Earlier this week, even before I learned details of the disaster in Texas, I was feeling a little vulnerable. Maybe you were too. For the second time in 13 months, we were confronted by natural disasters made worse by governmental failures.
Last year, it was the coronavirus; this week, it’s been energy insecurity caused by historically freezing weather. In mid-Missouri, temperatures were headed below zero. Whatever a polar vortex is, it was the cause of the third coldest 12-day stretch in February in Missouri history. I suspect it is another extreme weather event probably related to the global climate change that American governments have done little about.
If mid-Missouri had a Texas-sized electrical failure, we all would have faced great personal hardship, in part because of housing and utility practices, and also because of personal lack of preparation. Losing electricity means my gas furnace would not work. Additionally, the electric stove in the kitchen would be useless.
An electricity outage of two to three days would have left me cold and practically helpless. I don’t have a fireplace, extra propane tanks or a backup generator. I am not well prepared. As I fetched my small camping stove from the bottom shelf in the garage, I realized if I lost power, I wouldn’t be able to use the garage door opener and I would be stuck. About all I could do was locate flashlights and candles, make sure my phone was charging and gather extra blankets and sleeping bags.
Many middle-class people were probably better prepared for an energy outage 50 years ago than we are today. We have traded the independence of old-fashioned living that had both gas and electric energies and a fireplace or wood burning stove for the convenience of electric living with all kinds of gadgets.
Low-income homes tend not to be built well, poorly insulated with risks of freezing indoor temperatures and frozen water pipes. Folks on oxygen or dialysis or other medical needs would be especially vulnerable without electricity or heat.
Some people, feeling vulnerable, sought security in hotels and casino resorts in Texas. I learned of this about 20 years ago when I was snowed in at the St. Louis Airport. I struck up a conversation with an elderly woman and learned she lived within 10 miles of the airport, but at the first hint of bad weather she packed a small bag and checked into a hotel across from the airport. She rode the shuttle several times a day whenever she wanted social interaction. That’s OK if a few people do it, but it is not a general solution to weather hardships.
Over the past few days, we all learned that good ole’ Texas has its own electric power grid that was ill-prepared for the increased demands of frigid temperatures and the limitations of natural gas as a source for electric power.
Across Texas, 29 million people lost power at some point and an estimated 4 million had no electricity for more than three days. In first-class cities such as Austin, Dallas and Houston, people were freezing, going hungry or unable to get their medicines, and then the water system went down. Citizens, still without electricity, were advised to boil their drinking water.
This Texas disaster is another perfect storm of bad weather, bad personal preparation and bad luck, but it is a result of an underperforming political system that has ignored the requirement of competent governance for way too long. My concern is that we are all potentially vulnerable to unexpected upheavals in our daily lives because of a variety of infrastructure failures relating to transportation and municipal drinking water and wastewater systems.
Our day-to-day political system is primarily a circus of partisan combat rather than a responsible public policy decision-making process. Our news media adds to the circus, choosing to cover the cat fights or the horse races rather than the details of public policy. Just this week, I bet Sen. Ted Cruz’s poorly timed trip to Mexico received more cable TV coverage than did the complexities of the energy grid. Proper energy regulation is boring and tedious, of greater interest to engineers, lawyers and PR specialists hired by the energy companies than to anyone else — including elected government officials. Yet, we are vulnerable to bad regulation that favors reduced compliance costs over the public welfare. I don’t necessarily criticize Texas for having its own power grid, but if it does then the governor, the state legislature and the Railroad Commission, which acts like our Public Utility Commission, need to seek the public good, not political benefit.
Few of us need to know the intricacies of energy regulation, but we do need to recognize that complex systems require coordination and periodic upgrades that rely on major investment of public funds. Additionally, we need to ask better questions of political candidates and government officials. Imagine if presidential debates asked candidates their assessment of the energy grid and their plans to ensure that it is sound and suitable for the future.
Technology, as usual, is both the cause and the solution to the Texas disaster. While the Texas grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas needs critical review by the Texas legislature, which is considered one of the weakest in the nation, alternative energy technologies have the potential to decentralize electrical production and distribution. Improvements in solar technology can provide users the potential to consume, and store, the energy they produce. Moreover, back-up generators can reduce the risk of total societal disaster. The new Ford F-150 truck, for example, has a built-in generator that can be used for supplemental power.
One missing ingredient for energy security is a reliable, responsible, forward-thinking political system. We landed on the moon in 1969 because policymakers made it a national goal and businesses and higher education made it happen. Politics was simpler then. Let’s see if we can do it again.