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The ERCOT Failure, Transitions, and Lessons for Building Back Better: Whole Systems Integration thr

By Mark Reiner, PhD, PE, Andrew Fang, PhD, and Joshua Sperling, PhD


Introduction

The late February 2021 winter storm that knocked out Texas’ power grid – the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – for a week killed at least 69 people and left $18 billion in damage. Additionally, customers have been hit with energy bills in the thousands of dollars, leading to lawsuits from customers and municipalities questioning the validity of the rate setting during the emergency. One question being asked is, could Texas have seen this coming? Reports by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2011 indicate that local and state officials knew the system was vulnerable and need new ways of assessing their risk especially as extreme weather events similar to this will become more frequent and catastrophic due to climate change.


While it is obvious that effective bottom-up planning by municipal senior staff requires that they be better informed advocates for improved maintenance and management of their infrastructure assets. It is not obvious as to how to become empowered as co-equal with top-down stakeholders. The cognitive domains of interest for uniform and effective decisions across municipalities and utility providers requires a common language and KPIs where convergence lies in win-win formats. After every major infrastructure failure, there is a window of opportunity to create discourse of critical remaining risks, vulnerabilities and benefits of improved communications/cognitive awareness and geospatial information layers of the most feasible, cost-effective options to improve the state of our urban infrastructure, services, and the associated impacts for people and communities.


ERCOT and a Failure to Communicate the State of our Urban Infrastructure

This blog does not explore the reasons for the ERCOT failure (good summary by WSJ), rather we explore the communication breakdowns between the city/utility stakeholder divide in information that are readily evident after a major acute shock to our infrastructure. And, how these large acute shots tend to highlight the rarely discussed chronic crumbling of our urban distributive infrastructure. For example, within days of the loss of power across Texas, the headlines changed from ERCOT and began to focus on the subsequent physical failures of other infrastructure sectors. Perhaps best characterized by this headline: Fort Worth has had 180 water main breaks (over a couple of days!). Can all of these failures be blamed on ERCOT?


One year ago, it wasn’t a winter storm and polar vortex that shut down local Houston businesses for days; including the University of Houston, Houston Zoo, the Museum of Natural Science and all public schools – it was a failed 96-inch diameter water main break. The water main was only 35 years old, well short of its intended service life. Was it a fluke accident that will shortly be forgotten, or part of a larger issue as to how we place and maintain urban infrastructure in general? As stated in the recent 2021 ASCE Report Card, “There is a water main break every two minutes.” We have these day-to-day chronic failures of infrastructure despite robust asset management systems. The threat that exacerbates our distributive infrastructure is best characterized by the inaccessible paradigm of hurriedly burying our assets in a corrosive soil matrix and quick patching the overlying road in order to end disruptions to traffic, business, and city-life as quickly as possible. This pressure to reopen traffic lends itself to hurried construction errors that has the unintended result of an urban infrastructure paradigm that has an average life span of water mains of only 47 years – approximately only 60% of intended service life. The path to the smart/resilient city is not built on an infrastructure paradigm that fosters deferred maintenance and hurried construction. This window of opportunity for bottom-up planning must consider whole systems pathways that change this paradigm and achieve a more resilient and integrated infrastructure modernization.


When discussing urban infrastructure, the term “disruption” has been defined solely by the loss of service to end-users (for example, power outages after a storm). However, a disruption is also applicable when describing the omnipresent road and lane closures in a city to facilitate repair and maintenance of our cities’ distributive infrastructure. The images in Figure 1 are so common across our cities that we are inured and accept these disruptions as part of daily urban life. In fact, the streets of New York City are sliced open 200,000 times per year – an average of almost 550 cuts per day – to facilitate access to the buried infrastructure repairs, replacements, and new construction. Similarly, the City of Toronto patches an average of over 20,300 potholes (image on right in Figure 1) in the month of January over 2017-2021. Each one of those “slices” into our streets requires a sign similar to the image on the left in Figure 1. And, for each work zone, crash rates increase by 20 to 70 percent. These are the chronic hazards of our urban infrastructure paradigm. In addition, mistakes in locating buried infrastructure are so common that just accidental damage costs New York City an estimated $300 million every year.

Figure 1: The Daily Signs of Chronic Urban Hazards

Notice the perspective of the sign on the left in Figure 1. The perspective is from the typical resident – not the utility. The sign just communicates that the road/lane is closed – not which sector of infrastructure is being repaired. For urban residents, all that is known is that their daily commute, or trip to a specific business, has been disrupted. Urban planning needs to view roads and the collocated buried infrastructure as a single paradigm. Consider a car as a metaphor of our urban roads and buried infrastructure. The hood of the car is represented by the paved road, and the car’s systems under the hood are represented by the buried sectors of infrastructure. If anything is wrong with the car, the car is cordoned off for repairs and the hood is opened to inspect which system requires repair. The car owner simply knows that the car is not working and their life is disrupted. Similarly, when any sector of our buried infrastructure requires repair/replacement, the ‘hood’ is opened and the resulting disruptions cumulate into a major source of chronic urban hazards. Can we imagine an engineered, cost-effective, new paradigm for urban infrastructure – that is strategically placed by urban planners – where these disruptions never occurred?


Integrating Bottom-Up and Top-Down Planning for Urban Resilience – Lost in Translation

The questions for city leadership and senior staff to be empowered stakeholders when providing input into the capital improvement planning are: Can we quantify these chronic disruptions and communicate a better vision to the utilities that serve the city? And, does it matter where these disruptions occur, geospatially, across our city? Should cities prioritize new assets, or a new paradigm that allows accessibility to our urban infrastructure that eliminates these chronic disruptions? This would drive a message of bottom-up planning for new infrastructure spending from the impending stimulus beyond just having random “shovel-ready” projects lined up. At the same time, hybrid approaches that consider bridging both the local, decentralized to centralized approaches to infrastructure and governance – bringing interactions that successfully bridge communities, municipal and national actors can change valuation, perception and create a build back with better systems, services and processes that can be rapidly adopted, integrated and managed proactively in ways that bridge different cultures (e.g. utility engineers with community-based planners - to even off-grid, small, modular, and decentralized system designers).


A recent report regarding bottom-up planning as critical for an effective use of stimulus dollars says that “…metropolitan areas are the true engines of American prosperity…”, and that:

The surest way to forge a true infrastructure agenda for the nation is to directly identify the priorities of leaders in metropolitan areas and regions across the nation and include those priorities in the national infrastructure discussion.

While fully agreed to this conclusion, there is an argument that the leaders do not have the language, vision, or KPIs to be an empowered stakeholder [Ch. 40 of link] when discussing an overall plan for the existing crumbling infrastructure with the utilities that serve the city. How should “leaders in metropolitan areas” communicate with utilities when they do not understand the indirect costs that are not part of a utility’s calculus, or when age and inaccessibility of infrastructure are not factors in prioritizing capital projects? For example, regarding the age of a water system, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) needs to address that by 2030, 90 percent of its water mains underlying the streets of LA (6,800 miles of the total 7,600 miles) will exceed their recommended service-lives. Water utilities utilize “economic life” of assets, which greatly differs from service-life. And, while “cone zone” type dashboards show the number of disruptions per day, and where these disruptions occur across the city, they are generally only tied to traffic, and not the status of overall infrastructure health in the city.


Conclusion

The real question to be answered for bottom-up planning comes from this statement:

After a long period of neglect, it appears likely that the Biden Administration will place great emphasis on infrastructure.

The report did not answer why there was “… a long period of neglect…”. Is the neglect simply due to funding, or because we haven’t developed a comprehensive methodology to address our inaccessible urban infrastructure paradigm?


From a top-down perspective, the ERCOT failure and subsequent distributive infrastructure failures provides an illustrative case study of what happens when utilities, regulators, and consumers consistently underinvest in mitigating risk to basic infrastructure services. Make no mistake, ERCOT, while notoriously independent (as is Texas), is not unique in its lack of investment in infrastructure maintenance. Costs for failed infrastructure maintenance and integrated planning will only increase as climate change exacerbates extreme weather (heat, cold, wildfires, precipitation) and we build new and larger urban environments. From an equity lens, we know that marginalized communities are likely to bear the burden of these infrastructure failures, which exacerbates the fact that these communities are less economically resilient. We also know that when infrastructure fails and it damages property and livelihoods of urban citizens, the utilities are typically not held liable for these damages (indemnity and “no notice”). This puts the onus on cities and local governments to find new ways of evaluating risk and aligning infrastructure investment and planning with their resilience goals.


If US cities pursue the Biden mantra of “Build Back Better” and choose to invest in infrastructure as they recover from COVID-19, economic recession, and political strife, then it doesn’t make sense to continue investing in existing infrastructure the same way we have been for the past 150 years. Cities must operationalize their resilience goals and align them with maintaining and investing in local infrastructure. Not only do cities need to increase infrastructure investment and improve governance and regulation of these systems, but they also need to re-think their approach to risk mitigation.


While much written regarding the ERCOT failure was from the perspective of the top-down regulators centered only on the power sector. The larger picture is clear that the proposed Build Back Better infrastructure bill will have a heavy and appropriate emphasis on aging infrastructure, which is part of the long-term resilience stresses. There’s no time to lose, now is the time for innovative paradigms and new hybrid approaches of centralized and decentralized infrastructure modernization. If we get this right, we can provide a global model for considering both chronic and acute hazards.


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