Friday, February 04, 2011

"The energy capital of the world can't keep the lights on"

The cold weather that swept across Houston brought with it the cruel irony of rolling blackouts: the Energy Capital of the World couldn't keep the lights on.

Wednesday's frigid onslaught knocked out 50 generating units statewide, eliminating 7,000 megawatts of capacity and leaving the state about 4,000 megawatts short.

This, of course, isn't supposed to happen. Temperature-related demand, extreme hot or cold spells, largely can be anticipated.

"You would think that the financial incentives would be to be up and ready," said David Cruthirds, publisher of the Cruthirds report, a newsletter that tracks electricity issues in the southern U.S. "It does raise a question of the planning."

It also raises the question of how much customers are willing to pay to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"We don't have enough flexibility on the system today to address the situation," said Brett Perlman, a power industry consultant and former member of the Public Utility Commission. "We in Texas have not invested substantially in demand response and other technologies."

Apparently it's going to cost consumers more -- a LOT more -- to keep Texas from falling into an Iraqi sometimes-the-power-is-on, sometimes-it-ain't situation.

I asked yesterday, I'll ask again: you don't suppose the invisible hand of the free market could be fingering us, do you?

Wall Street investors know how to profit from Texas' deregulation scheme. The largest plants serving the Houston region have already been both bought and sold twice, at enormous gain. Now, electricity consumers throughout the state have been forced to pay billions of dollars to the old utilities for those power plants based on the false assumption that deregulation would make them less valuable. (We have been fighting this absurd payment in court.) And consumers of municipally owned utilities in cities such as Austin and San Antonio, which were exempt from deregulation, get fairer and more accountable rates.

Mexico decided not to help us thaw out after all. Can you blame them, after all the nastiness from the conservative xenophobes?

And now even Paul Burka is cranky. He didn't get a hot breakfast.

I was on my way to Houston on Wednesday to speak to the Greater Houston Partnership when I was caught in the rolling blackout. I made it as far as Elgin on U.S. 290, where the traffic lights were blinking red and cops were standing in the bitter cold, directing motorists. My intention was to stop at McDonald’s for a breakfast sandwich and coffee. The drive-through line was quite long and very slow, and the speaker at which I sought to place my order wasn’t working. As I was contemplating my next move, a young woman who worked there emerged from the building and started walking down the line of cars. She informed me that the only thing they could serve was sausage biscuits and bottled water, because the power was out. And cash only, please; credit cards couldn’t be processed. Eventually I got my stale sausage biscuit and headed on my way.

As I got back on the highway, I reflected that my breakfast experience was the perfect metaphor for the great budget meltdown of 2011. Nothing in state government works. ERCOT, which exists to make certain that the grid function correctly, failed miserably. State officials couldn’t even explain what went wrong, much less fix it. That’s as hard to swallow as my biscuit.

We run state government on a shoestring. We have a $10 billion structural budget deficit and nobody has the slightest interest in fixing it. Is anyone surprised that we can’t even get through a winter storm without having our infrastructure fail us?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Planned Parenthood gets ACORNed

In the James O'Keefe tradition, ultraconservative extremists again dress up as pimps and hoes in order to try to smear another organization helping poor people.

Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, a photogenic young activist who Religious Right leaders hope to make the new face of the anti-abortion movement, claims that the video Religious Right groups are circulating “proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Planned Parenthood intentionally breaks state and federal laws and covers up the abuse of young girls it claims to serve.”  False.  In fact, far from proving a pattern of illegal activity, the Live Action project demonstrated that Planned Parenthood has strong institutional procedures in place to protect young women.  When Live Action activists appeared at numerous facilities presenting themselves as seeking help with a child sex trafficking ring, Planned Parenthood wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an FBI investigation.  Live Action attempted its “sting” across the country; the one Planned Parenthood staffer who violated those procedures and is featured in Live Action’s video was fired.
Political groups that are intent on denying women the ability to have an abortion under any circumstances have long targeted Planned Parenthood and the public funds it receives to provide health care and sexuality education to low-income women.

The current campaign heated up in 2008, when
“…more than 50 leaders from anti-abortion organizations banded together to form the National Coalition to Defeat Planned Parenthood. The coalition, spearheaded by Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, met for the first time in September and quickly issued its plan to cripple Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a major provider of reproductive health services for poor and uninsured women, by ending any federal, state, or local government funding to the group.”

These people are on the same old mission from God. And that means they can justify anything they can think of doing, even terrorist acts like assassinating a physician in his own church.

They are the extreme of the most extreme. Judge them by their words ...

"... there’s got to be a concerted effort that we take Planned Parenthood out. They’ve put out a hit on all children, but they’ve set themselves up to put out a hit on black and Hispanic babies especially. It’s time that we take them out."

And judge them by their actions.

Now their allies in Congress have tried -- and failed, for now -- to redefine the word 'rape' in their never-ending crusade to further restrict women's reproductive choices. A skit this week on the Daily Show may have influenced the result.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rape Victim Abortion Funding
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

It's time to stand up against these lunatics, and stand up for the good work Planned Parenthood has done for 90 years. Sign this petition and then call your representatives in Washington and Austin.

Call them even if he or she is a turd-eating conservative, like mine.

Some call BS on yesterday's rolling blackouts across Texas

McBlogger has an interesting conspiracy theory:

(F)actor in the most recent capacity report which showed the state with adequate generation capacity through 2014. Suddenly, because of weather conditions which we’ve known about for days, there is an issue? How many generators have been effected? Given our excess of capacity and the massive increase in wind generation, it’s gotta be one hell of an outage to cause us to have to suffer rolling blackouts. Such an outage could realistically only be intentional ...

Think I’m crazy? Remember that CA’s problem in 2001 was caused by engineered capacity constraints, which created an artificial demand/ supply imbalance that enriched energy traders. Can anyone honestly look me in the eye and tell me my theory is crap?

Didn’t think so. No, it looks like Perry has found a very nice way to pay back campaign contributors without too many questions.

UPDATE – We’ve also received word that not long after Perry’s press release, ERCOT terminated rolling blackout activity in Houston metro. Wanna bet the generators suddenly jumped up capacity?

UPDATE TWO – Dewhurst says it’s all about a broken pipe (sure) and low gas pressure (whatev). That gas pressure one I find particularly funny since the compressors at the feed can be adjusted.

He's got more there that I left out of the above excerpt on the TCEQ authorization to exclude facilities from penalty for exceeding clean air standards during the "emergency".

Houston media picks up the scent from another angle ...

"It particularly troubled me because both ERCOT and generators had so much advance notice,” said PUC commissioner Ken Anderson. “It's not as if this weather was a particular surprise."

So it was a surprise that 50 power generating units statewide went down. The last time Texans encountered rolling blackouts (April 2006) only seven generators were lost.

"The number is unprecedented, and that is one of the questions that the commission is going to need to look at," Anderson said.

Another question the Public Utility Commission will tackle: Why ERCOT didn't follow protocol in sending out that electricity reserves were running critically low.

The PUC received one advisory at 3:20 a.m. Wednesday, but the next update it got from ERCOT came at 6:05 a.m. -- nearly three hours later, when the rolling blackouts were already underway.

Steps in the middle were missing --like alerting the media – 11 News was not forewarned as required, and 11 News viewers were not either.

"We need to know why, and if the reasons aren't good, and if they don't deal, relate to reliability, then it's not acceptable," Anderson said.

While a formal investigation won't likely begin until the bad weather has cleared ERCOT may face some tough initial question as early as Thursday morning at regularly scheduled meeting of the PUC.

Is this another benefit of deregulation? In a privatize-everything environment, is the invisible hand of the free market fingering us? Is it credible that the generating plants in North Texas actually have uninsulated water pipes, causing equipment to be shut down? It's possible that maintenance has suffered because they've laid off a bunch of laborers, I suppose. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost ...

Mexico came to our rescue, thank goodness. Cue the "illegal electricity" snark.

So is this just smoke or is there a fire here? Many Texans who shivered yesterday would crave having the heat no matter which it happens to be.

Texas Vox has more.

Update: Fort Worth state rep. Lon Burnham wonders if the market was manipulated (a la Enron in California, as McBlogger speculated in the top link above).

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

GOP's redistricting plans are pushed to the back burner

Kos notes that with too many irons in the fire -- repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, killing Social Security, impeaching that damn socialist communist Obama --  the Republicans are letting redistricting slide down the priority list. Via the DNCC, Noah Rothman at Campaigns and Elections:

Having made significant state-level gains in the 2010 elections, the GOP appeared to be in a prime position to influence the decennial process of congressional redistricting. But, as the process gets underway in a series of first-round states, including New Jersey, Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, some party insiders are concerned that Republicans have failed to amass the funding necessary to capitalize on their advantages. 

In particular, the insiders point to the lackluster performance of Making America’s Promise Secure (MAPS), a Republican 501(c)(4) founded in 2009 in part by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to assist in the GOP’s redistricting efforts. (Costs related to redistricting have in the past been covered by the RNC through “soft money” donations, though these were banned by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms early last decade.)

On January 12, Nathan Gonzalez reported in Roll Call that MAPS has gone quiet in recent months. He quotes Brad Todd, a National Republican Congressional Committee consultant and founder of On Message, Inc., to the effect that Republican priorities shifted in 2010 to immediate electoral gains, leaving planning for redistricting in the lurch. “There was a conscious decision to win elections,” he told Gonzalez. “People got tired of paying lawyers.” With the RNC extremely short on cash, Republicans face a significant funding problem just as the redistricting efforts in first-round states are ramping up.

Reported also from June of last year by Politico ...

Outmaneuvered by the GOP during the last round of redistricting a decade ago, Democrats appear to have an early advantage as the two parties gear up again for the expensive and high-stakes battle over redrawing state legislative and congressional districts.

“I do believe that the Democrats are much better organized at this stage,” said Ben Ginsberg, a top Republican election lawyer. 

More recently -- as in a couple of weeks ago -- from Hotline On Call:

Even though Republicans made historic gains at the state level in 2010 that gave them unprecedented control over redistricting, they are currently lacking a unifying organization to lead the process.

And the absence of such a group is starting to cause alarm in Republican circles.

One such Republican is former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds. Reynolds is particularly invested in redistricting because he helped spearhead the GOP's efforts in 2010 that netted Republicans nearly 700 new seats in statehouses across the country at the Republican State Leadership Committee. Reynolds directly oversaw the RSLC's REDMAP program, the group's primary fundraising arm.

Despite those gains, though, Reynolds said the GOP is in something of holding pattern without an organization dedicated to raising money and focused on redistricting.

"I've been surprised that I didn't see the party yearning for some sort of outside effort to get the map-making up and going," Reynolds told Hotline On Call. "Normally instead of having the party pay for that, someone on the outside would take that initiative and I haven't seen that leadership."

It's more than just a money problem and a lack of focus by the national organization. They're also hamstrung by circumstances beyond their control. Here in Deep-In-The-Hearta redistricting is under mandatory Department of Justice review to assure that there are no deleterious effects to minority representation. And the difference between  the 2003 redistricting legacy of Tom DeLay and this year's is as vast as the gap between Eric Holder and Alberto Gonzales.

The Republican-dominated state legislature is also distracted with Rick Perry's emergencies, of course. Oh well, he can always call a special session.

But the red tide of 2012 swept so many GOP freshmen into office in Austin as well as Washington (Canseco, Farenthold) that there just aren't enough Republican voters to protect all of them. So some are bound to get screwed over by their new district maps. This inherently assumes, however,  that Democrats of all stripes -- young voters, disaffected progressives, and especially Latinos -- return to the polls in 2012 in numbers that can overcome a still-vigorous TeaBagger uprising. Sadly, that's no safe assumption.

With so much attention focusing on this rather glaring overlook, can they get it in gear and get after it on this project?

I'm guessing they'll start making up some ground very soon. But they just won't have the kind of success securing their grip on rulership that they have in the past.