lost were nailed to a memorial live oak on the banks of Lady Bird Lake. The silver tags fluttered and jangled with each gust of wind on the blustery morning, while Austinites on the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail went about their Sunday exercises largely unphased.kut.org
Will it top 400 in 2021? 500? When will we say enough?
February 18, 2021 – I wrote the original portion of this article Sunday night, early Monday morning, by copying parts of text that I had written on Facebook and Nextdoor earlier in the day Sunday. I was using my phone as a hotspot while typing on my laptop and it was the only connection to the outside world that we had in the house at that time. Not too long after my 5 am post, the phone and then the laptop went dead, and I had no power to charge either of them (other than sitting out in the SUV we borrowed from a friend due to the terrorist squirrels attack on our car) until Wednesday afternoon when we were woken up from the pretty poor sleep we were getting without our cpap machines, woken up by the sound of the high temp alarm going off on the chest freezer that sits just the other side of the wall from our bedroom. So that makes just under four full days without power for us here in Austin.
Most of the food in the chest freezer will be of questionable safety and will have to be thrown out, and that goes double for the contents of the refrigerator. We moved most items that we needed to keep edible to the porch, which remains colder than the refrigerator even today, Thursday the 18th.
That is 59 hours without power thanks to the Texas electric grid manager’s (ERCOT) unwillingness to provide or find additional power to keep the electricity on for most Texans. The death toll from freezing will not be known for some time (90 days per the Statesman article quoted further down. -ed.) and the cost of life among the homeless population may never be known. Nor is this winter storm over. I noticed flakes of snow falling again today as I washed dishes in my freshly boiled tap water this morning.
Boiled tap water? The boil water notice was instituted yesterday as the assessments of the damage that the lack of electricity for four days has had on our local infrastructure revealed that the power had been turned off at Austin’s largest water treatment plant, and that water pressure remains under low pressure conditions. Low water pressure means that contaminants can be siphoned off of toilet tanks or leaks in cracked water lines, rendering the once potable water in the lines potentially life-threatening. The boil water notice will probably remain in effect here for several days.
I’m still no more confident the power will stay on than I was when it came back on the last time. It may be still on now, but how long will it be before ERCOT or the PUC once again screw up and Texas is subjected to blackouts because of it? This has happened several times, pretty much every time that the weather goes below freezing for long enough for the non weatherized portions of the electricity grid to freeze and then fail to provide power.
When I wrote about this issue on Nextdoor several people displayed a complete lack of knowledge about the subject of the electric power grid in Texas. People like this guy:
So you’d like Texas to invest hundreds of millions (or possibly billions?) of taxpayer dollars to expand capacity to meet the power needs created by a single day of once in a century weather?
The problem is not capacity that needs to be built into the system. The problem is weatherization. Weatherization that has been pointed out as being needed before, but that Texas’ electricity council has never done anything to address:
So this is a very frustrating narrative, and largely because it is true that some of the solar and wind farms were producing less than you might have expected because of the extreme cold, but a lot of them were actually overperforming expectations as well. Simultaneously, almost an order of magnitude or almost 10 times as much of the thermal system – so coal, gas and nuclear – actually shut down because of the extreme cold, due to things like instruments freezing, et cetera. So I think the overall point here is all of the fuels were really, really struggling. And as the governor mentions, renewables being about 10% of the grid, the other 90% of the grid was not available in the way that we expected to, either, and in a way that was very, very far outside of what we expected to see fail.NPR.org
The weatherization issue is a known problem and it is an old problem. In 1989 Texas faced power outages due to freezing weather impairing the electrical grid. It happened once again in the 1990’s and in 2011. Now it is happening again because ERCOT and it’s member corporations have still not complied with suggestions made by the national electrical regulating body more than a decade ago.
As another commenter pointed out on that thread on Nextdoor, this is because ERCOT was set up specifically to allow Texas to avoid federal regulation. This is possible because all of ERCOT’s activities are inside Texas, which means its activities are not interstate commerce and thusly cannot be regulated by federal authorities. ERCOT passed on the recommendations from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to their participating electrical power generators, but few if any of them were followed:
Moreover, some of the same equipment, the report noted, had failed during previous cold snaps. One in December 1989 prompted the state’s grid operator to resort to system-wide rolling blackouts for the first time.
“Many generators failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment,” the 2011 report said.
The failures have already spurred a tangle of finger-pointing, with Texas Governor Greg Abbott calling on leaders of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, to resign.bloomberg.com
The wikipedia page I linked under the acronym ERCOT above appears to have been written from press releases and from ERCOT’s own website. It is pretty hard to find any information on this obscure agency that isn’t filtered through their own internal lens. A local news station has just recently published a story that claims that several board members don’t live in Texas and one board member purportedly lives in Canada:
A KXAN analysis of ERCOT’s board revealed a total of five members do not live in Texas. Along with Telberg and Cramton, board members Vanessa Anesetti-Parra, Terry Bulger and Raymond Hepper do not appear to live in the Lone Star State.
Anesetti-Parra’s professional social media account shows her location as Canada, Bulger’s ERCOT biography lists his home as Wheaton, Illinois and a University of Pennsylvania law school biography shows Hepper calls Maine home.kxan.com
What is clear is that ERCOT has proven that it can’t manage Texas’s electrical generating grid with any reliability and needs to be scrapped and replaced with another organization that is mandated with ensuring that power stays on for the average Texan even when inclement weather is affecting the region.
This is not a big ask. This is not asking the government to invest billions of dollars providing excess capacity, although re-investing the millions of dollars of profit that these corporations have taken out of Texas in the future of Texas and in Texas’ ability to sustain the necessary systems for power generation and delivery would be a completely justifiable demand.
I’ll start simple. I’d like the state to stop denying that climate change is real. It’s all around us and affecting us more and more each day. Stop pretending that science is political. Science is real and climate change is real and we are just going to have to learn how to deal with this new reality that we have created. I would like a task force to be set up to spitball and then solve similar issues to this one we are living through now, and then they need to set up preparations to deal with similar crisis in the future.
There will be another crisis this summer from the heat and there will likely be one next winter from the cold. Once in a century storms seem to happen every other season these days. It is time to get off of our collective asses and go about setting up the systems we will need to survive this new and rapidly changing climate we find ourselves in. Austin should probably increase their investment in the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station, and possibly start backing current plans to expand that station to generate more power. That would be a good place to start. On the other end of the spectrum Austin and Texas should allow and/or encourage households and businesses to install battery backup systems for their solar power systems, so that households and businesses can draw on their own power during peak demand cycles. Completely the opposite direction from where Governor Abbott is currently agitating energy to go, demanding a reinvestment in oil and natural gas:
In the meantime we still don’t have running water. Luckily we started having drinking water delivered a few years ago because Austin tap water had started tasting weird and didn’t look to be improving anytime soon. At least I could still wash dishes and clothes in it, as well as cook with it, while it was running. I really miss water at the taps that we could drink as well as do all those other things we need water to do in the average human home. Looking forward to the time when we can once again take basic necessities for granted as being guaranteed by the governments we elect to make sure we have what we need to survive.
If you elect people who hate and fear government to run government, you get bad government.
Bad government has consequences. Bad government can’t handle a crisis, won’t help its citizens (not can’t help its citizens, won’t), and can only blame others for its endless failure.
And you don’t have to look any further than what’s happening in Texas right now to see it.facebook.com/Stonekettle
We made the Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word on MSNBC Feb. 18th & 19th . A clip from Rachel’s show is the featured image. Here are some links to the screenshots (Instagram link 1 and link 2) I took from the Thursday Feb. 18, 2021 show.
The last commenter on the Nextdoor post I cribbed a portion of the text for this article from kept passively/aggressively implying that we had better shut up about wanting the power to stay on if we didn’t want to pay more for our electricity here in Texas. After about the fifth version of this reply being posted in the thread, I asked her to answer the question “is it a prosecutable crime to allow someone to freeze to death in their house by turning off the electricity? Yes or no?” She never responded to the question.
Hector Nieto, public information officer for the county, said the medical examiner’s office was busy processing at least 86 cases from Feb. 13-20 to determine the causes of death.statesman.com
Here is a story from the Feb. 25th Texas Standard:
Tap water was declared safe to drink citywide in Austin on the 25th. There were three other stories about the aftermath of the storm in this episode of the show.
The state’s tally currently stands at 151 deaths. But by looking at how many more people died during and immediately after the storm than would have been expected — an established method that has been used to count the full toll of other disasters — we estimate that 700 people were killed by the storm during the week with the worst power outages. This astonishing toll exposes the full consequence of officials’ neglect in preventing the power grid’s collapse despite repeated warnings of its vulnerability to cold weather, as well as the state’s failure to reckon with the magnitude of the crisis that followed.buzzfeednews.com
The official tally is up to 210, but I have to agree with Buzzfeed here. The graveyard doesn’t lie. The death toll during the storm was the number of people who died during the storm, less the average number of deaths for that month historically.