March 3, 2021

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Texas vs FERC’s “best practices” for anticipating disasters

Richard Parker,
Texas Could Have Kept the Lights On:
  The state's powerful [sic] utilities failed to prepare for the worst
Editorial, *The New York Times*, 18 Feb 2021

Paul Krugman,
Texas, Land of Wind and Lies:
  When post-truth politics meets energy policy, the outlook is bleak
Editorial, *The New York Times*, 19 Feb 2021

PGN's mini-editorial for RISKS:

Many of the lessons from 35 years of the ACM Risks Forum have been massively
ignored in Texas, in this case resulting in massive power outages with no
potable water, and added difficulties for COVID-19 vaccines that needed deep
refrigeration).  The lessons from dozens of previous propagating outages
have been partially addressed in other states, with considerable diminution
in massively cascading multi-state fiascoes over time.  However, the earlier
notion of having spare electricity to share with other regions has been
deprecated, which could otherwise help out in emergencies.  Furthermore,
Texas's desire to go it alone has seriously backfired, especially in that
there were explicit warnings from the Federal Emergency Regulatory
Commission that extensive cold-hardening was needed after a serious cold
snap in 2011 that effected millions with no power—evidently ignored
without any sensible system engineering for resilience.  The Texas disaster
clearly violates the Albert Einstein principle: Everything should be made as
simple as possible but no simpler.  This is a horrible example of "much too
simple".  As usual, the blame can be widely distributed, but in this case
most of it is mercilessly self-inflicted.  Furthermore, the incredible
fantasy of the Governor and others in blaming this disaster on alternative
energy sources such as wind power borders on insanity.

In this case, even the "best practices" recommended by FERC a decade ago may
not have been good enough, but could have avoided much of the effects of
this disaster.

The loss of the Challenger shuttle was another example of a lesson to be
learned in anticipating cold weather (e.g., RISKS-5.78 and 5.80).  What made
that particularly unfortunate was that Roger Boisjoly had explicitly warned
not to launch in freezing weather because it was known that the O-rings
might not hold.  Thus, in that case the risks were known in advance, but not
adequately considered. (See RISKS-12.40 for more on that.)

In our RISKS-related archives is also a major six-week complete power-outage
disaster in Quebec in the winter of 1996-1997 when transmission towers froze
and collapsed from the weight of ice under the prolonged hard freeze, and
the outage lasted for months.  Water was also a relevant issue there as in
Texas, because there were no available public water sources during the
entire outage.  (Surely, cold weather was not a surprise there.)