2021-02-16 - RGV Cold Weather Blog

The cold has been brutal for Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Frustration has boiled over as people desperately wonder how they could be without power for more than 24 hours on one of the coldest winters in their memory. Furthermore, many places are warning citizens that they should boil water before consuming it as the cold has frozen water systems. To further compound matters, grocery stores have had to remove refrigerated and frozen foods because of the power outages, leaving many shelves bare and causing panic buying. Power outages have also left many gas stations unable to pump, which diverts drivers to the few available stations with running pumps.

I spent the day on Twitter. It has been quite revealing. For one, most citizens are lacking in civics. They have no concept of how local, state, and federal governments work.

It was also interesting to watch the evolution of what happened to cause the outages. It started out that electricity production was cut due to weather. There were some headlines suggesting that renewable energy contributed to the shortfall. This is both correct and incorrect. It is correct because renewable energy was expected to provide negligable power during this period. It turns out that renewable produced less power than the low bar that was set. The headlines were incorrect because a major part of the shortfall came from thermal sources, which include natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear. Even if renewable somehow produced power at 100% capacity, it wouldn't even come close to meeting the needs of the state. Our reliable sources proved just as unreliable.

So, what was the cause of the electrical shortfall? It turns out we had a similar winter storm back in 2011, which prompted ERCOT to weatherize power generating plants to be able to endure a similar storm. They did that. However, this year's storm wound up being more severe than the 2011 storm. Water vapor in the natural gas pipelines froze, causing problems with gauges and valves. Many power plants had to shut down, causing a shortfall in meeting demand. Thus, it falls to ERCOT to direct local providers to shed some of their load to prevent crashing the entire electrical grid.

There was some criticism of ERCOT because it is a separate grid from others in the USA. However, this is not entirely true. ERCOT also has connections to other states and to Mexico to supplement when demand is high. Except that the storm is not only happening in Texas. It is happening across the country and in Mexico. Naturally, those other grids did not have excess power to share with ERCOT for Texas residents, choosing instead to service their own customers.

Another issue that developed later on was that electric power companies were constrained in how much they could pay for their source of energy. The sudden demand for electricity created a large demand for natural gas and other fuels, which spiked the price downstream. The Governor has had to give electric companies the authority to buy more expensive fuels. This, of course, is going to result in higher electricity costs. That's going to go well when the bills arrive at COVID ravished households.

At first, it seemed like perhaps we were suffering from an exemplary level of incompetence. However, as details came out, we are more likely looking at a perfect storm of circumstances. The Governor and Legislature have already decided to take on the matter as an emergency during the legislative session. Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. tweeted with me that it means that legislation is fast-tracked in this circumstance. Also, it could mean a combination of regulatory changes and changes in our state Emergency Management policies. Of course, these solutions can take weeks or months to implement.

In the meantime, all we can do is endure the situation as best we can until it is over. Tonight, the RGV has above-freezing temperatures. However, we have one more cold snap coming our way. Of course, that does not consider the rest of Texas that is still in sub-freezing temperatures. Our brief reprieve will only last until tomorrow night when freezing temperatures are expected to return. According to me, we should not be operational as a region until sometime Friday.

Speaking of Friday, some school districts gave up pretending to have classes for the remainder of the week. They have called off classes through Friday. Kids will resume classes on Monday.

Tonight, there are still people without power even though temperatures are above freezing. This is mostly due to the problem being a statewide emergency. This is one of those situations when we need to adapt our emergency preparedness to include more than just hurricane season. As families, we need an all-hazards approach. Speaking with the Mrs., we agree that our emergency preparedness is a result of growing tired of suffering through disasters. We realized it's within our power to prepare and only suffer minor inconvenience.

I'll be monitoring the twitter throughout this emergency. However, I expect the next few days to have more complaining and recriminations as citizens naturally grow more desperate.