Powerless In Tough Weather
February 22, 2021
The Good News
- A Utah city has been forgiving parking tickets in exchange for food donations (CNN)
- This Texas restaurant gave out 500+ meals during blackout (Today)
“We’re a society that demands electricity 24/7. This is very difficult with sun and wind.” — Vaclav Smil
“Electricity is really just organized lightning.” — George Carlin
Energy Decisions Render California & Texas Powerless In Tough Weather
(Asaad Niazi via Getty Images)
They have different goals, leaders, politics, and power grids, but both states failed to protect their power supplies from extreme weather. Last summer the Big Blue State of California was knocked out by a colossal heatwave, and last week the Big Red State of Texas crumbled under one devastating winter storm. Each time, the cost in human suffering and economic impact has been catastrophic.
Both states had devoted massive amounts of money to their power networks — California to produce huge amounts of wind and solar energy, Texas to create a deregulated, go-it-alone electricity market built on gas, coal, nuclear, and wind. But neither could keep the lights on when experiencing the type of brutal weather scientists say is a taste of a changing climate.
Texas was warned for years about what needed to be done to avoid large-scale power failures like those that occurred in 1989 and again in 2011. But the recommendations weren’t mandatory, and nothing was done. In August 2011 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation wrote a 357-page report about the February 2011 outage. The report found that “the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds,” and said winterization could have prevented many of the weather-related outages.
Instead, Texas’ Republican leaders chose to make the state power grid independent, thereby removing it from any pesky federal regulations that might have required infrastructure improvements and generator winterization to keep the power on in severe weather. 10 years later, a rare blast of Arctic air devastates the state’s vulnerable power grid, leaving millions of Texans without warmth and water, and dozens frozen to death. Initially, Governor Greg Abbott blamed frozen wind turbines for the disaster, but according to PolitiFact: “Of the power shortfall that hit Texas, over 80% was due to problems at coal- and gas-fired plants.”
Contrastingly, California set aggressive renewable targets, increasing the solar capacity of its grid over the past decade to 27 gigawatts in 2019, more than a third of the nation’s solar output. But wildfires and heat waves that threaten transmission have grown in intensity and duration, and the state’s utilities began shutting off transmission lines during wind storms to reduce the likelihood of sparking blazes. Add to that droughts in the Northwest that restrict crucial supplies of hydropower.
One clean energy expert has a prescient suggestion: “It’s well past time to recognize a fundamental vulnerability of the power system and take advantage of where we are now with digital technologies, more distributed technology, storage, and flexibility and deal with the root cause and not play whack a mole with these large scale systems.” (Politico, PolitiFact, Texas Tribune)
Facebook, Remove More Posts! Wait, No, Not Those Posts!
(Brendon Thorne via Getty Images)
- After Facebook got into a squabble with the Australian government over a new law that would force it and other platforms to pay for links to news content, the social media giant shut down swaths of media and key public information sites, including those of government bodies and state health departments before the national coronavirus vaccine rollout.
- Now an open letter from dozens of prominent charities, media, and campaign groups around the world contends the move constituted an “attack on democracy,” and calls for members of Facebook’s oversight board to speak out or step down. “Access to reliable and quality information is integral to our democracy and our society,” the letter said. Taking it down, “gives room for misinformation and hate speech to fill the void left behind.”
- Facebook has long argued that self-regulation is more effective than government controls, pointing to bodies like its oversight board. Critics say that Facebook’s board moves slowly to judge only past controversies, and is therefore impractical and unable to weigh in on fast-moving real-time events. (Guardian)
Deals For Doses
- The official story given for last week’s release of a young Israeli woman being held in Syria was that it was a straight prisoner swap, with Israel releasing two Syrian shepherds it had been detaining. That wasn’t the whole story, however.
- Pursuant to a ‘secret’ deal negotiated by Russia, Israel also agreed to pay Moscow to send enough Russian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccines to Syria to inoculate nearly half that country’s population. The Israeli government declined to comment on the vaccine part of the deal, while the Syrian Arab News Agency denied that vaccines were ever part of the arrangement.
- Even so, the story highlights how vaccines are increasingly becoming part of international diplomacy. It also reflects the vast and growing disparity between wealthy countries like Israel that have made considerable headway with coronavirus vaccines and could soon return to a kind of normalcy, and poor ones like Syria that have not. (NYT, $)
Additional World News
- Iran pushes ahead with plan to cut UN nuclear inspections (Guardian). The government experimented with other plans first — this was the nuclear option.
- Niger votes in presidential runoff to usher in first democratic transition (Reuters)
- ‘It’s so unfair’: life on the streets of the French town branded as ‘lost to Islam’ (Guardian)
- Facebook’s Australian news ban might do the wrong thing for the right reasons (Vox)
- Russian Court Denies Appeal Of Jailed Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny (NPR)
- Tension haunts tiny Taiwanese isles that live in fear of war with China (Guardian)
- Perspective | Canada is plunging toward a human rights disaster for disabled people (WaPo, $)
- Defense secretary calls for an immediate reduction in violence in Afghanistan as troop withdrawal deadline looms (CNBC). But did he say ‘please?’
- 4 Chinese soldiers died in bloody India border clash last year, China reveals (CNN)
- Jailed Indian climate activist becomes symbol of crackdown on dissent (NBC). Not a good climate for dissent, apparently.
- Scientists say clinical trials for ‘variant-proof’ vaccines could start very soon (Guardian)
- ‘I want to choose my covid vaccine.’ Strong opinions on Oxford vs. Pfizer emerge in U.K. (WaPo, $)
- Covid: WHO pleads with Tanzania to start reporting cases (BBC)
- Many countries took up Russia’s offer to sell them its vaccine. But can it deliver? (NYT, $). The manufacturers are Russian as fast as they can.
First Without Electricity, Now Texans Are Getting Charged
- As if days of no electricity or water and widespread food shortages weren’t enough for the millions of Texans who suffered through last week’s calamitous power failures, now many are being hit with sky-high bills from their energy providers. One Dallas resident said: “While I’m trying to get gas and groceries and make sure that my pipes don’t explode, the last thing I’m thinking about is a $7,000 bill from my utility company.”
- Another North Texan says he got a bill for $16,752.68 from his provider. The problem is that Texas customers can opt for a fixed-rate plan, or choose a provider, like Griddy, that charges customers at a varying market rate depending on current power prices. Before the storm, customers choosing a plan like Griddy’s were likely to have saved quite a bit on their energy, because market prices were below those of the fixed-rate plans.
- But the storm caused energy prices to explode, and costs got passed along to customers. The Public Utility Commission of Texas said Saturday it is investigating “the factors that combined with the devastating winter weather to disrupt the flow of power to millions of Texas homes,” and Governor Greg Abbott said he is convening an emergency meeting to look into the situation. (CNN, NBC News)
Some Republican Donors Trying To Send Pro-Trump Faction PAC-ing
- A number of critics of former President Trump, and the donors backing them, are scrambling to wrest control from the pro-Trump majority. About four dozen wealthy donors were on a fundraising conference call on February 5th with Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the only Republican House leader to vote for Trump’s impeachment for his role in the January 6th mob attack on the Capitol.
- Nikki Haley, the ex-Trump UN ambassador eyeing a 2024 presidential run, is hosting Zoom fundraisers the first week in March for her PAC, Stand for America; she’s expected to draw dozens of big Republican donors attracted to her criticism of Trump during the Senate trial.
- A more aggressive effort to move the GOP away from Trump and his allies’ influence is being mounted by a new PAC called Country First, unveiled in late January by Illinois congressman Adam Kinzinger. Kinzinger is one of just 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump, and has been censured by his local party for it.
- The effort to lessen Trump’s stranglehold on the party won’t be easy. Trump’s new PAC, Save America, had over $30 million before he left office, and he’s raked in tens of millions more since. Save America is expected to spend generously in 2022 to keep Trump’s political ambitions alive and take revenge on those who voted to impeach and convict him. That could include Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, one of only seven GOP senators voting to convict, and the only one of them up for re-election in 2022. (Guardian)
Additional USA News
- Extreme Winter Weather Creates Backlog Of 6 Million Vaccine Doses (NPR)
- State GOP lawmakers propose flurry of voting restrictions to placate Trump supporters, spurring fears of a backlash (WaPo, $)
- Millions of kindergartners skip public school: COVID redshirting (USA Today). Skipping school for a day: fun. Skipping school for a year: disastrous.
- Fact-Checking Biden’s Comments On The Ivy League And Loan Forgiveness (NPR)
- Disinformation Fuels A White Evangelical Movement. It Led 1 Virginia Pastor To Quit (NPR)
- How a Liberal Lawyer in Georgia Took an Extreme Right Turn (NYT, $). He could’ve at least put on his turn signal first.
- Merrick Garland’s long wait is over but his problems are just starting (Guardian)
- Texans rally to help neighbors amid big freeze as officials are caught cold (Guardian)
- Texas power outage: why wind turbines are not to blame (Vox)
- Much of Texas has power back — but it still faces water and food shortages (Vox)
- More teachers are asked to double up, instructing kids at school and at home simultaneously (WaPo, $)
- Texas Republicans criticized for misleading claims that renewable energy sources caused massive outages (CNN). Texas Republicans making sure to represent the interests of their bird constituents.
- The Far-Reaching Effects of the Storm, on Power and People (NYT, $
- How Texas’ Drive for Energy Independence Set It Up for Disaster (NYT, $)
Saying Nope To Rope
- While humans have plenty of causes of death to confront, large mammals weighing as much as 70 tons are dealing with their own particular challenge: rope entanglement. Getting caught in ropes from fishing boats is the leading cause of death for these giant mammals.
- Off the coast of the U.S., more than 85% of North Atlantic right whales have gotten ensnared in fishing gear at least once. Most have been caught multiple times. With an estimated 370 right whales remaining, the species is classified as critically endangered, one step from extinction.
- The deaths spurred the rise of a new practice in the East Coast lobster industry, with many fishermen now trying “ropeless” fishing. Instead of extending rope lines off the side of the boat down to cages on the ocean floor, these fishermen are releasing their traps by sending acoustic signals 50 feet underwater.
- Most fishermen, however, are hesitant to go ropeless. According to the executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, switching to ropeless gear could cost up to $70,000 for a single boat. On top of the cost, the ropeless system lacks buoys on the water surface marking where the lobster gear is located, so it’s easy for other fishing boats dragging nets on the seafloor to get ensnared in lobster traps.
- A select few fishermen are attempting to make the switch, understanding that if the right whale population doesn’t recover, states may start restricting lobster fishing in order to save the whales. If they can’t get ropeless technology, or some other solution, to work, either the whales will go extinct, or the lobster industry will. (NPR)
- After the Nobel, what next for Crispr gene-editing therapies? (Guardian)
- If Planet Nine exists, why has no one seen it? (BBC). Have they tried looking between Planets Eight and Ten?
- The AI Research Paper Was Real. The ‘Coauthor’ Wasn’t (ArsTechnica)
- Revealed: the scientific principles behind Dalí’s surrealist eccentricity (Guardian)
- Million-Year-Old DNA Rewrites Mammoths’ Evolutionary Tree (Wired
- A Trippy Visualization Charts the Internet’s Growth Since 1997 (Wired)
- News of 2020, From the Overnight Emails of The New York Times (NYT, $)
- Thousands of Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles Being Rescued in Texas (US News)
- Origin of life: Did Darwinian evolution begin before life itself? (Phys
- Listen: Using CRISPR to save endangered species (Vox)
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