A version of this essay originally appeared in The Monday Medley.
Last week was an absolute clusterfuck in Texas when most of the state lost power during winter storm Uri.
ERCOT definitely screwed up, that much is clear now. But it's hard to say they screwed up in a particularly special way. The rest of the nation's electrical grid is incredibly fragile too, and if a black swan event happened to power centers outside of Texas, it could have been half the country without power.
Just because the breakdown happened here first does not mean the rest of the country is more immune to breaking down. We can have our fun teasing Big Bad Texas for not enduring a winter storm, but I’m worried about a few things coming out of this:
CancunCruz flying off to Mexico was a boneheaded move, certainly.
But that we're even talking about Cruz is a problem because it indicates we're going to focus on the fun headlines (Haha another Texas politician did something stupid) vs. the actual problems (holy shit our power grid is fragile).
Part of the problem in Texas seems to be an issue of incentives. There’s almost no reason for power companies to build excess capacity into the system, since they make money based on how much energy they’re selling whether that’s 50% or 95% of their capacity.
Is there a way we can encourage power companies to carry more reserve capacity? It seems like some sort of tax incentive would be one solution. Another might be requiring ERCOT to pay individual energy producers (via solar) the market rate for electricity, vs the significantly reduced rate they pay right now.
But the bigger problem I’m worried about is:
I shared this in a tweet last week:
"The real story though is that despite a 1/100 year pandemic in 2020, most people were still not prepped for a black swan disaster in 2021."
When I look at how my behavior changed coming out of COVID, I'm kinda embarrassed to say I didn't even take my own prepping research that much more seriously. And most people haven't done a two-hour podcast on prepping. The one thing I did have that I ended up being extremely grateful for was 15 gallons of freshwater in my garage. And I have solar... but no large batteries for storing the power. Whoops.
I think the trap we fall into, myself included, is the "appeal to management" habit described in this article on "Cultures that Build":
"He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or thought of possible improvement. This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue."
We've gotten out of the habit of fixing problems ourselves. So I’m worried that coming out of this disaster the focus will be around "how do we make sure this doesn't happen to us again" when we should all think about "how do we make sure that when this happens again, it doesn't affect us."
Obviously we should be able to trust our government and the services we pay for, but we should also have a plan in place for when they let us down. That’s the whole point of prepping. It’s not that you honestly think we have a high likelihood of a catastrophic flood or zombie apocalypse. Rather it’s recognizing that if a zombie apocalypse happened, you couldn’t rely on anything you rely on today, and your level of preparation decides if you’re Woody Harrelson or Bill Murray.
If you haven’t seen Zombieland, Woody Harrelson is the rugged well-prepared protagonist bashing in zombie brains carving his way through post apocalyptica. Bill Murray is (mostly) himself. He’s rich, successful, powerful… but dead. He wasn’t prepared.
You really really really don’t want to have to be Woody Harrelson. You never ever want to have to touch your bug out bag, emergency water, or nail-studded baseball bat. But if that day comes, you’re going to be glad you have it.
The life insurance analogy is a good one. You don’t expect to die young and leave your family strapped for cash. But you’ll pay a few hundred dollars a year so that if you do, they’re safe. If you could pay a few hundred dollars now and not have to worry next time a disaster strikes, isn’t that worth it?
I rather like the old Arab saying:
“Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah.”
Which often gets rephrased as "Trust in God, but tie your camel."
Trust that the system will continue to function, but be ready in case it doesn’t. If COVID wasn’t enough of a wakeup call that bad things can suddenly happen that we’re not prepared for, the Texas meltdown should absolutely be.
So what am I planning on changing going forward? I had plenty of water and food for this disaster so that wasn't a problem. And now that I have a truck and Walden, we have the "bug out" problem pretty addressed.
The one big vulnerability this event exposed was power. So I'm planning on adding solar and batteries to Walden to get it closer to being totally off the grid. I might also add a gas generator just to be extra sure, especially since they’re so much cheaper than adding powerwall batteries.
I hope Texas and the rest of the country get the power grid to a more reliable state.
But it's still worth tying our camels.