Dark Thoughts: Philosophy and the Texas Grid Failure

When normally robust and unseen power systems falter, as they did in Texas, we sense the philosophical consequences of our “unreasonable demands.”

The little electric hearts of appliances give the modern home a comforting background hum. The whirl and wheeze of fridge and freezer. The occasional sigh of the computer in its sleep. The whoosh of the furnace blowing hot air through the vents. It all blurs into a white noise that is ordinarily unnoticeable. When the power goes out, though, the silence is deafening.

And at 2 a.m. on February 15, it was the sudden quiet that startled me awake. After my daughter Lulu had migrated to our bed an hour earlier, I had moved to a mattress in the den, giving up my spot next to my wife, Amber. As I lay in the dark, a text message came in:

ATTENTION: The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has declared an Energy Alert Level 3. Utilities will begin rotating outages due to high consumer demand. Denton Municipal Electric (DME) will schedule 30-minute outage intervals …

Even in good times, electricity is a finicky spirit. The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that the essence of modern technology is that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” The grid isn’t a storehouse of electricity, though. We don’t grab electrons that have been waiting like boxes of cereal on the shelf. The electricity is produced (an energy conversion, really) in real time in response to demand and then must be balanced within a narrow tolerance around a frequency of 60 hertz (Hz), requiring millisecond adjustments to a million moving pieces. When the weather is fine and the systems are working, we live on this knife edge without thinking about it, but when things falter, we sense the philosophical consequences of our “unreasonable demands.”

We don’t grab electrons that have been waiting like boxes of cereal on the shelf.

Out there in the dark, winter storm Uri was decimating the Texas power fleet: icing gas lines, freezing wind turbines, stopping coal cars, and even knocking out a nuclear plant. At the ERCOT operations center near Austin, officials had been nervously watching the frequency drop all night. If you pull more out of the system than it can give, it triggers a blackout. That could mean weeks of no electricity as the whole state attempts the dreaded “black start.”

At ERCOT, the only solution was to force transmission companies to cut power to homes until the demand matched the rapidly depleting supply. The first order came at 1:23 a.m. to cut 1,000 megawatts (MW), the equivalent of 200,000 homes. The frequency was holding at 59.9 Hz. But at 1:40 frequency dropped again. At 1:43 more load was shed, to no avail. At 1:50 the grid crossed an emergency threshold of 59.4 Hz—a level that can be sustained for only nine minutes before the system comes crashing down.

At 1:51 ERCOT issued a frantic call to shed another 3,000 MW. The frequency stayed in the red zone for another five agonizing minutes. Time was running out. At 1:56 ERCOT ordered another load shed of 3,500 MW. Transmission operators were cutting close to the bone. There was not much more to shed before ERCOT would have to shut down critical infrastructure such as hospitals. It was an astounding and frightening position—a precarity no one had imagined possible. Luckily, frequency rebounded rapidly. Yet power plants kept dropping offline, another 2,100 MW in a seven-minute span. At 1:59 they shed another 2,000 MW. And then my house went quiet.

In the dark, I started to panic. Outside, the temperatures were falling into the single digits. Arctic warming had destabilized the polar vortex, allowing frigid air to drop into Texas. Uri was to be one of the coldest events on record for the state. It was particularly harsh for its long duration, with sustained sub-zero temps for hundreds of hours and prolonged stretches of temperatures 35 degrees below average.

I wondered if the 2 a.m. text I received meant that power would come back in 30 minutes. Finally, at 2:32, the chirps from the printer booting up in my home office told me that we were back online. I checked the thermostat: 65. We had dropped three degrees in 30 minutes. I tried to get back to sleep but could not.

The new mood brought a new experience of time, as if the clocks themselves were freezing.

Reality had shifted. Normally, when things are functioning, we are unthinkingly immersed in the flow of life. Heidegger used the example of working with a hammer to illustrate this mood or mode of being. When it works, the hammer is “ready-to-hand.” It blends into our body schema and we hum along without really noticing our relationship with it. But when it breaks, the hammer is “present-at-hand” as an object of attention in need of repair. We are dislodged from the normal flow and a new mood settles in. When electricity becomes present-at-hand, the effect is far more pronounced, because it is not one tool, but the lifeblood of so many tools.

The new mood brought a new experience of time, as if the clocks themselves were freezing. At 3 a.m. the silence paid another unwelcome visit. By 6 a different pattern had taken hold and the power was on and off at roughly one-hour intervals. The furnace could not play catchup quickly enough, so the temperature of the house yo-yoed lower and lower. Who was the puppet master pulling the strings that animated our electronic servants? Probably just an algorithm. What was the program? Could I predict it? On for 50 minutes, off for 70. Then on and off equally for 60 minutes. Then a little different the next time. Maybe there was no program. I started calling our time with electricity “the giving hour.”

This uncertainty became the rhythm of our lives for the next three days—three days that felt like a month. Of course, the pandemic had made us accustomed to time out of whack. We knew the malaise and weightlessness of a crisis. But this felt worse. It was not just the lack of internet to distract us; it was the uncertainty. Would the pattern hold? Would the power and heat come back in an hour? If we had to get out, where would we go, and would the car even make it on the unplowed Texas roads?

The historian Lewis Mumford argued that the clock was the first modern technology. Clouds could baffle the sundial and night frost could stop the water clocks. But the tick-tock of abstracted time would continue the same regardless of place or conditions. As a result, Mumford noted, we no longer “go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night” because we invented “electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day.” The grid humming along at 60 Hz is the epitome of clock time. It is the metronome of modern life. The reliability we want from electricity is about standardized time—that we will always be in the flow of the ready-to-hand. When the metronome breaks, it’s astounding just how slowly the hours go and how quickly something such as hypothermia—a condition long ago vanquished from modern homes—comes back to haunt us.

Uri’s damage was high. Some estimates put it north of $200 billion, which would make it the costliest weather disaster in Texas history: remarkable, given our frequent run-ins with hurricanes. Sixty-three people died in the storm, many from hypothermia, including an 11-year-old boy near Houston. As people burned their fences and furniture for heat, some died in house fires. Others died from carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to get warmth from unventilated cars and generators.

No one turned off the power! The great big NO ONE that is modern techno-bureaucracy. With such a massively complex, integrated system, responsibility is spread wide and thin.

The political reckoning is now underway with hearings in Austin and in city halls across the state. What went wrong? Who is to blame? At a Texas State House hearing, the CEOs of two major power-producing companies said that they had a natural gas supply problem. The natural gas industry reports that several of their facilities had their power cut by transmissions operators. Those operators, however, were just following ERCOT orders, and they had all their required plans on file with the state regulator, the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC tells the House that it lacks the regulatory authority to do more. As if performing the spectacle of a Greek tragedy, State Representative Todd Hunter shouts, “Who turned my power off?!”

Good grief. No one turned off the power! The great big NO ONE that is modern techno-bureaucracy. With such a massively complex, integrated system, responsibility is spread wide and thin.

The philosopher Hans Jonas noted that all previous ethics could assume “that the range of human action and therefore responsibility was narrowly circumscribed.” Our high-energy machines have altered the scale of our action and, thus, of our ethical responsibilities. But we may not be wired to think as big as we can act, to take responsibility for all that we do. Jonas’s fellow philosopher and friend Günther Anders wrote, “We are inverted utopians: while utopians cannot produce what they imagine, we cannot imagine what we produce.”

This is the paradox of our age: we act on geological scales but cannot understand what we are doing. Energy gives us control, yet we are one storm away from burning our couches. Climate change is simultaneously omnipresent and absent, dissolved into mere weather.

We should be thinking about both resilience of the grid and freedom from the grid.

Of course, there are practical lessons to be learned. The grid needs to be weatherized. The astronomically high scarcity prices charged during the storm and its aftermath need to be amended (local utilities are filing bankruptcies, suing ERCOT, and taking out loans). Texas needs more transmissions connections with the nation’s other major grids. Broader grid reforms are needed. The list of critical infrastructure facilities needs to be updated. Reserve capacity and storage need to be boosted, especially as more solar and wind come online. Local resilience needs help via microgrids and demand response strategies. We should be thinking about both resilience of the grid and freedom from the grid. All this is made more urgent and daunting as more sectors of the economy electrify in the race toward decarbonization and as climate change brings more extreme weather. ERCOT forecasts a need to double grid capacity by 2035. When those CEOs mentioned earlier were asked if they are ready for this growth, they flatly responded no.

But now that the lights are on, how will we remember what it was like to have them off? Only four days after the emergency was lifted, temperatures in parts of the state neared 90 degrees. The impenetrable glacier on my driveway vanished fast. I can already sense our political will and collective memory melting too. Time is flowing again.

The oldest stories in philosophy are about what we now call energy. Heraclitus and other early philosophers tried to understand change: the flowing river, the turning seasons, the circling stars, the ripening fruit. They speculated that there must be something that undergoes the change but is not itself changed. Centuries later, the physicist Richard Feynman confirmed their hunch about energy: “it is just a strange fact,” he said, “that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.” All that flux and flow, yet something abides. It is a paradox: an ever-changing sameness. That’s energy.

A paradox is the state of being both A and not-A. Despite our best attempts to dispense with them, energy paradoxes seep from philosophy into policy. The Texas grid failure demonstrates the way resilience and precarity as well as freedom and dependence give rise to one another. We arc between these opposites like a spark between positive and negative poles.

Our modern energy policy paradoxes began with abolitionist appeals to mechanical power. In 1853, for example, the educator Horace Mann wrote, “Had God intended the work of the world should be done by human bones and sinews, he would have given us an arm as solid and strong as the shaft of a steam engine.” Modern energy does the heavy labor, so that our lives—ideally, all human lives—can be improved. Throughout the 19th century, “mechanical slaves” fueled this new imaginary. They would provide security from the elements and freedom from labor. In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote:

Unless there are slaves to do the ugly horrible uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

There is profound truth to the humanizing and liberating impacts of energy services such as electricity. Yet as the old Roman proverb goes: “as many enemies as slaves.” As the supposed masters of our energy servants, we utterly rely on them and the vast socio-technical networks that make them run.

Modernization liberated us from necessities while chaining us to new needs. Having mastered the elements, we are now exposed to risks of our own design. And we become unable to imagine and understand the cumulative grand designs of our power plants, pipelines, and overhead wires, so that instead of riding an upward arrow of progress, we are running on a treadmill faster and faster to stay in the same place. An ever-changing sameness.

This is the paradoxical calculus of energy. As the energy analyst Vaclav Smil has noted, once average energy consumption rises above 65 gigajoules (GJ) per person per year, indicators of high quality of life stop showing any substantial gain. People are not happier, healthier, smarter, or longer-lived after 65 GJ. As infrastructure and needs have grown, the average per capita consumption in the United States has swollen to 330 GJ—raising the stakes for when those systems fail—even though well-being stalled out some time ago.

Modernization liberated us from necessities while chaining us to new needs. Having mastered the elements, we are now exposed to risks of our own design.

In a wily argument about our human energies of labor, the economist and philosopher Adam Smith quipped that “the beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.” It’s a little daft, because the beggar is obviously secure only when the sun shines and the elements are favorable. Yet the constant fight to maintain reliability or resilience does amount to a new kind of insecurity. Last year, for example, the Chinese government likely used malware to hack India’s power grid, leading to a power outage in Mumbai. Hospitals were operating on emergency generators during the worst of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

Boosting resilience to withstand low-frequency risks costs money. And Uri was a freak event. So, you could say that the poor state of the Texas grid was the result of a reasonable calculation of risk. When you are buying insurance, you have to ask yourself what is a rational amount to have. “Reasonable” and “rational” change with time, however. And time changes as technological conditions change. Maybe Texans just got a clear look at the future, the new normal of failing infrastructure and cascading crises so that after only three days we’re using scarce power to boil water.

Talk about resilience is often framed by the assumption that we are gradually eliminating or at least progressively minimizing risk. Yet we are trapped in a dialectic like an arms race—and as the China case shows, sometimes literally an arms race, where each new development offers both security and its opposite. The dialectic spirals ever higher as we scale the grid up, following the logic that the Lorax warned us about: biggering and biggering. Resilience and precarity are two sides of the same coin. The line between them may look robust—as sturdy as those steel towers that carry the powerlines—but that’s an illusion. That’s one thing I saw clearly when the lights were out.

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Cite this Article

Briggle, Adam. “Dark Thoughts: Philosophy and the Texas Grid Failure.” Issues in Science and Technology (March 22, 2021).