Texas is right now consumed in debate over the question of how the catastrophic power and water outages could have happened. Some people are ready to put the blame on the fragility of wind power while others say that this is unfair scapegoating. It’s a hugely important discussion, given that at least 24 deaths are due to loss of power and that is probably only the beginning.
What seems to have escaped notice, however, is the role that Covid-related lockdowns may have played in reducing inspections and preparations for a possibly brutal winter. With so much of normal life shut down during the spring and summer, and so many people finding every excuse to Zoom meet rather than go to work, power plants were subject to neglect.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – a quasi-government entity – “manages the flow of electric power on the Texas Interconnection that supplies power to more than 25 million Texas customers – representing 90 percent of the state’s electric load.” It is also responsible for inspections, training, and maintenance such as preparing for extreme weather.
An investigation by NBC found that ERCOT “did not conduct any on-site inspections of the state’s power plants to see if they were ready for this winter season. Due to COVID-19 they conducted virtual tabletop exercises instead – but only with 16% of the state’s power generating facilities.”
Thus in compliance with all the restrictions, and possibly also in order to avoid a germ, ERCOT shelved all its usual preparations in favor of pretend exercises. You can even see this from its board minutes dated October 8, 2020. Many of the regulations operations are suspended or made virtual. Some training was extended from 6 to 12 weeks with the option of being online. Board member Erik Johnson raised a warning flag: “This would significantly impact our ability to conduct continuing training for ERCOT operators.”
There is of course no way to know just yet whether lockdowns and virtualization of just about everything had the decisive impact on causing vast swaths of the state to go dark in the midst of life-threatening temperatures. The demand for power in Texas was unprecedented. The system had never been tested so hard. The unexpected freezing of wind turbines did not help.
In the search for answers here, lockdowns should be considered as a probable contributing factor. It should not be a surprise that when you forcibly shut down normal life functioning, normal life functioning shuts down. That includes hugely important operations that we otherwise take for granted, such as making sure a region’s energy and water supply are prepared to deal with extreme temperatures.
Lockdowns have led to a grim litany of horrors. Some of these are expected, such as an increase in hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, suicides, trauma in children locked out of schools, unemployment, and bankruptcies. That lifespans in the US may have suddenly taken a deep dive, not wholly due to a virus, would hardly be a surprise.
In addition, there might be many more unforeseeable relationships between lockdowns and other terrible outcomes that might otherwise not have an obvious direct relationship.
It was a massive priority of the earlier generation of public health experts that society continue to function as normally as possible during a pandemic. A new infectious disease, they believed, should be treated as a medical problem to manage, not an opportunity to try out a new socio-political experiment in shutting down life itself. That power plants did not undergo routine inspections prior to the devastating freeze makes the point well.
Lockdowns are an attack on civilization, as their proponents promised them to be. The now-fired New York Times reporter Donald McNeil called on governments to adopt a Medieval strategy in dealing with disease.
That one of the results is the loss of power and water for millions of people, endangering lives across the whole state of Texas, is fully in keeping with the Medieval approach to pandemic management. They demanded that governments roll back progress hundreds of years and, sure enough over time, there was no electricity or running water. The lockdowners deserve partial blame.
After posting this, I received a fascinating note from a specialist in Texas who wrote me as follows:
“The news article from NBC in DFW was fairly misleading. The article assumes that ERCOT is responsible for physical inspections of generation assets, and it is not. ERCOT could have made an improved effort in winter readiness of g&t (generation and transmission) assets by holding g&t owners responsible for proving natural gas fuel assurance before the storm hit and during the declared energy emergency.”
Lockdowns have “made life more difficult for grid operators. PPE shortages and travel restrictions have made generation maintenance more difficult to schedule. There have been concerns early on last spring about deferred generation maintenance. ERCOT among other grid operators should have been concerned and I am sure they probably were. Here is an article from last spring about concerns over supply chain to the energy sector a possible lockdown impacts.”