Friday, February 04, 2011

Regarding the Suffering of Others

Stay with me, this gets complicated fast.

On Tuesday, Texas started experiencing "rolling blackouts," planned power outages, across the state, due, we were told, to cold weather. Hmmmm....

Texans faced eight hours of rolling electrical blackouts Wednesday and could see more outages Thursday as the coldest weather in 15 years caused power plants to break down.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas called off the longest period of planned outages in state history Wednesday afternoon. But the state grid operator warned it could initiate outages again Thursday morning if power plants, including three new coal plants owned by Energy Future Holdings, don’t get fixed.

The situation outraged some electricity customers, who overwhelmed call centers. Several top lawmakers said they would hold hearings on the incident and urged Texans to conserve.
I do like how "conserve" is the solution when the power system fails; but seldom otherwise. This isn't the coldest Texas has ever been, nor the first time Texas has ever had winter weather. Conspiracy theories abound, of course:

In the mean time, the average consumers will be screwed (with the blessing of their state government) by what appears to be a psychological operation and a massive electrical grid test. If you live in Texas, don’t be surprised if your electric bill goes up (so they can supposedly build more distribution lines and ‘upgrade’ the grid). After all, you want to avoid experiencing more power outages, don’t you?

Enron was notorious for engaging in this practice in order to increase profits during the ‘California rolling blackouts’ in the late 1990′s, for which the company was investigated by congress. Today, in Texas, electrical power companies engage in the same scam. Furthermore, they do it openly and nothing happens to them. What does that say about the state of affairs in this country? Did we really sink this low in our own complacence and ignorance in just one decade?
But that's mostly because ERCOT (the agency charged with regulating electricity in Texas) has done such a poor job of explaining what's going on:

The blackouts were widely blamed on the cold. This strikes me as preposterous. Yes it’s cold, for Texas. Houston got down into the 20s Wednesday morning, with single digits up in Abilene, but I have a hard time believing that power plants aren’t more robust than that.

But that’s what we’re being told. Apparently 50 out of Texas’ 550 power plants went down Wednesday morning, knocking off 8,000 mw, or about 12% of demand. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the problem appeared be inadequate winterization and that the trouble centered on two new coal-fired plants owned by Luminant (a subsidiary of Energy Future Holdings, formerly TXU) which suffered a broken pipe and a frozen pipe. What about the other 48? Still unclear.

Also compounding troubles: another 12,000 mw worth of plants were offline with scheduled maintenance. As of Thursday morning 3,000 mw of plants were reportedly still offline because of the cold.

Texas needs to know why this is happening and who is responsible for allowing this weakness in our power grid. If Wisconsin can keep the lights when temperatures drop to -30, Texas ought to be able to deal with temps in the teens.

It really is a matter of life and death. Cutting the power to important hospitals is irresponsible, and Oncor, the north Texas power distributor has apologized. While in Houston the death of Stephen Caldwell is blamed on the outages. Caldwell, 29, reportedly required an oxygen machine to help him breathe. When the power went out he called his family for help, but by the time they got there he was dead.

So far the grid-managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, haven’t given an adequate explanation of what happened and how to fix it. Lawmakers say they’ll get to the bottom of it. The last time Texas faced rolling blackout was during a 100-degree heatwave in 2006. Finger-pointing after that one caused the head of ERCOT to step down.
I've produced all this by simple Google searches. What I haven't produced is any better explanation than I've found in that quote. I do have to note the forcing the head of ERCOT to step down in 2008 didn't really fix the problems in 2011....

Nor has the situation improved today; and note what is meant by "conserve", at least in El Paso:

Due to the extreme weather conditions over the past several days, El Paso Electric has not been able to restore a significant amount of its local power generation.

El Paso Electric continues to operate under a curtailment plan and we are asking all customers, business and residential, to immediately reduce as much electrical usage as they can.

El Paso Electric is asking businesses to curtail their usage except in situations of critical needs.

El Paso Electric is also asking customers to curtail usage in their homes.
Do not use appliances such as the washing machine, dishwasher, or electric clothes dryer Turn off extra lights, electric water heater and other electric appliances that you do not absolutely need. Minimize the use of your electric range or oven when preparing meals.
As I write, the temperature in El Paso is 34F.

I said this gets complicated; following the bouncing ball:

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican, declared a state of emergency due to gas shortages, closing government offices not providing essential services, according to a statement posting on her website. New Mexico Gas Co. said rolling blackouts in West Texas and “other problems” had cut gas deliveries to the state, forcing supply interruptions to customers in several towns, according to a statement posted yesterday on its website.

El Paso Corp., owner of a gas pipeline in the state, said in a statement on its website that demand is unusually high due to cold weather. Additionally, blackouts in Texas shut down processing plants and well freeze-offs slowed supply.

“We’re seeing situations where company X or company Y scheduled a certain quantity of gas and may be taking more off the system than their nominations,” said Richard Wheatley, a spokesman for Houston-based El Paso Corp. "Normally we have enough gas in the pipeline system to counteract that kind of situation; we can move gas around."
I know about the natural gas shortage in New Mexico because I have family and friends living there. What happened? The rolling blackouts in Texas:

Some 25,000 New Mexicans were without natural gas after a freeze in west Texas led to rolling power outages that interrupted electricity to natural-gas compressor stations.

"We had natural-gas supplies," said Monica Hussey, spokeswoman for New Mexico Gas Company. "But we couldn't get the supply on hand out of storage and to customers because it needs to go through compressor stations."
Which is ironic, since:

New Mexico is a prime natural-gas producer and is ranked fourth nationally.
But they didn't count on Texas not being able to generate electricity during a cold snap. And this is one of the coldest winters on record in New Mexico. So this isn't an inconvenience; it's life threatening.

This may be, despite conspiracy theories, an infrastructure problem. It is in Mexico, anyway:

Mexico said Thursday it was temporarily suspending an offer to provide electricity to Texas to help the U.S. state weather an ice storm that forced rolling blackouts, because of severe cold in Mexico's own territory.

Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission had said Wednesday it had agreed to transmit 280 megawatts of electricity to Texas.

But on Thursday, the commission said it was temporarily suspending the transfer because below-freezing temperatures in northern Mexico have caused some damage to the generating capacity of its own plants, causing some power outages in several parts of Chihuahua state and a reduction of about 3,800 megawatts in generation.

The commission also said Mexico needed to ensure there was enough electricity to meet domestic demand, in the face of a severe cold snap that dumped snow on the border city of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Is this due to Texas' population growth, up over 20% since 2000? Maybe. What's really interesting is the interconnectedness of us all, connections our public discourse pays no attention to. Had you heard New Mexico was without heat? The entire state? I haven't found any reporting on the blackouts in Texas that mention how we've harmed New Mexico and even California. This isn't a story out of New York, or the East Coast, or California, or even the second most populous state in the Union (which would barely be noticed this winter were it not for Super Bowl XLV in Dallas), so it isn't a story at all.

Are we connected when we pay no attention to the connections?


  1. Robert, first I wanted to laugh, and then I wanted to cry because real people are suffering. Shades of the California power crisis. Prices will rise and bring more hardship to the poor.

    What made me laugh (yes, I confess I did actually laugh), was the advice to conserve during power failures. A power system failure is, de facto, conservation, and not by choice.

    We are connected whether we pay attention or not. Not to pay attention puts us in peril. As Linda Loman said, "Attention must be paid!"

  2. I just find it kinda weird: an entire state loses the ability to generate heat during a major winter storm, and except for Bloomberg News, I don't find any non-regional coverage of it.

    New Mexico really is a blank spot on the map, except for Area 51 and Georgia O'Keeffe.

  3. And, yes indeed, that both Texas and New Mexico sit on a sea of the minerals that provide the major source of energy in the US makes the crisis even more weird.

    If it's not happening on the East Coast or California, it's not happening

  4. Anonymous7:47 PM

    I live in Albaquirky, to the best of my knowledge we were not affected with any disruptions, although we were warned about the possibilities.
    According to the link below it does appear as though a number of the 'less' weathly cities (and NM is not a wealthy state) were hit with problems, specifically some of the pueblos.
    Also, just because we have natural gas here doesn't mean it stays here, I'm under the impression it is sold elsewhere. I know there are quite a few natural gas pipelines on Native American land that while they receive a small residual from the gas companies the gas itself is not piped into their homes.

    Lil Red Riding in the Hood

  5. Also, just because we have natural gas here doesn't mean it stays here....

    Lil Red Riding in the Hood, I know. I live in Louisiana. :-)

  6. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Grandmère Mimi ....I live in Louisiana.

    I'm sorry. :)

    Lil Red

  7. Anonymous8:14 PM

    I apologize, I need to clarify. Albaquirky city schools and some city gubmint offices were closed this week due to heating issues. Offices in the city were asked to conserve heat by turning the thermastat down to 68 degrees.
    Homes in the city to the best of my knowledge were not affected by disruptions.

    Lil Red

  8. Schools were affected, the Governor declared a state of emergency, and offices in Santa Fe were closed, as well as schools, to conserve heat. I know of at least one university that couldn't supply heat to its dormitories (New Mexico Tech).

  9. It was pretty weird. In Taos, Red River, Española, Bernalillo, Santa Ana Pueblo, Placitas, parts of Albuquerque, and in other areas, there was simply no natural gas supply, as the temperature dropped to eighteen below zero here in Santa Fe. My daughter went back to Santa Fe High for half a day, but had to come home early because of broken pipes flooding classrooms. I understand it's that way all over the place. Story in this morning's New Mexican about a couple from India in Española whose entire hydroponic crop froze when the gas ran out, 5000 square feet of greenhouse. Nobody seems yet able to explain exactly why.

    We did have to laugh, of course, as half the mainstream media talked about a brutal freeze "from Texas to the midwest," the other half of a bitter winter storm "from Oklahoma to the midwest." Couldn't help but think of the old regular column in New Mexico Magazine, "One of our Fifty is Missing."

  10. The temperature in Houston from May until October hits 90 degrees nearly every day, requiring massive amounts of air conditioning. During the winter months it's not at all unusual to have balmy days with the temperature in the mid seventies. A few weeks of actual winter weather, cold enough to activate a baseboard heater, can't conceivably be the cause of rolling blackouts.