The Volokh Conspiracy

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A final weather update from Houston


As of Thursday afternoon, water was restored to my neighborhood. The pressure was quite low, but it was enough to flush toilets. There is still a "boil water order" in effect, so showers are still not possible. And, fortunately, grocery stores now have power, and are selling limited goods on shelves.

At this point, things should only get better. The temperature will dip down to the 20s this evening, but by the weekend we will see warm weather in the 60s. Some homes still lack power due to downed power lines and other problems. I hope, in short order, power is restored everywhere.

Here, I'd like to leave two final thoughts. First, my power never went out. Not even for a minute. Why? Over the past few days, I've keep a close eye on the outage tracker, and neighborhoods to my north, south, east, and west all turned dark. But not mine. Far more affluent neighborhoods went dark (including Ted Cruz's vacant home). And far more important institutions, including hospitals, went dark. But why did my lights stay on? It is a strange feeling when you receive this sort of benefit during a natural disaster. We were happy to let another family stay with us to keep warm. (To maintain distancing, we occupied different floors). But I still struggle with the fact that we had uninterrupted power and internet access, while others were freezing, due to factors unknown.

Second, in my first post on this topic, I observed that it may not be worth the cost to winterize Texas, because cold weather is so rare. The Texas Tribune quotes several experts who flag this precise issue:

ERCOT officials have said that some power generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, but they were voluntary. Woodfin has said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were "not sufficient to keep these generators online" during this storm.

It's unclear how much winterizing power sources would cost power plants or the state, but experts and industry leaders say it won't be cheap.

"If you wanted to over engineer the ERCOT grid so this could never happen, the cost would be astronomical," said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

Peter Hartley, an energy expert at Rice University, echoed that sentiment.

"Canada runs power systems with weather colder than this all the time," he said. "A lot of these problems you can fix by spending money. There is a question: If you have low probability of an extreme event, do you want to spend the money?"

I don't know what the correct path is going forward.

I am grateful Texas can return to some stage of normalcy–still, we have a pandemic to deal with. But the lights are on and the water is running.