The tale is told of my Keffer ancestors moving the family from Greene County, Pennsylvania in 1910 to Lipscomb County in the Texas Panhandle. They gave away all their winter clothing and bedding because they were leaving the frozen North for the sunny South. And then came the “Great Blue Norther” of 1911, with its sub-freezing temperatures and blizzards, which covered Lipscomb County and much of Texas.
It can get cold – very cold – in Texas. The official lowest temperature ever recorded in Texas was in Tulia (Swisher County), 23 degrees below zero – in 1933. Here are other record lows in various Texas cities: Amarillo (-16 in 1899); Austin (-2 in 1949); Dallas (-8 in 1899); El Paso (-8 in 1962); Houston (5 in 1930); Lubbock (-17 in 1933); Midland (-11 in 1985); San Antonio (0 in 1949).
February 2021 is sure to go down in the record books as another winter storm to remember, not only because it was extreme in its intensity and coverage but even more so because it revealed weaknesses in our electrical grid. One sure way to get someone’s attention is to abruptly take away his access to electricity. Not surprisingly, because we have become increasingly more dependent on having immediate and continuous electricity, the more significant the consequences are when service is interrupted. And the longer the interruption, the more severe the consequences. Unfortunately, our growing dependence on, and automatic expectation in, having electricity all around us is matched by our pervasive ignorance in what it is, how we generate it, and what all it takes to have a dependable electrical grid.
The failure of the Texas electrical grid during the February winter storm has been dissected by countless pundits – both informed and some who are perhaps more inflamed than informed. Unquestionably, weaknesses in the system were exposed, and there are lessons to be learned and corrective actions to be taken. But, as with most significant events, useful analysis rarely occurs in the heat of the moment.
To start with, the weather event was extreme in terms of sustained sub-freezing temperatures and the extent to which those temperatures covered the state. But, as stated above, Texas has had many such events in its history. Perhaps one significant difference is the degree to which so much of our population is now dependent on electricity every minute of every day. In other words, when we depend on electricity for heating, cooking, water, communications (mobile phones), computers, lights, kitchen appliances – to name just a few essential services, it becomes abundantly clear just how stranded and helpless we are without it.
For many years now, we have been warned how vulnerable we are to terrorist attacks on our electrical grids throughout the U.S. This brief weather event in Texas is certainly an eye-opening demonstration of the reality of such a warning. Many Texans were without electricity for a few days; can we imagine going without electricity for weeks or months? Our growing dependence exposes our growing vulnerability.
How will Texas respond? Certainly, there are substantive steps that can and should be taken to improve our electrical grid and minimize, if not eliminate, similar consequences during future extreme-weather events. One critical ingredient in any effective, long-term response is having a more informed population. Success in our modern economy has led to comfort; comfort has led to complacency, and complacency has led to a lack of interest in knowing how or why we are able to enjoy the comforts and conveniences of a modern economy. Such disregard for understanding something as fundamentally important as energy can only lead to disaster.
Well-reasoned, sound policy decisions are more likely to be made by those in positions of authority when the people they represent understand the issues and choices that are being considered. To understand, they must be provided all the relevant information, not just the information that has been carefully curated to promote a particular agenda.
To put a finer point on it – perhaps people should consider the merits of pursuing an energy policy premised on averting the theoretical consequences of climate catastrophe in the distant future versus one based on averting the real consequences of energy failure, inadequacy, and poverty being experienced by people all over the world right now – even by the millions of Texans for those few days in February.
For Texans and others to be in a better position to make that kind of determination, the first step must be to decide what the goal of any energy policy should be. Alex Epstein, author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” proposes that the goal should be the promotion of human flourishing, rather than the irrational preference for protecting nature over man held by the climate-change crowd. At their core, most people support the principle of self-preservation and recognize the ingenuity of man to be able to adapt to whatever conditions are presented by nature – man-made or otherwise. Another ugly, but ever-present, the reality is that those in power who preach deprivation or sacrifice for others usually, conveniently, exempt themselves.
If the goal is human flourishing, then any rational energy policy should be founded on developing and providing energy sources that are abundant, affordable, dispatchable, dependable, and dense. To the extent decisions regarding energy policy are not made based on these criteria, then it can be said that those decisions are less rational. If the decisions are less rational, then it should be asked on what basis and to achieve what goal have less-rational decisions been made.
The stark reality that came from the news stories reporting on the consequences of having no electricity, even for only a few days, should have the clarifying effect of making us better understand the importance of recognizing the primary goal of striving to have dependable and continuous electricity – and energy, in general. Whether it is the family with no heat in their apartment, struggling to keep their children warm; the elderly woman in her home without access to lights or heat; the injured or infirm in the hospital desperately in need of surgery, where access to continuous electricity is uncertain; or the woman living alone needing to place an emergency call over her mobile phone that has lost its charge – what policymaker could ever rationally make decisions based on the theoretical and unknown of the distant future over the real and known of right now?
Real events can often have the effect of jolting our society and government from the slumber of sloppy thinking into a renewed discipline of common sense. Let us hope we are about to be jolted.
About the author: Bill Keffer is a contributing columnist to SHALE Oil & Gas Business Magazine. He teaches at the Texas Tech University School of Law and continues to consult. He also served in the Texas Legislature from 2003 to 2007.