Dave Finkelnburg

Dave Finkelnburg

Everybody complains about the weather. The trouble is, nobody does anything about it. That’s as true today as it was when Charles Dudley Warner made that observation over 150 years ago.

The cold spell that hit North America this week from Northern Mexico to Montana and east to New England is no laughing matter, though. The more than 4 million Texans who were without power for hours to days in record-breaking cold certainly don’t think so.

Rolling power blackouts started Monday in 14 states from Texas to Montana and east to the Mississippi River. The problem began when Texas suffered a massive shortage of electric power supply.

Power demand in Texas approached 70,000 megawatts (MW) but supply was an astounding 10,000 MW short of that. That’s in a state that has successfully supplied almost 85,000 MW of electricity, mostly to run air conditioners, in a summer heat wave.

What went wrong this week was a perfect storm of political policy crashing head-on into a predictably periodic collapse of the polar vortex. The latter produced colder temperatures at times in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas than in Anchorage, Alaska!

The Republican-controlled Texas legislature has worked for decades to deregulate the electric power industry in Texas. The intent has been admirable — to reduce the cost consumers pay for electricity.

There was an unintended consequence, though. Texas power plants are now mostly not designed to deal with exceptionally cold winter weather. Federal rules require such winterization, but Texas created its own system that its lawmakers were certain was more intelligent.

That the Texas power system was unable to cope with extreme cold was apparent during an icy spell in the winter of 2011. That cold snap, however, wasn’t as cold or as long as this year’s.

This time the weather was so cold that controls on valves on a number of natural gas wells froze, shutting the wells down. Similar problems caused reported outages in coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants in the state.

The cold rolled in last weekend. By Monday home heating demand for natural gas peaked while gas supply fell due to well and other problems. Gas-fired power plants, the ones that could be thawed out, were left short of fuel.

Almost 5 million people in Mexican states that border Texas were also without power Monday. About 60 percent of their electricity is generated with natural gas that was supposed to be, but wasn’t, flowing into Mexico in pipelines from Texas.

Then things got worse. Rolling power blackouts of a few hours, at most, were announced. The cold hung on, the power shortage remained, and some blackouts lasted more than two days. It would be mid-Thursday before the Texas power grid began to approach normal winter operation.

Early in the cold snap Gov. Greg Abbott told Texans the power problem was because wind turbines and solar electricity that supply a tenth of the state’s power were unreliable, “not like coal, gas and nuclear plants,” he said. While some turbines did freeze and ice affected solar equipment, other parts of the renewable electricity supply system performed above its rated capacity and mostly balanced out the renewables’ shortfall.

The real problems were with conventional power plants failing to operate. By Wednesday, Abbott was blaming those running the Texas power grid. He also issued an order banning the export of Texas natural gas to other states, or Mexico, until today, when the weather is forecast to be warmer.

The cold in much of the U.S. this week is not the first, nor the last, weather disaster we’ll have to deal with. The question is, what are we going to do to be better prepared next time?

It’s too easy, when the power’s on and the weather’s fine, to say that preparing for an unknown future is an unfair burden. That preparation can prevent a disaster is too easy to overlook. It’s too convenient to ignore the poor and the homeless and the elderly who will suffer in extreme summer heat or winter cold.

We’re having hotter heat waves and icier cold spells. Arguing about why that is won’t change this fact. The question we, as a nation, have to come to grips with is what should we do to protect ourselves and our way of life?

The answer is quite a bit. It will take some work — planning, prioritizing, setting goals and making investments in key infrastructure — but we can do it. The real question is whether we will or whether we’ll continue to complain about the weather while nobody does anything about it.

Dave Finkelnburg is a longtime Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.