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:
Here are three Texas Republicans mocking California power outages last year and my Dallas bathtub this morning, a literal block of ice pic.twitter.com/ViGZuTZz40
— Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) February 16, 2021
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:
Texas and Oklahoma are finding out what Calif and NY found out. In major blackouts, traditional copper wire phones work, cable phones and VoIP phones do not, and cells work only as long as their sites have diesel fuel or other backup power. https://t.co/X8Mxu1PYfO
— Public Utility Law Project of New York (@UtilityProject) February 16, 2021
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?