The ERCOT Autumn Arrives, the Time to Bitch Has Passed: Opinionalysis

By Mike Shiloh October 5, 2021 -- Will Texas be ready for a winter storm in 2022? The question may be moot; Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 was considered by meteorologists to be more or less a once-in-a-lifetime event, but meteorologists are seldom political experts, and the reverse is just as true. With a nationwide effort by Democrats to next year elect at least one statewide Texas candidate for the first time in 28 years and a Republican assault on the performance of renewables during Uri, the storm and subsequent events have become so politicized it's now hard to discern the subsequent facts. It takes more than just analysis or opinion. It takes opinionalysis. Even the facts of the storm's Texas impact can be elusive: The death toll has been generally accepted as 210 people, originally estimated at 70 then later 110, but there have been attempts at statistical models that claim the number could be 700. The tragedy that resulted from Uri's effects in Texas is still being quantified in dollars too, with estimates ranging from economic research company The Perryman Group's alarming $395 billion down to insurance company catastrophe modelers' $10-$20 billion, still likely to be the "costliest winter event in the state's history," as the Dallas Morning News trumpeted before the event was even over. And then there are the people, the families, individuals and business owners who suffered through the cold without electricity for as many as five days in sub-freezing temperatures; many of their stories told from various angles in outlets such as Slate, The New York Times, People Magazine... Now the Farmer's Almanac predicts a "frosty flip-flop" winter for the US and colder-than-normal temperatures beginning this December and it's obvious that Texas officials have been working hard to solve the problems the state faced last February. But are their efforts enough, so far? It's a truism in politics that Americans hold top leaders responsible for the qualities of their lives, whether top leaders have control over those qualities or not; if there aren't enough jobs we blame the president, if highways are in bad shape we blame the governor, while mayors will always be held responsible for potholes. Presidents, however, don't control the economy and even the best of mayors can't fill potholes fast enough. Such examples are just the political realities. Whether it's fair to blame Gov. Abbott for the destruction and pain of Uri doesn't matter politically, Americans always blame the top dogs for our miseries. But, now, which political party is well known for its expert handling of electrical grid issues? Is there such a party? There should be. The storm brought misery to many parts of the nation, to the surprise of just about everybody. And it continues as electric customers begin to pay for apparent price gouging and manipulation that should never happen again. So did Mr. Abbott do something to try to prevent another such tragedy? He did by rightly tasking the state Legislature to iron out political differences and make changes in the way the electrical grid is managed. Heads rolled, programs rolled out and committees were formed to study problems, only these aren't the usual mediocre committees -- the Texas grid requires engineers, technicians and long-term planning to, for instance, partition circuits so downtown districts aren't lit up like Vegas while people freeze in their darkened homes three blocks away. Some action was taken at the state level as needed, and now the specifics are being studied. As has been the case since the storm, news reporters have called on a usual-suspects lineup of energy experts and environmentalists who have conjured varying displays of mud-slinging, impatience and grudging tolerance for the slow-moving governing process. And perhaps unsurprisingly, some of those experts are unimpressed by state efforts. Some predict doom. Reporters have noted governmental grid incompetence going back decades, enough to spread the blame all around. But what about now? There have been reforms of the Public Utility Commission, a group of three appointed by the governor that didn't inspire a lot of confidence in its competence sometimes (to put it kindly), now replaced by apparently dedicated professionals. And there have been reforms at the non-profit that operates the grid, now led by more professionals who seem intent on expanding power inputs, including extra electricity generation from local sources, even as new Texas renewables farms are being built at an inspiring pace. The two agencies have promised to work together closely and, indeed, they are meeting up regularly. Now it's up to the regulators of oil and natural gas to complete the reforms needed, to clarify the details of the plan to meet power demands both this winter and next summer while demonstrating that their priorities are the safety of Texans more than the profitability of the companies they regulate. It can be done. The reforms, such as they are, put in place by the Legislature emerged after much deliberation, flawed but ultimately workable if acted upon with good will. No one wants to see more people die in another power crisis, and we all have a duty to protect children and the elderly, and that civic duty includes natural gas producers who are coming to understand that they're not just a business, they help keep some people alive with their contributions to the our flawed but intricate and flexible power grid. We as Texans are counting on these government managers and the ERCOT system -- and the Legislature to get angry and fix the holes in the new laws that could ruin the efforts so far -- to meet our needs this winter. And speaking of good management, it seems inconceivable that if a Democrat were governor he or she would have been, unlike Abbott, watching the workings of ERCOT like a hawk before Uri blew in. And it's hard to imagine wind and solar taking the blame for a systemwide crash, despite some awful Republican attempts to point fingers. The painful political reality of Winter Storm Uri is it's been relentlessly co-opted by partisans and reduced to the mundane status of a party rallying cry, when there is so little public confidence in both parties that only the faithful rally -- while some of us are not finished mourning those who died. And what of water shortages and boil-water notices and other effects of the storm? Local problems remind us it's not just a statewide issue. We have structural problems to solve before we can say we're ready to meet the demand of an essentially unprecedented weather event. Perhaps the biggest problem for Texans both rural and in the cities was -- what's going on? During the cold nights of February 15th, 16th and 17th, there was talk of rolling blackouts on local TV, only they didn't roll, the blackouts came and stayed endlessly like an IRS audit. Hour after shivering hour went by with no word from any authority on what really was going on. There is work to implement a notification system to keep us informed during the next crisis, but it needs to be widely-disseminated, specific and, yes, honest. And it can't be just cell-phone-based since most phones were incapacitated during the storm. When is the power coming back? Why is it off? If it may be off for three days, tell us so we can make plans. Texans are some darn smart folks, but we won't forget keeping us in the dark both literally and figuratively. Systems fail and repairs can take time; we know that, we own cars. But telling us to go to a website to search for life-saving information when we have neither electricity nor cell phone service nor maybe even water? Or giving us the mushroom treatment by telling us nothing? That's a combination that's not only needless but politically deadly. After a spring and summer of arguing, deliberations, short tempers and horse-trading, the time to put the Legislature's plans into action has arrived. Autumn has arrived. Perhaps transmission and distribution consultant Allison Silverstein put it best when she cautioned against scapegoating in a systemwide crisis: "There are no villains here." The heroes are the ones working to get us out of this mess.  
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