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Illustration by Security Management

Winter Storms Continue to Stress Aging U.S. Infrastructure

Winter storms and extremely low temperatures that took hold of parts of the United States last week caused not only widespread power outages, but also triggered shutdowns of other infrastructure facilities, the consequences of which are still exacting a toll on residents in the area.

Tens of thousands of people in Jackson, Mississippi, were still dealing with low or no water pressure this week after winter storms caused power outages and froze water treatment facilities’ equipment.

Two water treatment plants serve the city and roughly 43,000 of its more than 160,000 residents; however, once they were shut down and unable to produce water, Jackson’s water tanks were drained and water pressure fell, according to a local NBC news station.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves called on the National Guard to assist in getting non-potable water from tanker trucks to residents, who waited in lines at schools and a fire department for water for their toilets and basic hygiene needs. Residents were advised to boil any water before drinking it.

Although city officials expect to have water services fully restored throughout Jackson by the end of the week, getting there is not without obstacles compounded by a water system that city mayor Chokwe Lumumba said has been neglected for decades.

The city’s Public Works director, Charles Williams, cautioned that as water pressure has been gradually increasing, so have water main breaks. Williams told city council that there have been reports of at least 20 busted water mains.

But Jackson wasn’t alone in feeling the impacts of aging or neglected infrastructure.

Texans are also still reeling from disruptions of water and power that were triggered by winter storms. The storms impacted the entire state, leaving millions without power and heat. On 21 February, more than 1,200 public water systems in Texas were still impacted, and an estimated third of state residents still lacked water or were advised to boil water before its use.

According to R Street resident senior fellow Josiah Neeley, the blackouts last week could become the most expensive disaster in Texas’s history, surpassing the damages racked up by hurricanes Harvey and Katrina. On top of damage from the storm, homes and properties are dealing with flooding and burst pipes. Ranchers are estimating their losses from dying animals in the millions or more.

The sustained lack of services has also been linked to at least 48 deaths, and more are expected to be added to the death toll in the coming months.

Fallout from the storms is also expected to play out in the courts. At least seven lawsuits against the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) have been filed, linking fatalities to the outages. The first suit was in response to the death of an 11-year-old boy who died of hypothermia. Cristian Pineda, who had never seen snow until the day before he died, was found dead under several blankets by his mother. Near Houston, their mobile home lacked power and heat for more than 24 hours while the temperature in the area dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Entergy Texas—which serves 27 counties in Texas, including parts of Houston county—was also named in the $100 million lawsuit.  

Below-freezing temperatures are rare in the state, and as Neeley wrote in his analysis, not all components of fuel generators throughout the state were ready for such temperatures.

Also, power generation in Texas significantly relies on natural gas to meet peak demand, thanks to multiple major fields throughout the state, including the Permian Basin in the western part of the state, which produced an estimated 9 percent of natural gas for the United States in 2018.

One of the benefits of natural gas generation is that it is usually easier to quickly ramp these plants up or down, allowing for fast modifications to market demand, which can be highly beneficial when a heat wave rolls in. “In the winter, though, gas is also used for heating,” Neeley wrote. Thus, many gas-fueled power plants did not have firm contracts for fuel deliveries and struggled to buy it as natural gas prices climbed, making prices for wholesale electricity skyrocket in response.

On top of this, “the winter is a time when some plants shut down for scheduled maintenance,” Neeley said.

When the storms hit Texas, it triggered “summer levels of electric demand, and it also caused significant amounts of generation to become unusable,” Neeley wrote. Ultimately, ERCOT was looking at lack of usable resources for power and thermal generation. So, rather than trigger a complete system failure—which could have left people without power for months—they ordered utilities to cut off service to more than 2 million homes instead.

Echoing the claims in the courts, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other elected officials are also blaming ERCOT, accusing the organization of failing to maintain or winterize its equipment. They have called for investigations, resignations, and reforms of the grid operator.

On 24 February, five members of the organization’s board of directors, including the chair, resigned from their positions on the board. According to CNN, “In their letter, the outgoing board members wrote they are resigning to ‘allow state leaders a free hand with future direction to eliminate distractions.’”

However, part of the problem with these power outages is that Texas operates on a self-contained electric grid, cut off from the rest of the United States. While this keeps Texan power grid exempt from federal regulations, it also meant it was unable to access power from neighboring states as millions of residents remained in the cold and dark.

“In 1999 the state went further, passing a law that deregulated its power market,” Bloomberg Business reported. “The effects of that decision are visible today. Drive anywhere in Houston, and you’ll see billboards from power companies competing to one-up each other, advertising free electricity on nights or weekends, for instance. …Under the same 1999 law, Texas declines to implement a forward-capacity market, a system common in other states where power has been deregulated that’s designed to ensure power plants have adequate resources to meet future demand.” Passing on the market was described by Texas lawmakers as another way to keep low rates.  

The problem and its causes lack a single source of blame. “Fundamentally the blackouts happened because across the entire system, people did not anticipate how bad things could get,” Neeley concludes. “It was a failure to expect the unexpected.”

And larger issues with infrastructure were not the sole province of Texas or Jackson last week. These storms interrupted life and business in Oklahoma, Ohio, and several other states. Power plants, roads and railroads, oil producers, vaccination programs, and much more were upsized by the impacts of the storm, which sometimes set off unexpected breakdowns further on. “Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, under the expectation that the environment around it would remain stable, or at least fluctuate within predictable bounds,” The New York Times reported.