Lockdowns and the Texas Power Disaster

Lockdowns and the Texas Power Disaster by Jeffrey A. Tucker for American Institute for Economic Research

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.

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