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(HUGE h/t to RLMiller for the help in getting this up)

AS OF ABOUT 12pm MT Tuesday, the spokeswoman for the Town of Taos, New Mexico had it on good information that about half of the 11,000 area residents surviving for six straight days without heat or warm water were back online.  Area volunteers along with the NM National Guard and NM Gas Company technicians had worked through the night to reach as many of the in-need as possible.  The other 5,000 were faced with several more days of cold and sporadic electricity outages while a major winter storm barrels down on us.  Arctic temperatures are here today and should persist into the weekend.

WHAT THE HECK?

I first heard about it taking my boy to day care last Thursday morning.  The NM Gas company, the State of New Mexico Governor’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security had just announced that by noon on February 3, 2011, gas was going to be shut off in such widespread locals as Bernalillo, Placitas, Taos, Questa, Red River and parts of Albuquerque, Silver City, Alamogordo, Tularosa and La Luz and even areas in Arizona and California. Two to three hours was all the warning we were going to get.  

Republican Governor Susana Martinez jumped up to declare a state of emergency for the entire state and sent home all nonessential state workers home. ‘Turn down your thermostats, bundle up and shut off appliances you don't need for the next 24 hours..." she told us. Taos Mayor Darren Cordova declared a state of emergency and urged us to conserve electricity to prevent an outage of that energy source.

Emergency shelters were set up in several areas.

WTF? I wondered.  That’s got to be illegal.  My mind filled with broken pipes, minor house fires, a run at the grocery store and ... area businesses.  Taos has been pretty hard hit by this Depression and I could imagine that several days of uncompensated loss was going to really hurt come of my friends and acquaintances. I imagined lawsuits galore.

These types of things don’t affect me much and although annoying, it’s nothing more than that for me.  I don’t say this to brag but I try to stay well-prepared for emergency situations.  No, not in the post-apocalyptic bunkers-and-guns sort of way, but with logic.  Look, there is bound to be a time when food and water are not available for several days at a time.  So, I’ve always got a week’s worth of food and water and medicines on hand.  I’ve got a few camp stoves, sleeping bags, and first aid kits, extra batteries, matches, lighters, candles and clean underwear on hand.  I didn’t need to run to the store or anything.  There was no panic.  The only thing on my mind was my kids.  

I loaded the boy back into the car and drove to my daughter’s school where I picked up several of her and her friends, called the friends parents to let them know their kids were fine and that’s that. I dropped by the ex-wife’s place and cut her a bunch of fire-wood, eventually dropped the girls off then headed home.  

The slight panic about town was absurd.  Dozens of cars were lined up at the gas stations, people spilled out of the supermarkets with water, food and so on and hundreds of others poured in.  There was a rush on electric heaters and Wal-Mart and Ace Hardware.  So much so that the police had to be called.  

Come on folks, being prepared for a minor emergency isn’t hard.  Lets face it.  What I saw Thursday afternoon was a little ridiculous.  But that’s another story.

But for the kids and I the next few days were just about normal.  I boiled hot water for baths, we covered up the windows and closed un-needed doors and made my little condo as tight as possible.  Then we played in the snow.  

The silence in the streets the following days...the number of businesses closed...the occasional appearance of a military HumVee...it all made for some eerie times.

Luckily and inspite of the initial panic, our community has pulled together in wonderful ways.  Our local radio stations, bloggers, tweeters and the Taos Police Department have been great at disseminating information, sharing resources and at the same time letting people vent their frustrations – a very important tool.  

On Tuesday, state Representative Carlos Cisneros asked the state Attorney General to investigate.

By this morning things are pretty much back to normal. Everyone has gas it seems. NM Gas has announced a $1 million fund to help with claims.

Good.  Hopefully we’re near the end of this but some a few things linger.  Namely, WHEN will this happen again?

SO..WHAT THE HELL DID HAPPEN?

When I was a kid, we were trained to hate Texans. If something went wrong, it was the fault of the Lone Star State.  Once, on a dark foggy morning in the Parking Lot of Carlsbad Caverns National Monument a male relation of mine handed my cousins and I handfuls of old potatoes and directed us to stuff them into the tailpipes of every car with a Texas license plate.

So, we blame Texas.

Last week, yet another odd, major winter storm pulling frigid air from the Arctic smashed about 70% of the country.  The storm hit far south, bringing ice-storms to Texas.  I inevitably received emails from my Texas Republican friends assuring me that the proof against climate change was in the frozen puddin’. I mailed them rotten potatoes.

That cold caused traditional dinosaur-powered electricity plants to go offline.  The first to go were two of the largest coal plants in the nation.  Apparently, water intake valves froze. Pipes burst. Coal piles froze.  They went like dominoes. Fifty fossil-fuel plants quickly went down taking seven gigawatts (over 14% of production) out of the system.  At the same time, New Mexicans started using more gas because it was freaking cold and the main gas fields that supply Texas in real-time during the winter stopped pumping – because of the cold.  The rough-necks in west Texas went home once it got cold.

Moisture buildup in natural gas lines caused automatic shutoffs. Gas pressure in the lines dropped. The generators and compressors that actually push the gas through the lines went down and, with no backup system in place, the gas ceased to flow.  

Demand spikes, production bottoms out and the whole system literally freezes up. Around 2.7 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas output went offline and BOOM!  Wal-Mart in Taos sells out of electric heaters in minutes.

And people were reasonably frustrated:

Meanwhile:

Wind power production has met (and, it seems, actually exceed) its commitments to the Texas power grid -- wind-power has been producing its promised electricity service, unlike coal and natural gas systems.  Wind maintained delivery of 3.5 to 4.0 gigawatts (about 7 percent of Texas' requirements) to the grid.

SO...SO...LIKE, WHAT THE HELL?

I’m not going to lie.  The first thing I thought of upon getting the news was .... Now that’s odd....the coldest days of the year and the guys who gave money to help get our new Governor elected shut the gas off?  

Memories of the 2000-2001 California energy crisis went through my head.  As did the voices on the Enron Tapes where traders plotted, planned and executed the outages that took a big bite out of California’s economy and made billions for the energy companies.

Curiously, just two days prior to the rolling blackouts the ERCOT (the TX grid operator) lifted the caps on the revenues energy companies could make during times of crises. The caps went from $2,250 to $3,000 and the $2,250 had only been in place for about a week...prior to that?  The cap was at $50 per megawatt-hour.

As the blackouts began, wholesale electricity rates shot up to more than 50 times the normal price – hitting and staying at the news elevated caps.  It had never happened before.  BILLIONS were made while Texas went without electricity and New Mexico went without gas. SO what was the cause of the generation outage and how is it related to the caps?  Suddenly, there was a heck of a lot of money to be made (Audio).  

While Texans suffered rolling blackouts yesterday, some power generators were enjoying windfall profits. Starting around 5 a.m., prices in the wholesale market surged to the market cap, $3,000 per megawatt-hour, and stayed there, off and on, until around noon. Prices are typically below $100/megawatt-hour, acknowledged ERCOT CEO H.P. "Trip" Doggett today in a press conference.

There are still more questions than answers but this much is clear: At best, some power generators around the state raked in oodles of money thanks to the way ERCOT has structured the energy market. At worst, some may have manipulated the market to drive up prices.

In the end, the price surge yesterday could cost consumers tens of millions of dollars, said David Power, deputy director of Public Citizen-Texas. Although residential consumers are typically insulated from temporary wholesale price spikes, "Somebody ends up paying for it," said Power.

SNIP

There is no evidence that power generators engaged in market manipulation by, for example, withholding power to artifically depress supply and bid up prices. But it's certainly a possibility.

Certainly.  Certainly.

Another problem is that the TX electrical grid is THE MOST independent of all the grids in the nation. Thus, during this emergency, power production from other states' couldn't feed into and thus compensate for ERCOT’s inability to meet its own demand. Why is the TX system so independent?  Read here, at the Energy Collective.

And then there is deregulation.  As Americans have increasingly allowed giant corporations to run rough-shod over our middle-class, national security and democracy what we find is that those who run our basic infrastructure have little incentive to invest in that infrastructure.  They are only concerned with how much money they can make in the current quarter.   De-regulation has told these guys that, essentially, they don’t have to prepare for things "unlikely to happen".  They don’t have to invest in backups, better lines, better command-and-control systems because that would cost them money.  Thus, when the unlikely does happen, the costs are passed onto the consumer and the companies rake it in.

WHAT NEXT?

We hear that a lot lately, don’t we?  "We couldn’t have known!"  That’s what they’ve told us about Kartina and the economic collapse and the crumbling infrastructure.  When something bad happens... "we couldn’t have known".  In the age of climate change the "we couldn’t have known"s are going to be coming fast and furious.

Americans love the meme that we have the best of everything in the world.  The best health care system, the best political system, the best this. The best that.  But just saying it doesn’t make it so.  Spend five minutes in many of the other countries on this great Earth and its evident just how far behind we’ve fallen.

The energy industry and conservative Republicans will go all out to blame Obama, wind energy (even though the wind turbines never failed), "red-tape", and environmentalists.  The fact is though that unless we plan a national energy policy, invest infrastructure and do all we can to keep these companies from fleecing the public we are going to rot into a Third-World nation in just a generation.

----

Originally posted to environmentalist on Thu Feb 10, 2011 at 08:33 AM PST.

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