Texas Failed Because It Did Not Plan
How could this have happened? For four days, millions of people in Texas—the so-called energy capital of the world—shivered in the dark, unable to turn the lights on or run their heaters during some of the coldest days in decades. At least 30 Texans have died so far, including a 75-year-old man whose oxygen machine lost power and an 11-year-old boy who may have perished of hypothermia. Desperate families have tried to stay warm by running generators and grills indoors, leading to more than 450 carbon-monoxide poisonings , many of them in children.
Severed from electricity and bare to the frigid weather, Texas’s infrastructure suffered a kind of multisystem failure. Pipes began to burst inside homes. Cell networks went down, preventing people from calling 911. In Austin and elsewhere, so many people ran their pipes at a drip (in order to prevent them from freezing) that the water system depressurized, contaminating the supply and forcing residents to boil their water before using it.
On Friday, about half of state residents were under some kind of water advisory, according to The Texas Tribune. And 33,000 homes and businesses still have no power.
America’s second-largest state was brought to its knees by winter weather. How could this have happened?
Here are three explanations. I won’t give away the ending, but they are many of the same issues that hampered the United States in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many crucial systems in this country are run on an ad hoc basis. A lack of planning, a reliance on just-in-time logistics, and a self-defeating trust in the profit motive are withering the American economy and way of life.
1. It’s simple: Nobody planned for this. “We are not known for our winters here,” Joshua Rhodes , a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, told me. “We vastly underestimated how cold [it]—and how widespread that cold—could get in Texas.”
The power grid is a titanic machine made of copper and steel, but it has to be played like a Stradivarius. At any moment, power plants must generate about the same amount of electricity that customers demand. An out-of-balance grid can burst into flame or break down. This week, some of Texas’s biggest cities saw overnight wind chills around zero degrees Fahrenheit; temperatures across the state did not pass the freezing mark for days. Three in five Texans warm their homes with electric heaters. Those heaters suddenly needed a lot of power: The system didn’t have that power, so it failed.
[ Andrew Exum: I’m freezing cold and burning mad in Texas ]
This failure cascaded down the power lines. When the managers of Texas’s grid realized that they had too little power to meet demand, they told local transmission organizations—smaller grids that cover specific cities or regions—to begin rolling blackouts, Rhodes said. This is a standard move when electricity becomes...