When infrastructure does not work as expected, Texas grid edition

The bitter cold in Texas has created problems for the grid. I found a 2011 article helpful in understanding a bit more about how power works in Texas:

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

The separation of the Texas grid from the rest of the country has its origins in the evolution of electric utilities early last century. In the decades after Thomas Edison turned on the country’s first power plant in Manhattan in 1882, small generating plants sprouted across Texas, bringing electric light to cities. Later, particularly during the first world war, utilities began to link themselves together. These ties, and the accompanying transmission network, grew further during the second world war, when several Texas utilities joined together to form the Texas Interconnected System, which allowed them to link to the big dams along Texas rivers and also send extra electricity to support the ramped-up factories aiding the war effort.

The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. “Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal — more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s,” writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, “The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.” (Self-reliance was also made easier in Texas, especially in the early days, because the state has substantial coal, natural gas and oil resources of its own to fuel power plants.)

ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission.

Historically, the Texas grid’s independence has been violated a few times. Once was during World War II, when special provisions were made to link Texas to other grids, according to Cudahy. Another episode occurred in 1976 after a Texas utility, for reasons relating to its own regulatory needs, deliberately flipped a switch and sent power to Oklahoma for a few hours. This event, known as the “Midnight Connection,” set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence.

I have contended before that few people pay much attention to infrastructure until something goes wrong. When electricity, natural gas, water, roads, mass transit, and more operate normally, we do not think about them much. They just work. Until they don’t.

A short event last summer reminded me of this. Our family was about to leave our house for a trip and right as we were closing everything up, the power went out. In such a situation, what do you do? Stay and make sure all essential systems are back on – refrigerator, sump pump, air conditioning – before leaving? Just go and hope for the best? We stuck around for a little bit, power was restored, and we were on our way. And this happened in a location where we rarely lose electricity and most of the power lines are underground.

Our situation was a drop in the bucket compared to a severe storm or change in weather like Texas is experiencing. It all works until it is knocked out and millions of people are affected. Then, everyone wants to know what is going wrong. What is taking so long? Is there a way to quickly reestablish service or are people at the mercy of the cold? Certainly, the return of power and services will be accompanied by serious conversations about what to do to ensure something similar does not happen again.

And then there are the peculiarities of local infrastructure. How was it built? How is it managed? Who makes the decisions and what are the priorities for the systems? Is it prepared for a crisis? Some places take great pride in the infrastructure. As an example, the Chicago story of reversing the Chicago River to help improve public health is told over and over as a notable achievement. The construction of Deep Tunnel is a sizable project.

But, these are the big projects. Power, gas, and water are just supposed to be there. While some property owners, often in more rural areas, might have to deal with this more on their own (wells, propane tanks, septic fields, etc.), this is part of the urban and suburban bargain: you live there and the services work (and might even be relatively cheap – see the example of water).

Perhaps this will lead to more consideration of infrastructure. Build a strong infrastructure and it will help keep different and important parts of society running. When it fails, everyone struggles.

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