Maintaining Power in Texas

The Business section of today’s Houston Chronicle leads with Chris Tomlinson’s commentary. The headline (print version): Lawmakers are more talk than action on electricity reforms. 

Unless you’ve been on a media fast for Lent, you probably heard about Snowmageddon here in Texas last month. In Central Texas, 5” of snow fell on Valentine’s night. That photo above shows my Mexican Plum tree in shock from a full-body coating of ice, never before experienced in its tender life in Austin! Happily, it recovered to bloom abundantly just 3 weeks later.

Other parts of the state had more or less ice and snow. But the entire state, including the Rio Grande Valley in the far south, suffered from extremely low temperatures. It was a real shock to people who in some years don’t even experience a light freeze all winter.

We might have enjoyed the fairytale wonderland of blinding white snow, gorgeous blue skies, and tobogganing and skiing in the streets, except that millions of us lost power for hours or days. Hundreds of thousands also lost water service for a week or more, as a result of freezing pipes, power outages, and water plant failures. At least fifty-seven people died, some freezing to death, and others of carbon monoxide poisoning from using unsafe heat sources.

What are They Doing About It?

Not much! The Texas Legislature is in session and vowing to take action to ensure the power grid never fails this way again. The trouble is, this has already happened before. After a massive winter storm in 2011, recommendations were made. But nothing ever really changed, and we had the disaster of 2021.

Tomlinson lays out particulars of various bills that promise improvement. And he points out that most of the bills lack real teeth or detail to achieve their ends.

The Texas power generation system is unlikely to change much. Charles Blanchard, the head of natural gas research at an energy trading company, writes that it is uneconomical for Texas gas companies to winterize their best-producing wells, let alone all of them. In some cases it might make more sense simply to abandon the wells, resulting in further reduction of supply.

Do it Local, Do it Better

If getting the Legislature to act is like trying to move Mt. Fuji, there are better ways of doing things on a more local level.

In this era of climate whiplash, you can be sure that storms like Uri, which caused the Great Texas Blackout, will occur again in future. We are designing Nature Towns with a major focus on resilience. The pilot project will certainly incorporate renewable energy. And we intend for future projects to be entirely off-grid, with multiple sources of electricity generation so residents are never exposed to the risk of freezing to death in their homes.

Blanchard concludes, “This crisis was an unwanted side effect of the Grand Texas Bargain of low taxes, low spending, minimal oversight of public services by elected officials, and residents generally fending for themselves. …The central question Texans must answer can be boiled down quite succinctly: Would you write a check tomorrow to prepare for another cold snap that might not come again in your lifetime? Or, phrased differently, will you or your plumber be crawling under your house to wrap your pipes?”

Designing for Resilience

It is so much easier and cheaper to design resilience into a system in advance than to try to retrofit after the fact. Designing resilience in advance is exactly what we are doing at Nature Towns.

Now that it is indisputable that temperatures here can fall well below freezing (it was 8 degrees F on one of those days last month), we know that water lines will need to be buried 6’ down, just like in Canada, where winter is always frigid. Houses will need insulation appropriate to sub-freezing temperatures.

We also need to recognize that Central Texas temps can reach well over 100 degrees in summer — I remember 112 once in September. Whatever systems we put into place in Nature Towns will be weatherized for extremes of both hot and cold temperatures. 

Environmental Protection for People

Furthermore, we are designing to enhance the environmental protection of each town against weather extremes. The earthworks for broadacre permaculture practices performed at the start of each development will control and store rainwater to both protect residents from floods and provide an independent water source even through 2 years of drought.

The Nature part of every Nature Town will feature dozens of deep ponds – about 32 acres’ worth at minimum – constructed to reduce evaporation, ringed with trees and protected by floatovoltaic panels. This water will also help to moderate temperatures in the town.

In every regenerative farm in a Nature Town we will plant hundreds of thousands of trees. Some are tall native shade trees such as pecans and oaks; others will be livestock browse and forage. Aside from the obvious benefits of the beauty they provide, these trees together will drastically reduce the urban heat island effect experienced in other cities and suburbs.

What Can You Do?

How can you help Nature Towns move forward with our pilot project? Buy a membership to support the project and secure your timestamp to guarantee you the option of living there. Meanwhile, Texas residents: Write or call your legislator and demand real action on the Texas power grid. Then cross your fingers and hope for the best.

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