What Florida can learn from Texas’ failures | Editorial
The massive power outages across the Lone Star state were preventable.
Snow and ice grips a neighborhood in East Austin Texas on Tuesday.
Snow and ice grips a neighborhood in East Austin Texas on Tuesday. [ BRONTE WITTPENN | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 19

Texas’ widespread power outages provide a ready platform for political opportunism. Don’t like wind turbines? Condemn them for freezing up. Loathe fossil fuels? Point the finger at an overreliance on natural gas. Liberals target Texas’ laissez-faire approach to regulation, while conservatives accuse the “lords of climate change” or “Green New Dealers” for weakening the power grid. The partisan blame game will continue, and certainly the state needs to take a constructive look at what went wrong. But no one should be surprised that a cold snap crippled Texas’ power grid. It had happened recently, and government and industry leaders seemingly reacted with a collective shrug. There’s a lesson in that for Florida.

Some disasters are worsened by a collective failure to imagine frightening possibilities. We only connect the dots after they happen. The 9-11 terrorist attacks fits in that category. So could the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol. But not the Texas power outages. They were easily foreseeable. In 2011, frigid temperatures left 3 million Texans without power. In 2014, another winter cold snap resulted in rolling blackouts. The state encouraged power companies to better winterize their equipment, but that didn’t happen. So while natural gas lines don’t freeze and wind turbines keep spinning in colder places like Iowa and Norway, they failed in Texas.

The recent cold snap should not have been a surprise either. Texas often suffers blasts of arctic air. And for years, scientists have warned that climate change will make for more turbulent weather. A warming planet appears to be messing with the polar vortex and the jet stream, scientists say. The result could be colder air dipping further south during the winter. In other words, this wasn’t an anomaly that won’t return for another 200 years. The temperatures were extreme, but predictable and should be expected again soon.

All it would have taken to avoid the current blackouts was better planning and the will to make necessary upgrades. Instead over the past week, at least 3.3 million homes were without power, and 12 million people were affected by dangerously low water pressure that could make water dangerous to drink. At least 16 deaths have been attributed to the cold. The economic damage is still being calculated.

A similar cold snap is unlikely to affect such a wide swath of Florida. But the state faces its own threats, from hurricanes to sea level rise. Storms over the last few years have exposed weaknesses in our ability to keep the power on, with some residents going a week or longer without electricity. Some observers have worried in recent years that relying on natural gas for about 75 percent of the electricity generation leaves the state too vulnerable to breaks or other interruptions along a few critical supply lines. It didn’t help that the state lost a perfectly good nuclear plant due to Progress Energy’s gross incompetence. We’ve also seen local sewer systems decay to the point where cities pump sewage into waterways. And the Florida Legislature was slow to acknowledge climate change and its many challenges, leaving the state to play catch-up.

The lesson here is in accepting reality when crucial infrastructure cries out for attention. Hoping that the power grid will hold up to a known threat is not a plan. Ignoring recent weather history is not a plan. And dismissing science is not a plan. Just ask Texas.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.