A final weather update from Houston

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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.

NEXT: If Donald Trump is Convicted of Violating 18 U.S.C. § 2383, Will He Be Disqualified From Serving As President?

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  1. Josh, this weekend, 60's.

    I thought the climate was heating. Crazy to spend on cold conditions.

    The amount of coal and its carbon emission to make the electricity to make those steel, building size wind propellers will never be retrieved if you run them a 1000 years. Ban wind power. It is an ecological disaster.

    Electric vehicles require child slave labor to mine the lithium in the batteries. The production and disposal of those batteries is an unmitigated ecological catastrophe. Never mind the carbon footprint of shipping them to the cars. Then, when it gets cold, your EV will strand you and be dead. I see them on the side of the road in the Northeast.

    1. What a silly thing to write. Do you think that nuclear or coal plants don't require massive quantities steel to build?

      And clearly you know nothing about the economics of EVs. What "carbon footprint" of "shipping them to the cars"? The batteries in my Volt weight about 400 lbs and are going strong at 100K miles. Do you know what the cost of shipping 400 lbs by sea is? Pretty low. That's because it uses very little energy. What's the carbon cost of shipping oil from the Middle East for enough oil to power a typical American car for 100K miles?

      1. Brats. I am ashamed that you chose to suborn child slave labor for your selfish saving 20% on the cost of gas.

      2. Prices mean something. They represent resources, whether labor or raw materials.

        When EVs cost so much more than ICE vehicles, that means they use more resources, more labor.

        If you think high prices of EVs are just there to line Elon Musk's pockets, you are really ignorant about the most basic economics.

      3. And you are also economically ignorant if you think all the electricity your EV uses has no weight. What do you think generates that electricity, free wind? Free sunlight? No. It's the equipment which turns natural non-resources into unnatural resources like electricity. They have short lifespans. Wind turbines last about 12 years, solar panels maybe 20. Guess what -- fossil fule plants and nuclear power last a lot longer.

    2. 'Electric vehicles require child slave labor to mine the lithium in the batteries.'

      I have some terrible, awful, no-good news about whatever it is you're using to publish this comment on the internet.

  2. Deep in Trump country just outside Democrat shithole, Dallas, very little inconvenience. That was true without private resources like generators.

    You should get an endowed chair in Dallas, live in Plano or in Lakeland. The endowed chair is the only position of any value in academia. All others are garbage.

    1. So what you are saying is that the Republican controlled government in Texas has intentionally provided Democratic areas with inferior utility infrastructure.

    2. Deep in Trump country just outside Democrat shithole, Dallas, very little inconvenience.

      I live in the D/FW 'burbs of which you speak, and can assure everyone that you are utterly full of shit on this. The prolonged power outages and burst water pipes have been nearly everywhere.

  3. The women of Dallas area are beautiful, classic American beauties. One can straighten you out. The women of Houston? OMG. Triple bagger Democrats. When these speak, one wants to jump from a window.

    Dallas scene from a few years ago, standing on a corner. A valet at a restaurant crashes a Jaguar into a Porsche driven by another valet. An eighteen year old model wearing a full length mink coat comes running out, screaming. It's like that.

    1. David,
      We don't need such sexist pig comments here.

  4. If you have low probability of an extreme event, do you want to spend the money?

    It all depends on how much you value having reliable power during extreme and dangerous weather events. The problem is that markets tend not to do that calculation very well. That's why regulation of such things is a good idea.

    1. Why do you say that? What fount of knowledge do regulators have access to that market participants don't?

      1. It's encoded on the back of government paychecks in invisible ink.

    2. markets do that calculation far better than bureaucrats. Central planners have no wisdom or secret knowledge just by virtue of a government paycheck. Market players have skin in the game and care very much about making good decisions; bureaucrats, not so much.

      Again, your economic ignorance is on full display. Read up on public choice economics; Buchanan got a Nobel Prize for it.

      1. The benefits you point out are all true. But also markets are bad at evaluating lives - they maximize for efficiency, not for lifespan. Or happiness. And their time horizon is short.

        For some things they're great, but if you think they're always the right answer, that's ideology not fact.

        1. Markets are not limited to short time horizons. Your ignorance is also showing. Your general lack of faith in people, in humanity, as opposed to bureaucrats with those magic wisdom-enhancing paychecks, is also apparent. And thirdly apparent is your ignorance of history.

          1. They're demonstrably limited in their time horizon. Because people have limited lifespans.

            Also, just look at RoI timescales by big space or defense companies.

      2. The problem is you're already looking at a distorted market: Without subsidies and mandates, they wouldn't have built that many windmills. It only appears to make sense due to government induced market distortions.

        The basic problem here is that, in order to run a stable grid and avoid blackouts, you need to have enough capacity to handle peak demand under adverse conditions. And neither solar nor wind can count towards that capacity, because you can't count on them being available when you need them.

        Every watt of wind power has to be backed up by a watt of conventional power sitting idle. So the only way wind makes any economic sense is if windmills are practically free. Which they aren't.

        The same amount of money spent on just conventional power sources would have left plenty of budget for winterizing to handle a storm like this, they didn't need a lot of winterizing, really not much more than some strategically located heat tape and insulation. For the most part the conventional plants got through the storm OK, the real problem was the gas turbines competing with home heating demand, and the windmills producing much less power.

        1. Brett,

          Don't blame the windmills. That's ridiculous.

          It's a stupid, self-serving lie being spread by Abbott and the RW media.

          1. So you are buying the argument that taking 18 GW of capacity offline had no effect on an already stressed power grid.

            In a complex, interconnected system like modern power grids, single-cause analysis is just stupid. Even proximate-cause analysis will generate more useless noise than actual insight. But-for analysis and contributory-whatever analysis are the better approaches.

            No, the overinvestment in windmills is not the single "cause" of the problem in Texas but that overinvestment clearly made the problem a lot worse than it would have been otherwise.

            And before you continue ranting about the "self-serving lies being spread by ... the RW media", you might want to consider the incentives of your LW buddies to be less than scrupulous with the truth about their own favored causes and projects.

            1. You're essentializing one part to blame it (Based on no clear causality), and not bothering to wonder about why the rest of it failed?

              No, the overinvestment in windmills is not the single “cause” of the problem in Texas but that overinvestment clearly made the problem a lot worse than it would have been otherwise.
              You could point to literally any single or set of power plants and say that; it's meaningless.

            2. So you are buying the argument that taking 18 GW of capacity offline had no effect on an already stressed power grid.

              No.I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying that the claims by Abbot and the RW media that the wind turbines are the source of the problem are a pack of lies.

              that overinvestment clearly made the problem a lot worse than it would have been otherwise.

              Whether it's "overinvestment" is an open question. And while those failures made it worse, saying "a lot worse" is an overstatement.

              Besides, just as in the case of the fossil fuel generation, it was the lack of winterization of the wind turbines that caused the problems.

              And before you continue ranting about the “self-serving lies being spread by … the RW media”, you might want to consider the incentives of your LW buddies to be less than scrupulous with the truth about their own favored causes and projects.

              I'll rant all I want. The RW media is a dishonest, destructive, force in this country, and you can feel free to rant about about my "LW buddies" when they misrepresent things as well.

              1. I’m saying that the claims by Abbot and the RW media that the wind turbines are the source of the problem are a pack of lies.

                Those claims were not Brett's claims. You and Sarcastr0 are peddling the same straw man.

                1. Still a pack of lies, though, so much so that even Brett can't fully buy into it.

                  1. Still a pack of lies, though

                    Multiple comments claiming that someone is arguing something that they in fact are not arguing is indeed a pack of lies. You defending it tell us a great deal about you.

                    1. He literally says right there that they're the claims of Abott and RW media, but, sure, they're only defensible inasmuch as BB didn't actually say them out loud because they're such a ridiculously indefensible pack of lies.

          2. You're not really engaging with my argument. I'm saying that the wind is sufficiently uneconomical compared to the conventional plants, that the same amount of funds spent JUST on conventional plants would have allowed them to easily afford winterizing them. (No guarantee it WOULD have been spent on that, but the money would have been available.)

            It didn't help that wind power dropped off, and it really did not help that gas turbines, competing with home heating, were unable to make up the difference. But my argument rests on inefficient allocation of resources, not the windmills freezing.

            Well, not just inefficient allocation of resources. In order for people to be investing in windmills like that, you need a management culture that does NOT place much weight on reliability. Because windmills would scare reliability obsessed managers spitless.

            1. the same amount of funds spent JUST on conventional plants would have allowed them to easily afford winterizing them
              Money does not chunk like that. Your hypothetical new market would not just be the old one with extra money on top.

            2. You’re not really engaging with my argument. I’m saying that the wind is sufficiently uneconomical compared to the conventional plants, that the same amount of funds spent JUST on conventional plants would have allowed them to easily afford winterizing them.

              Cite, please. You are arguing that the excess cost of wind over fossil fuels would have been enough to winterize the fossil fuel plants. I'd need to see numbers to buy that.

              And of course, your suspicion that they wouldn't have been are probably justified. What I think is going on is that Texas' system, which AFAICT, which isn't all that far, just lacks incentives for power plant operators, wind or other, to prepare for these events.

    3. So what do you think when affordable energy advocates or activists oppose new generating capacity oppose energy investments?

    4. How many of the poles that fell down would have blown over in a hurricane?

    5. I value it, but I value a lot of services. It's rational to choose not to put scarce resources into a very unlikely event. In a perfect world, you'd have everything, but nothing is perfect. Everything is making choices and balancing needs.

  5. Josh. You have global warming. You have the Maunder Minimum, causing a mini-Ice Age and is quite overdue.

    Bet on which will happen and decide to spend the money on winterizing the electric infrastructure. In the North, coping with winter causes massive taxation and overgrowth of government, like double the size of Texas per capita. Decide on the science. The Democrats want to winterize to explode taxes to the level in the Northeast. Ignore those cheaters and traitors. Talk to Dr. Ed about Massachusetts.

    1. Highly regulated Connecticut Light & Power wasn't prepared for the October 2011 storm. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Halloween_nor%27easter

  6. Water expands when it freezes -- I suspect the ground has started to freeze and I'd worry about gas pipes cracking, particularly older cast iron ones. It's going to be *years* before all the damaged water pipes are replaced -- and leaks beget leaks.

    The boil order likely is a precaution -- broken pipes can let ground water (and the bacteria it contains) *into* the system. Watch for a higher level of chlorine in an attempt to clean out the pipes. The other possibility is raw sewerage going into a body of water used as the source, but chlorine usually will abate that.

    I'd want to see the specifics, but it sounds to me that a lot of places that ought to have had emergency generators either didn't or ought not have relied on natural gas to power them. The latter has always bothered me -- while it's a *lot* easier to run off the NG pipe, the advantage of Diesel (or LP) is that you *have* X number of hours of fuel physically there.

    As to the electrical grid, think of it as a river in reverse, with ever smaller branches upstream. Where ever you block it, everything upstream will be out.

  7. It is good that Prof. Blackman’s utilities have been interrupted, and good that he shares his good fortune.

    At the broader perspective, I expect Texas’ performance with respect to public services — a substantial problem 40 years ago, a remarkably persistent problem today — will begin to improve substantially in five to ten years, especially in the handful of modern, successful, educated, reasoning communities scattered about Texas.

    Progress reaches different parts of America at different paces. Texas appears to be positioned for important steps forward to begin relatively soon.

    1. Because PG&E was (is) so prepared for the EXPECTED winds in California...

    2. Another politicized know nothing screed.

      But my energy sector expert in Houstn wrote todaty.
      "NG and other facilities were not well enough winterized to withstand the 100 year cold. Despite the bad outcome, it's not a slam dunk that this cost could have been justified with the value of benefits. Lives could have been saved, but that's not the end of the matter as Dick Wilson expounded.
      Ironically, wind and solar were down ( 19 gig) to a greater degree, but escape substantial responsibility because they were not deemed reliable enough, and wisely so, to depend on for power reserve.
      Incidentally, I think it's true that the Texas public spent 9 billion on transmission lines to move the unreliable wind power around."

    3. "It is good that Prof. Blackman’s utilities have been interrupted"

      uninterrupted

  8. Why spend the money to winterize the grid? I don't know. Why spend money on life vests in airplanes?

    If I lived in Texas I would have a standby generator, a one-week supply of fuel for it, a one week supply of fresh water, and a one week supply of food and beer, as I do now, in Massachusetts, where our grid is notoriously unreliable.

    The question for Texans is, what's less expensive, having your government-run utility increase the reliability of the grid, or having everyone be prepared for self-sufficiency for a week?

    1. "Why spend the money to winterize the grid?"

      When the DC Metro was initially built in the late 1970's, it had a lot of escalators that came above ground with no cover over them. When I first saw this, my question was "what about snow" and the local's response was that they don't get snow in DC.

      They all have covers over them now. Apparently DC gets enough snow (and rain) to have made doing this a wise investment.

      And as to Texas, one question that comes to immediate mind is if the valves that iced up when exposed to freezing rain ought to be exposed to rain in general? I'm not an oilman but -- ice aside -- is it wise to have critical valves exposed to even rain? Etc...

      1. Ed,
        They certainly have enough rain in Houston to know how to handle wet valves. Ice is a separate problem. It might have be mitigated to a degree if the largest valves were covered but that impeded very quick access.
        It's easy to to be a Monday morning quarterback.

        1. It also is easy to criticize public service in Texas.

          The forecast calls for improvement relatively soon, though.

  9. Where is FEMA?

    Seriously, where are the generators and the blankets?

      1. 60 generators is like urinating on a forest fire.

        Where are the C-5s flying into the nearest USAF base with loaded 40' trailers that can then be delivered as needed?

        And Where is Biden?!?

        1. Ed,
          Give it a break. This is a problem for Texas to solve not one for Ole White Joe.

        2. Apparently, the White House called Dallas' top elected official to offer assistance before any Texas state official did.

          Texas seems destined to improve soon, though. Five to ten years, I expect.

  10. Well we are glad Prof. Blackman did not suffer and appreciate his efforts to help his neighbors.

    But this idea that the Texas grid cannot be engineered to prevent this sort of thing is rediculous. Guess what, North Dakota does not have this problem. As for the cost, add up the lost production and economic costs of the loss of electricity and water, and add to that the terrific horrific cost in human suffering and loss of life and see how that compares to the cost of fixing the grid.

    As for the final word, there is this.

    "CANCÚN (The Borowitz Report)—Senator Ted Cruz made a top-secret trip on Wednesday to investigate whether Mexico illegally stole heat and sunshine from his home state of Texas.

    Cruz said that he undertook the dangerous heat-finding mission because he cares deeply about the current suffering of his fellow-Texans.

    “The temperature in Cancún is an unacceptable fifty degrees warmer than in Houston,” Cruz said. “It’s so warm here on the beach that I’ve had to wear a swimsuit and periodically douse myself in the ocean. It is an absolute disgrace, and it will not stand.”

    “I intend to stay here until I get to the bottom of how Mexico managed to steal all of this heat and sun from Texas,” he said. “I don’t care how long it takes.”

    News of Cruz’s trip caused members of Mexico’s Senate to call for the building of a wall along the border with the United States, because, in the words of one lawmaker, “They’re not sending their best.”

    1. Maybe you're trying to be sarcastic but if so, it doesn't come through.

      Precisely no one is saying that "the Texas grid cannot be engineered to prevent this sort of thing". What they are saying is that it's not cost-effective to do so because the probability-adjusted risk is below the cost of remediation.

      Reasonable people can (and should) disagree with that calculation of costs and benefits but no sane person disagrees with the principle. Californians should spend a lot more to prepare for earthquakes. Ohioans should spend to prepare for tornadoes, Floridans to prepare for hurricanes, etc. To spend the same in all locations regardless of risk is a quick way to drive yourself bankrupt.

      1. Yet the biggest risk of a catastrophic earthquake is in NYC & Boston because they are not prepared for it.

        Boston *has* had a major earthquake -- a 6.0-6.3 one in 1755.
        See: https://historicipswich.org/2014/11/04/cape-ann-earthquake_1755/

        1. IN NE they also have problems if there are tornados for just the same reason.

          1. No, different reason -- we don't get as much warning. Something to do with us having hills and the tornado being lower and being on the ground before they are seen on weather radar.

            See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK_iOpETyO4&pbjreload=101

        2. I agree - and that's the entirely reasonable debate over the calculation of costs and benefits in any given area. Boston is at some risk of earthquakes making the benefits of preparedness moderate to high yet they refuse to pay the costs of preparing.

          Iowans, other other hand, can't really justify any costs for earthquake preparation.

    2. Because letting young teenagers go to Cancun by themselves is such a good idea. Cruz was being the responsible parent here -- he was the chaperone.

      1. Does his wife not exist? Why could she not chaperone and leave the public servant to serve the public?

        1. He's a SENATOR -- he serves in DC.

      2. Heidi Cruz' emails indicate you're a deplorable liar, Dr. Ed 2.

        Although after watching her husband's performance with Donald Trump, Heidi Cruz has ample motive to want to make her husband look like the cowardly milksop he is.

    3. What's ridiculous is someone going through at least 12 years of freely available public education and still being unable to spell "ridiculous".

      Your dig at Cruz was pants-on-head stupid as well.

  11. How is the Galveston Bioweapons Lab doing? Their website is ambiguous, and during the last hurricane to threaten it, indicated they have onsite power projected to last only 24 hours. Perhaps more rigorous plans are needed in view of Climate Change?

    1. Climate change is irrelevant to the issue of grid reliability. The grid infrastructure is :ancient" throughout the US and needs updating.

  12. I'm in the DFW area and just getting back to my normal online routine. I also never lost power or water, and it appears (crossing fingers!) I've managed to avoid any burst pipes. I too feel a little guilty because friends were in far worse condition. After one friend was without power for 2 days, I talked her into coming to stay with me with her 5 dogs. That was a bit cozy, but it worked out fine. I've been vaccinated and she's been entirely WFH and deliveries for months, so we were safe. I'm hoping we don't have a Covid resurgence due to people sheltering together and going to warming stations, etc.

    I've been pleased to that not only have I not heard looting stories, I've heard anti-looting. Like stores that choose to let people take groceries for free when they lost power to check anyone out after some had been patiently in line for hours. Or the store that found all its outside goods had been taken, but when they opened the door they found people had pushed cash inside for what they took. My Facebook and news has been full of people taking in others who were without power, making deliveries of food or firewood, and offering emergency plumbing help.

  13. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/02/officials-say-texas-was-minutes-from-monthslong-blackout.html

    In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Bill Magness, the president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said that if the utility did not cut power on Monday, the amount of energy going offline due to the storm, combined with a surge in demand amid the intense cold, could have caused widespread blackouts lasting for months, leaving the state in an “indeterminately long” crisis.

    ....In that disaster scenario, demand for power would have overwhelmed the supply of energy on the grid, which could potentially cause power stations to blow and equipment to catch fire. Once physical infrastructure takes such severe damage, it can take months to repair and would demand a slow process to return power sources back to the grid.

    Don't blame windmills for that. It's like the 2019 wildfires - there is no profit motive in low-probability hardening.

    This is an example of markets failing.

    1. "the amount of energy going offline due to the storm"

      That IS the windmills...

  14. It's actually quite possible to shower while a boil water notice is in effect, provided you follow one simple rule: don't drink the water while showering.

    1. You can get bacteria via your eyes.

  15. Or, you know, you could live in structures that don't require a constant supply of electricity or oil and gas in order to be habitable. (Folks appear to have been doing so in Texas for a for a few hundred thousand years.) Yes, I know -- beyond the pale. By all means, return to the airtight plastic and sheetrock bubbles heated and cooled by forced air.

    Mr. D.

  16. Your power didn't go out for a very simple reason, they did circuit level switching (not individual meter level) and you're on the same circuit as some building considered critical, like a hospital or police station.

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