Texas Power, Phone Outages Again Highlight How Infrastructure Underinvestment Will Be Fatal Moving Forward

from the things-will-need-to-change,-quickly dept

If you hadn’t noticed, the United States isn’t really prepared for climate change. In part because corporations and disinformation mills have convinced countless Americans a destabilizing climate isn’t actually happening. But also because we were already perpetually underinvesting in our core infrastructure before the symptoms of an unstable climate began to manifest. It’s a massive problem that, as John Oliver highlighted six years ago, doesn’t get the same attention as other pressing issues of the day. You know, like the latest influencer drama or mortal threat posed by TikTok.

Infrastructure policy is treated as annoying and boring… until a crisis hits and suddenly everybody cares. As millions of Texans found out this week when the state’s energy infrastructure crumbled like a rotten old house under the weight of heating energy demands, leaving millions without power during a major cold snap. While outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News quickly tried to weaponize the crisis by blaming the renewable energy sector for the problems, deeper, more technical dives seem to indicate a lack of wind power output wasn’t the underlying problem:

“While some early reports indicated that frozen wind turbines were causing significant shortfalls, 30GW is roughly equal to the entire state’s wind capacity if every turbine is producing all the power it’s rated for. Since wind in Texas generally tends to produce less during winter, there’s no way that the grid operators would have planned for getting 30GW from wind generation; in fact, a chart at ERCOT indicates that wind is producing significantly more than forecast.”

While it will obviously require a deeper investigation to flesh out the failure points, the real culprit appears to be entirely predictable and notably more banal. Namely, inconsistent regulatory oversight and a systemic underinvestment in essential infrastructure:

“Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, blamed the failures on the state?s deregulated power system, which doesn?t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants.

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

Texas’ issues are somewhat unique by nature of the way the Texas utility grid is structured. It’s isolated in part because of the state’s unwillingness to be regulated by the federal government. And while deregulation efforts in the late nineties and early aughts were supposed to fix the state’s power monopoly problems, the policy wound up being a bit of a mixed bag:

“from 2002 to 2013, the average household in deregulated areas paid a total of about $4,800 more than residents of cities ? like Austin and San Antonio ? served by just one municipal utility, or those served by electric cooperatives, the analysis said.”

Either way, these problems could have been avoided. In fact, a decade-old report pointed out precisely how to avoid them via weatherization, investment, and greater emergency natural gas reserves. Many Texas utilities talked about how they were doing these things, but didn’t actually follow through, the 2011 report politely noted:

“Although generators and gas producers reported having winterization procedures and practices in place, responses were generally reactive in their approach to winterization and preparedness.”

And of course because gutting state and federal regulatory oversight is treated as a panacea on many fronts, government didn’t do enough to ensure these companies were disaster-proofing their network. Going this extra mile also requires spending money on preparing for climate change, something that’s hard to do when you’ve got millions of folks running around — especially in Ted Cruz’ state of Texas — who don’t believe in climate change. In fact as the crisis has become more and more pronounced, many political leaders did the exact opposite of responsible leadership, by turning infrastructure investment and competent regulatory oversight into another idiotic political trolling opportunity:

In addition to the power outages, millions of Texans lost access to voice services. While old copper phone lines still work, cable voice or VOIP services quickly fell apart — in part because we stopped mandating back up batteries in many internet-based phone services. Meanwhile, cell phones don’t work if there’s no power going to your local tower, and a lack of backup power options at those sites:

After Hurricane Katrina, in 2008, the FCC passed rules mandating that cellular towers be upgraded to include battery backups or generators capable of delivering at least 8 hours of backup power, if not 24 or more. But the US cellular industry, you know, the one whose rates are some of the highest in the developed world, cried like a petulant child about the requirement and sued to scuttle the rules.

Backed by the then Bush White House, cellular carriers told anybody who’d listen that the requirement would create “a huge economic and bureaucratic burden” for the industry. A better approach, the industry proclaimed, would be to let the industry self-regulate and adhere to entirely voluntary guidelines, leaving it with the “flexibility” to adapt to problems as the industry saw fit. It didn’t work, and as a result outages were equally dire during Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Irma. And now again in Texas.

Infrastructure policy is often dismissed as droll wonkery and largely ignored… until a crisis. But these problems are made all the more frustrating because experts know what to do to prevent disruption and save lives… we just refuse to do it. Regardless, it’s increasingly clear that letting powerful regional companies (be they in energy or telecom) self-regulate, while underinvesting all the while, is going to prove increasingly fatal as the climate increasingly destabilizes. The real question is: how many people are going to die before we actually learn something from the experience?

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Texas Power, Phone Outages Again Highlight How Infrastructure Underinvestment Will Be Fatal Moving Forward”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
46 Comments
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Democracy was a wonderful idea, until our governments were sold to the highest bidder."

To be frank, the US government was set up by the founding fathers quite explicitly to dilute the democratic aspects with a hefty dose of plutocracy. At the time they did so they might have had a point in that a badly educated common citizen whose only information of events came from the nearest firebrand demagogue, might not be the best person to turn to for dictating the turn of political discourse.

In modern times when every voter with grade school behind them has an education level resembling that of the 18th century upper crust and untrammeled access to global news, that point is no longer true, and the US system could do with quite a few reforms there.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Bloof (profile) says:

There’s no money to be made in the short term from future proofing, and when people running a company are rewarded for making a number go up, that’s all they care about. The lack of investment today will be the problem of whoever takes over after them, and if it becomes a life threatening issue, they can go cap in hand to get the government to pay for it.

In the UK, they privatised the railways in the 90s and the infrastructure was sold off and run for profit. They closed all their in house R&D and outsourced everything, leading to a massive brain drain as the older employees retired and nobody else was hired and trained to fill those roles. They also slashed the money spent on repairs, and eventually it started to cost people their lives. Eventually the government had to step in after a tragedy, gave them money for the upgrades… Which Railtrak turned around and gave to their shareholders. The backlash was so intense, it lead to the company being re-nationalised, but unfortunately for americans, that’s not something that’s likely to happen as it’s just par for the course with govenment money and everyone knows it. They never attach strings to handouts unless they’re going to the poor.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Paul B says:

Re: Re:

The Texas power grid issues are bigger then people think, a ton of generating capacity is idle because it only goes online if it makes a profit, demand is currently artificially low because we have rolling blackouts all over the place to the tune of about 25%. So plants won’t fire up since they can’t see network demand and the real price for their power.

The other end of this is the ENRON stuff going on, by limiting generation in a situation where you would pay or freeze you push up the price of power sky high.

Why is this all happening? Texas is both small in market size compared to the 2 national grids, and uses an instant price auction system for buying power from producers in real time. Firing up a new plant with out a change in the blackout policy just dumps the price, while doing nothing means your current plants make bank till the grid changes the blackout policy.

In the end we have a perfect storm of unlimited demand, very limited production, and a regulator who by design cant tell power producers what to do, only provide current demand and network load information.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
I am not a cat says:

Re: Re: Re:

I was told that private business is much better than government at everything.

Perhaps I was lied to.

I wonder, those who profit from the privatized Texas power grid .. do they live in Texas? If so, I bet they have their own generators in the back yard .. probably paid for by the rate payers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

generally and historically, free enterprise is always more efficient and productive than political government control of economic activity.

the U.S. (including Texas today) does NOT operate in a free market environment for electricty production and distribution — it is heavily regulated/contolled by government politicians and bureaucrats.

all the current electricity problems in Texas are entirely attributable to harmful economic interventions by government.

Paul B says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

What policies are causing the problem, because I could easily see some fairly common sense ones like, electrical producers need to be rated for weather down to 10 degrees. This of course is not the case as no one has the authority to tell power producers how to run there business, and instead of punishing them for not meeting the needs of the people, in the storm they passed rate hikes.

So far it seems like deregulated power producers are building the minimum product and demanding premium prices. Then going to the bank with our money when they fail us.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"generally and historically, free enterprise is always more efficient and productive than political government control of economic activity."

Only assuming regulatory capture isn’t a thing. And the problem is that in a country like the US the politicians are the bought-and-paid-for minions of their campaign contributors.

Ironically the US free market makes for worse handling of utilities by far than the government-operated monopoly utilities elsewhere. Simply because american politicians are funding their campaigns with private money where in many other countries there are severe limits on how much money any given campaign may receive and use in marketing.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"generally and historically, free enterprise is always more efficient and productive than political government control of economic activity."

Free enterprise sometimes seems to be more efficient due to the cutting of corners, not unlike what the state of Texas did with their energy policy. This can be profitable in the short term, but carries a huge risk long term.

"the U.S. (including Texas today) does NOT operate in a free market environment for electricty production and distribution — it is heavily regulated/contolled by government politicians and bureaucrats."

The state of Texas operates their own, isolated, power grid. It does not connect to the rest of the nation and does not have to meet those other requirements levied upon energy generation in other states.

"all the current electricity problems in Texas are entirely attributable to harmful economic interventions by government."

The current problems in Texas are directly attributable to the lack of planning for such a natural occurrence. They could have paid for the installation of equipment capable of withstanding the cold and wet environment that is absolutely possible and actually does occur! Go figure.

So, in summary – you are wrong.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They never attach strings to handouts unless they’re going to the poor.

I’m fairly certain that you’ve not been reading the financial press vis-a-vis the American auto industry for the past several decades. Take a look at this article, which details the requirements placed upon Chrysler and General Motors, in 2009:

https://www.thebalance.com/auto-industry-bailout-gm-ford-chrysler-3305670

But this bailout was predicated on history. Try this article on for size:

https://www.heritage.org/government-regulation/report/the-chrysler-bail-out-bust

Those two are the tip of the iceberg. In point of fact, the (American) government has a specific program for exactly this kind of thing, and it’s not what’s you’ might call "free and easy" to get through all the hoops. If you’re truly interested in this kind of stuff, look up "Troubled Asset Relief Program" (aka TARP).

HTH

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
bob says:

all fun and games until...

I also laughed at Ted Cruz’s aged-like-milk tweet because he is such a hypocrite and short sighted.

However a tweet from another person reminded me that this is a very serious problem. People are dying and suffering as a result of too many in a leadership position not doing enough to actually prepare for the future. Also the outages and other problems are going to probably disproportionately affect minorities and poorer people.

Unfortunately politicians and business leaders concentrate on short term gains at the expense of long term prosperity.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Wronski Feint (profile) says:

same problem in Australia

We had a freak cyclone event a few years ago that took out a number of high voltage towers feeding into South Australia, then because of over zealous protections by generators, local power sources backed off the network. We had nearly three days of total power outage state-wide. Phone towers batteries died after the initial 4 hours. With NBN (and the forced conversion to SIP phones), there are no more land lines, so we lost all comms.

There is now better power regulation (the govt can force generators to power up) and backup diesel generators in communities, plus a big 150MW battery, so the above shouldn’t happen again for a while, but still no requirement to adequately power the phone towers. As the article says, no one cares.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
fairuse (profile) says:

New Rules: Inspections

My take on climate: Weather happens, climate changes. Some ignore both.

This is where I dump science on everyone and take policy out of the topic.

Dr. Nate Lewis has been telling the science of energy generation for years. Naturally the not-glitzy lectures don’t trend on Twitter. Here are the links:

  1. Source material — http://nsl.caltech.edu/energy

  2. (all science with some humor and Q and A.
    https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/videos/alternative-renewable-energy-sources-for-earth

  3. You tube version more for people who are not in item 2. (some revisions and good quality. — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUKqx2uk-Gs

Some economical data has probably changed, new science may exist, the lecture is about showing the magnitude of energy consumption and how it takes many solutions not just renewable (not an accurate label but we are stuck with it)

Just something to ponder when politics is driving the bus.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Ninja (profile) says:

Infrastructure should be provided by the Government. You can allow private investment but the Government should keep at the very least basic disaster proof infrastructure because disaster-proofing any network is not profitable. Much lioke taking that infrastructure coverage to remote areas or otherwise non-profitable areas for whatever reason.

The right operates in a "less is more" logic as if the private sector is going to do everything efficiently and altruistically but it will not. And the US is a prime example of it in many, many aspects. The power grid in Texas is just one example but here in TD we often read about how dysfunctional the broadband market is. And how incradibly bad and expensive the coverage is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fiddle-dee-dee

Those most responsible are probably not even in Texas at the moment, for example Ted just got back from Mexico, and those that are probably have their bomb shelter outfitted with power generation, they probably have real food.

Those who are suffering, from the not so rich to the homeless, many were not afforded the opportunity to vote and of those who did vote many are gerrymandered.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: > because experts know what to do

Not sure your point was/is, but it has been pointed out in several articles on this topic that the state of Texas and those tasked with maintenance of the power grid, ignored recommendations made as a result of technical review. It claimed that had they followed the recommendations, some of which addressed cold weather, there would be no power/heat problems. But I’m sure its all fud, right?

That One Guy (profile) says:

'Let them eat frozen cake.'

The real question is: how many people are going to die before we actually learn something from the experience?

If local and state politicians had to deal with freezing temperatures and no heating due to no power any time something like this happened not a single death would be needed as there would be multiple levels of redundancies and backups and strict regulations in place to keep the companies involved in line, but since it’s largely just the peasants freezing and there’s always more of them lying around, eh, no biggie.

That those that make the laws and enforce them never have to deal with what it’s like to be on the other end is I’d say a large(though probably not the main, that I’d lay at the feet of corruption) source of many problems in american government and elsewhere, because it’s all too easy to dismiss hardships or violations of rights or even lives when it’s always someone else suffering and you know damn well that you’ll never have to deal with the consequences for and from your actions.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...