Austin and the Snowpocalypse

Most years, projections of snow and cold weather in Austin turn out to be laughably wrong. 2021 had other ideas in mind.

First, we had a winter storm blow through Texas that dropped freezing rain and high winds, which took out a lot of power lines in Austin, including our own neighborhood for the night. That was followed by another winter storm that came with 4–8” of snow (closer to 8” where we live) — and a week of temperatures that did not rise about 32’F and had lows as low as single digits Fahrenheit.

The impact on Texas — and on Austin specifically — was stark. Austin and cities south of here are simply not prepared for a real winter storm system like this. Most people don’t own a snow shovel, let alone snow boots, winter tires, or chains. And most cities don’t own any snow plows to speak of. These cities aren’t prepared to salt the roads — they usually use sand instead.

But there are parts of Texas that see this kind of weather regularly — the panhandle, and parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area which, these days, pretty much stretches to Oklahoma.

And it is normally fun to joke about how unprepared Texans are for cold weather — just as it is fun to joke about how folks up north will complain about 85’F being hot. But this time, it is hard to laugh — because quite a few people lost their lives to cold weather — 38 as of February 18th, and no doubt that number will go up before we’re done counting. Temperatures as I write this are already back to 75’F and sunny.

It would be tempting to just say well, this was an unanticipated and unfortunate event, but that there was nothing that the state, nor these cities, could have done. But maps of power outages tell a different story. In particular the New York Times covered the outages and produced several visualizations that help tell the story:

And now look at where the outages are:

It’s clear that the outages affected Texas more significantly that surrounding areas. The Texas Tribune has provided the gold standard of coverage of this crisis, in my opinion. In this piece, they spell out why the outages were so bad: in short, the state of Texas failed to winterize (or weatherize) their equipment. As components of the power supply chain froze, electric production capacity had to shut down. As production shut down, ERCOT had to order retail energy firms to shut down demand by shutting whole circuits and zones. At the peak, somewhere between 4 and 5 million Texas residents were without power.

Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. That, plus a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country’s power grid, left the state alone to deal with the crisis, experts said.

Worse: this wasn’t a short one or two-night cold snap. The cold weather was both more extreme and longer-lasting.

And the side-effects of no electricity are widespread:

  • Pipes freezing and cracking in houses all over Texas
  • People literally dying from hypothermia in their own homes, unable to leave because of the icy roads.
  • Power outages at water treatment facilities, causing water supply outages.

The cold weather also broke water mains, causing a loss of pressure and water supply, exacerbating the problems due to burst pipes and electrical outages.

The stories of how people weathered the storm are both heart breaking and heart warming. We saw first hand how our neighbors helped each other (and us), and we are so grateful for that. We are still seeing Texans helping other Texans to get drinking water and food now that the lights are back on. We spent several nights huddled up in one bedroom with our two kids, hoping to just keep one room warm enough (about 45’F) to be able to sleep. We had the sleeping bags out and wore winter clothes all day and night. We cooked on our gas grill — and boiled water there as well. We went to bed when it got too dark. We sat in our car to warm up a couple times a day, running the car to heat us up and charge our various devices to keep a connection to the outside world. Our street had iced over too much for us to escape in our two-wheel drive car. On Thursday we were rescued by a friend with a 4x4 who took us to my sister-in-law’s house to stay the night and warm up because they still had electricity. The streets by then were generally passable, but not in our neighborhood nor in hers, without 4 wheel drive.

Our story was relatively mild — we could laugh about it at first, and we’ll start laughing about it again in the future. I’ve lived in Texas for 27 years, and I’ve never seen a winter like this — and I’ve never lost power for more than about 8 hours before — and we’ve lost power twice in one month for 24 hours or more (24 hours one week, and then 96 hours the next!).

The story for Texas is one of failure. A failure of governance, leadership, and process.

  • We had a failure in short-term preparation. The weather forecasts came early enough for Texas to take action — but utilities in the northern part of the state were alarmed at how unseriously and unurgently the state officials and regulators seemed to regard those forecasts. No one was recommending individual actions to get ready for the cold snap either.
  • We had a failure in long-term preparation. There’s simply no incentive for energy producers in Texas to winterize their equipment. There’s firstly no regulatory requirement nor enforcement of note. And secondly, faced with a once-in-ten-years kind of event, power producers just roll the dice with each weather event.
  • There’s no market for future capacity. Believe it or not, the ERCOT market was designed to not have a market for buying future energy producing capacity, because this will marginally drive up the cost of electricity by buying potentially excess capacity. There’s quite a bit of conversation now about whether adding a market for future capacity would be a good idea. File this under “captain obvious.”
  • In deregulated markets, it’s confusing… In Texas, you can get your power through a retail power provider — but if you have an outage, someone else is responsible for the wire lines to your house — so you don’t call your retail provider, you call a different utility — with whom you are technically not even a customer. It is hard to argue that this disintermediation between consumer and the wire line owners is actually helping customer service…
  • The market allows for floating-rate pricing to customers… If you’re reading or hearing about Texans getting crazy electric bills, this is because the spot price for a kWh of natural gas went from $22 to $9000 in just a few days. If these costs are passed unadulterated to retailers and customers, the utility bills are insanely, bankruptingly high. Again, you can’t lock in capacity in long-term contracts in advance, so, that’s a problem.
  • Austin Energy isn’t subject to this high bill issue. Austin energy is a city-run utility that is both a consumer an producer of electricity. As such, they do a better job than most utilities of riding out the various price inefficiencies in the market, and providing very consistent costs of production to their customers (the City of Austin).
  • We had a failure in leadership. Maybe the Governor and other leaders were on TV to talk about what was going on. But most of us couldn’t watch TV — we didn’t have electricity. As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t been addressed by a single state-wide official in Texas for over 10 days of disaster. They went into their bunkers and hid. Or, in some cases, went to Cancun, Florida, or a Fox network show to promote that idea that somehow this was the fault of a Democratic politician in New York.
  • We had a failure in communication. The various utilities and ERCOT really struggled with effective communications from the moment outages started. To give some credit where credit is due, the communications improved as the news improved. But initially, rosy predictions of getting the power on caused people to make decisions that probably cost lives — to shelter in place instead of getting to a friend’s house for example. Another example: Austin Water forcefully beat down suggestions that they would issue a boil notice about 24 hours before they… issued a boil notice. As I pointed out at the time on Twitter, they needed to instead outline for us what conditions might require a boil notice — like losing power at a water treatment plant, or losing water pressure due to main lines breaking — both of which happened within that 24 hour period. I wasn’t predicting the future, I was just extrapolating from reasonable trajectory, and I have no expertise on their infrastructure. A few days later, Austin Water is using social media to much more effectively communicate what is going on.
  • We still have a failure in helping afterward. The best plan the state government has so far is to prevent utilities from billing customers. So the answer when the market-driven approach fails is to… stop the market? I’m in favor of pausing these bills to work out a solution, but it just shows you how badly everything failed.
  • The process failures are everywhere. In communications process, decisions processes, regulatory oversight processes, and in winter preparedness processes. There’s software to help manage important processes like this, and I’ve spent my career helping clients build systems with process software and automation to make this easier. When you need to address problems that happen rarely, but are super important — it is critical to have well-defined processes and run-books you can put into play each time. I hope that our State of Texas will embark on an overhaul of all of these processes.

If these failures were unavoidable, we would see them in other places that got blasted with cold weather. And to some extent you do — but what you didn’t see anywhere but in Texas, was the near collapse of the electrical grid. ERCOT apparently came within minutes of a total shutdown of the grid. Meanwhile, El Paso and parts of Texas in the panhandle and in Eastern Texas escaped unscathed because they were on the West or East grids, respectively.

As a process guy, it is tough to watch this slow rolling disaster. I do feel like I have to call our a few bright spots.

  1. Our local restaurants and companies pitched in to help feed people and provide clean water to drink.
  2. Our local hero grocery — HEB — served our community nearly flawlessly, causing people to call for HEB to run our disaster management in general. There’s really no doubt that they would have done it better. Honorable mention for Costco in our region for keeping shelves stocked.
  3. Our electrical and water utility workers did heroes work getting our systems back online. I can’t thank them enough.
  4. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, and others who have organized charitable giving and distribution of food and water and call-ins to seniors — heart warming to see this kind of help from folks who didn’t create this problem, but they’re ready to help — AOC by activating her donor network, and Beto by activating his community of Texas supporters to “knock on doors” with phones.
  5. Texans all over who helped each other

There are real questions as to whether we will be ready next time. We’ve had similarly tough winter events roughly every 10 years, and each time followed by promises to fix it — without following through. Time will tell — let’s hope we’re better prepared next winter.

As for me, personally, I’m going to do some homework and make sure *we* are better prepared ourselves, so that we can be of more help to our neighbors in the next crisis.

A version of this post originally published here. If you’d like to receive these posts in your inbox in a weekly newsletter, simply click through and subscribe, and just about every week you’ll have this in your inbox. Some of those posts I’ll cross-post here to Medium or other outlets.

Co-founder and CEO of BP3, President of the Board of the Magellan International School. Interested in Tech, Apple, Startups, Austin, Education, Austin Cuisine.