It’s possible. I need electricity to run some essential devices (CPAP, for one) the absence of which could cause traumatic loss of life. So I need the electricity to be on, and I need it to be on reliably. January 2023 saw a localized repeat of the power outages that were statewide in 2021, proving that the claims of Governor Abbott were the bullshit I knew them to be. The grid was not safe. Our power could be turned off for days for no good reason and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it.
I titled my original piece on the SnoVID debacle Guaranteed City Services for a very good reason. The City of Austin’s self-owned electric provider has gotten pretty lackadaisical over the last decade or so. They don’t seem as interested in making sure the power stays on all over the city all the time. The month of the SnoVID event marked two or three outages of more than a few minutes. I couldn’t even tell you how many times the power might periodically simply just turn off in the neighborhood over the months before and after. Ten? Twenty times? Who knows. I lost count.
After the grid service smoothed back out and returned to what Texas calls normal operations (but is still pretty sub-par) the power in the neighborhood was reliably on far more often than it had been up to that point. I had hopes that Austin would at least have learned a lesson from that catastrophe.
This last January proved those hopes to be unfounded. Both Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk and AustinEnergy’s manager Jackie Sargent were in charge during the SnoVID event. Both of them should have understood what it meant to be prepared for a hazardous winter storm. They clearly did not do their jobs and should be summarily fired for their failures. The power was off for three days because of a light dusting of ice across the city. I don’t want to hear about trees or power lines or any other bullshit excuses. Those crews should have been on standby and the power should have been restored across the city within hours, not days.
The storm my uncle Roge sat for a month without power in, hunting geese and squirrels and whatever else he could find to shoot and eat and survive for another day, that storm dumped a total of eight feet of snow across the entire midwest. Our power stayed on in our little town of four thousand people. The crews were out working day and night to make sure that the power stayed on, if that was what it took. That was the job they were paid to do, and they did their job. Which is more than I can say for the people who run the City of Austin.
This is 2023, I hear you saying. You can buy battery backups and solar power panels and personal wind turbines. You don’t need the grid to be up 24/7 anymore. Get with the times! That’s great. Sure. I could buy all those things. I probably will forego the rarified monthly dinner out in exchange for buying a battery backup that will power my CPAP machine, charge my phone and whatever else I can afford to pay to keep running. Probably not much. I’m disabled. I don’t have a lot of time, energy or money to devote to solving the Texas power grid problem for myself, personally.
Either we are living in a world where we can rely on our neighbors to have our backs, rely on our government to keep the power on and to provide basic city services as if they were guaranteed, or we are living in a anarchist hellhole where only the wealthy can buy a ticket out. We need to decide which version of this story we want to be in. Soon.
I just got back from my daily walk. It’s not been daily for several weeks now due to Meniere’s symptoms triggered by a cedar allergy, but it’s a daily walk in an aspirational sense. I’m coming in from my more than aspirational daily walk today and it’s sleeting on me and the dog all the way back home. This is not a good sign.
We are about to hit the one year anniversary of SnoVID. On February 15th, 2021 at about 2:00 am, the power went off in Texas. It went off and stayed off across the entire ERCOT grid for more than a day. Here in Austin where I live the power was off for five days. I detail those events here:
A year later, as the snows fall again, we residents of Texas have to cross our fingers and hope that the electric service providers have done the job they said they would do thirty years ago. Done their job and weatherized all the parts of the electric grid that failed last year. We have to cross our fingers on the subject because the Texas Republican lead state legislature and Governor Abbott failed to do anything substantial in the way of mandating that ERCOT and the public utility commission do the jobs they should have done the first time the power went off in Texas.
The SnoVID event was just the latest in a several decades-long festival of kicking the can down the road for the next group of Texas leaders to deal with. I have no hope that Abbott or his flock or Trumpist cohorts in the legislature are any different than their predecessors in office, so I will resign myself to camping next to a fire in the fireplace again this year, just as I did last year. The prospect doesn’t alarm me because I have the lessons I learned from my Uncle Roge to lend me strength in times like these.
Uncle Roge was my Great Uncle Roger Heim, the brother of Dorothy Heim/Steele my Grandmother, but he was Uncle Roge to everybody, even people who weren’t related to him. He had a farm somewhere between Marienthal and Modoc, just off the highway between Leoti and Scott City, Kansas. He was close enough to home to be a regular visitor in Grandmother’s house, a face I grew to know and love along with the rest of the people that entered our little family circle in Leoti.
He was a hard man to love. Stoic. Gruff. Reserved. I’ve met a lot of old farmers over the years, most of them were a lot like my Uncle Roge. They know what they know, and you’d best not argue with them about the things they know because they’d put you in your place if you did. I would have sworn that he was always seventy for the thirty years or so that I encountered him. He always looked the same, old and angry. I was surprised to learn that he had been a child once, but Grandmother swore she’d known him as a child and he was such a sweet boy. I couldn’t picture it, but Grandmother never lied about anything, so I guess he was a sweet boy once. I still can’t picture it.
He had served in World War Two. He never talked about it, like most vets, but it was a thing that was known about him. There were deep reserves of strength behind those eyes. You could see them if you held his gaze.
He was one of the senior members of the Leoti Gun Club or Wichita County Gun Club or whatever it was called back then. Dad was a member too, as were most of the men who lived in town at the time. Shooting was one of the few things to do in small town Kansas; and if you were going to go out and shoot things it was better if you knew where to point the gun and what to pull the trigger on. That was why the Gun Club existed, to train your neighbors on where not to point their guns so that they don’t inadvertently shoot you due to their lack of training.
Uncle Roge was my instructor in firearms safety in more ways than that one. There was always a tale about what happened to somebody’s kid somewhere that Dad would relate to me when I would do something stupid with a gun. Then he would turn to Uncle Roge, the one who had caught me doing the stupid thing, and ask him to confirm the story. Roge would say “yeah, that’s right” and the two of them would laugh and walk off to go find something else to shoot at. Or to not shoot at. Uncle Roge rarely wasted a shot on anything that he couldn’t eat, the occasional coyote being the exception to the rule.
The Gun Club had a hunting spot that they called Twin Buttes somewhere between Eads and Kit Carson, Colorado that they held a lease to hunt Canada Geese on. To call it remote is an understatement. There was another club who had a lease next door and after them there was nobody for about a hundred miles in any direction. There was sporadic electricity on the lease that you could pull to the travel trailers that were mostly permanently parked there. There was no running water, no sewer, no garbage pickup. No civilization of any kind other than the electricity and what the men who occupied the lease brought with them from home.
Uncle Roge would pull his trailer up there early every hunting season so as to get the property ready for the rest of hunters who showed up later. He’d clear the road and fill potholes, cut down the two foot tall weeds that had grown up over the previous year. Basically make the area accessible for the towners who showed up barely capable of getting to an from the site without injuring themselves on a good weekend.
Dad used to joke about how we were living rough when we’d go hunting. We had propane heaters and hurricane lanterns. The pits that we hunted from were concrete lined and had their own space heaters. You’d go out and light them early so that the pit would be warm when you had to go out later to sit in it and wait for the geese to fly over. You didn’t want to rely on the electricity, but there were plenty of beds and down-filled sleeping bags to go around. It was roughing it for a teenager who was used to television during the day, but I was a reader anyway. I hardly missed the TV. I did miss the indoor plumbing.
Uncle Roge went out one year to prepare the lease for occupation and a blizzard blew in while he was there. It dumped several feet of snow all over the area, all the way to Leoti where we were snug and warm. Roge knew that it would be awhile before anyone would be out to get him. Could be weeks before the plows got to the roads that lead to this remote outpost between nowhere and nowhere. So he did what he had to do. He’d go out every morning and shovel snow into a melt bucket and put it in his warm trailer. Then he’d wander out to the pits and shoot something to eat that day. He hadn’t brought much food with him, so he was going to have to live off of whatever it was he killed in the meantime.
When he got back to his trailer and the now-useless power pole that marked our camping spot in the wilderness, he’d clean his kill, start it cooking and melt another bucket of snow. In between these routine tasks required to stay alive, he’d play solitaire dominoes and wait to hear the snowplows. Rinse and repeat, day-in and day-out. They’d get here eventually, the power would get turned back on eventually, the snow would melt eventually. It was all just a matter of time.
It was a whole month later when the snow plows got to the road that lead past the Twin Buttes lease. Uncle Roge was there at the gates to greet the plow drivers as they went past. He was very glad to see them. I imagine he even smiled at them as they drove past. It was probably a soul-lifting event to see him smile; a rare event in any case. He had gotten pretty tired of eating boiled goose and saltines by that point. It was well past time to head into town and see about getting something else to eat for a change.
So when the power goes out in Texas again, as I’m sure it will, I’ll just remember my Uncle Roge and then grin and bear it. At least I have more than boiled goose and saltines to live on for the next month. I have cards and dominoes and opponents to play against instead of having to play solitaire. Hopefully the power will be back on in less than a month. I’m not as good as Uncle Roge at living off the land, but I can give it a try if I have to. I might find out what squirrel tastes like if the power stays off for that long. I guess there is that to look forward to.
Etenesh Mersha, 46, meanwhile, made a fateful decision, one repeated by scores of Texas residents who lost electricity that week. Desperate to warm up, she went into their attached garage and turned the key to start her car. As the engine hummed, it provided power to run the car’s heater and charge her phone while she talked to a friend in Colorado — at the same time, filling her garage and home with a poisonous gas.
The number of deaths from the Winter storm that passed through Texas and the rest of the nation back in February is almost certainly an undercount. There were 86 deaths that occurred in Travis county in that timeframe, and yet only twelve deaths are claimed as storm-related. I simply don’t accept the number as reported by Republican controlled Texas state agencies.
I find it hard to believe that so many people died of carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because I was almost killed by carbon monoxide poisoning when I was night stocking at the Piggly Wiggly in San Angelo. They had decided to remodel the store, and they were running gas-powered concrete saws to cut in new refrigerant lines to the new display cases. They didn’t want people to just walk into the store at night, so they locked all the doors and started up the saws. They couldn’t figure out why we all got headaches and had to go home.
Maybe it is because the heat exchanger on our upstairs furnace leaked due to the previous owner welding a crack in the furnace rather than replacing it. We almost died that time as well, until I noticed that I was having the same symptoms that I had when they were cutting the floors that time in the 80’s.
American media is replete with stories about people committing suicide by sitting in their cars in an enclosed garage. I have a hard time believing that most people hadn’t been exposed to the knowledge that carbon monoxide is a killer and that you shouldn’t burn fossil fuels in an enclosed space because of carbon monoxide buildup. Then I remember my own near-misses with the gas, and I am thankful that we put carbon monoxide sensors up in the house after we found out about the leaky heat exchanger.
Knowledge is power. Even this latest winter storm reveals this fact. Knowing the facts about the machines you use and their effects on your environment will keep you from dying. You certainly can’t rely on your government to tell you these things, especially not in Texas.
Lawmakers this year are considering a broader modernization of state building codes that is unrelated to February’s storm. If the measure passes, it would require carbon monoxide alarms in some new homes and apartments, but not those built or renovated before 2022. And it would allow local governments to opt out.
“This is Bonnie and Clyde,” said Will Whisennand, who oversees care of the mammals at the Austin Aquarium, as he walked into the otter exhibit. “They squeak when they’re happy. They squeak when they’re sad, when they’re excited, when they’re hungry. They’re always squeaking.”
I haven’t been able to hug friends and family for over a year now. When I finally get to hug them again, I’ll be making noises much like that otter is making in the video. There will probably be tears, too.
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.
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.
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.
Millions lost power. Hundreds died. How did this happen? KUT’s Mose Buchele explores what happened during the worst blackout in Texas history, how we got the electric grid we have today and what could be done to fix it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you want to know why the Texas power grid sucks as bad as it does today?