Some years ago, when I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s outstanding Science in the Capital trilogy — later condensed into a single volume called Green Earth — I thought that Robinson deftly executed a bold move in setting the second volume in a Washington D.C. beset by unprecedented cold. After all, might that not confirm the suspicions of certain skeptics that climate change is just a hoax, that “global warming” isn’t happening at all? But Robinson wanted to make the point that while climate change certainly will mean a gradual warming of the entire earth, it will also make the weather all over the earth considerably less predictable and often more extreme.
Over the past couple of days, something else unprecedented has happened: Each of the 254 counties of Texas — yeah, Texas has 254 counties — has been under a winter storm warning, all the way down to the Rio Grande. My house was without electricity — and therefore without heat — for two days, as the temperature dropped yesterday morning to 5º F. My wife and I closed off the one room where we have a fireplace and sheltered there, with our long-haired dog who was delighted by the cooler temp. The cellular phone network (though not the data network) stayed up, so we were able talk to friends and get some extra firewood, which required some driving on slushy roads and through one intersection slicked with ice from a broken water main. We stayed warm enough, though the rest of our house was literally freezing.
We have a small battery-powered generator that’s useful primarily for charging phones and running lights, and we have some battery-powered lanterns, so we could see where we were going and stay in touch with family on the phone. We were told by Fox News-watching family members that Texas suffered from a failure of wind turbines, but that was the least of our worries, as Joshua D. Rhodes has explained. A few turbines may have frozen up, but the overwhelming cause of the power shortage was the failure of natural-gas-fueled power plants, some of which were under maintenance when the storm hit and some of which failed because their gas wells froze. Texas already generates more wind power than any other state — a quarter of the nation’s total — but we’d have been better off if we had invested more heavily in wind, not less.
(UPDATE: More on this from the Texas Tribune. A noteworthy item there: It’s standard practice for power plants in Texas to undergo maintenance in the winter, because the demand for power is so much less in our mild winters than in our torrid summers.)
I’ll be very interested in the coming investigations of the failure points here, but I don’t expect anything from the ones pursued by legislators because they will simply be exercises in blaming and posturing. (Nothing and nobody in America could possibly be more completely useless than our elected representatives.) The explorations pursued by the energy industry will be of infinitely more value. They will probably suggest some changes in policy and procedure, but I think we all need to be adult enough to realize that it’s impossible for the energy sector — or any other organizations, institutions, and businesses — to prepare for every weather-based eventuality. What to Expect When You’re Expecting Anything and Everything would have to be, paradoxically enough, a very short book.
Our power is back for now, but maybe not for long — we’ve been warned to expect “rolling outages” for a while — so I think I’d better hit the “Publish” button.