In the aftermath of the crisis, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), summarized the cause of the widespread blackouts that plagued the state. They wrote that Texas had a weather event “unusually severe in terms of temperature, wind, and duration,” forcing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (yes, Reliability’s actually in the name), or ERCOT, to resort to “system-wide rolling blackouts to prevent more widespread customer outages.”
It went on to say that “generators and natural gas producers suffered severe losses of capacity despite having received accurate forecasts of the storm.” The review concluded that generators “failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment.”
Reading this, it seems an accurate assessment of the recent Texas power losses that cost several people their lives and Ted Cruz any semblance of his remaining credibility.
Except, this report isn’t about the 2021 Texas disaster. It’s in response to a 2011 storm that also knocked out the Texas power grid. The report recommended investments to winterize the power grid and better prepare for an extended cold snap.
Texas politicians decided it wasn’t worth it. Winterizing the grid would cost money and they were happy to let the power companies use that money to finance their campaigns instead of protecting citizens. Instead of implementing new regulations, ERCOT (Reliability, remember?) issued a set of voluntary guidance.
Without these investments, the most recent crisis was an accident waiting to happen. Except, of course, there was nothing accidental about it.
Look for Blame rather than the Cause.
“To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.” — Hubert H. Humphrey
In the aftermath of the Texas crisis, politicians had two options: fix blame or fix problems. They quickly defaulted to the former.
Texas Republicans tried to blame the failure on renewable energy sources of wind and nuclear. Governor Abbott felt it was a good use of his time to go on Fox News and weaponize his state’s struggles against the Green New Deal, saying it “would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” While experts and officials agreed that the main problem was the disruption in fossil fuel energy, Abbott chose to baselessly focus on partisan issues and distract people from governance failures.
This, unfortunately, isn’t new. And it’s a key reason that we fail to learn from past issues.
When something goes wrong, our natural tendency is to find something to blame. We don’t like to be wrong. And we especially don’t like anyone else to think that we’re wrong. The last thing we want is for that blame to fall on us.
We twist reality and blame external events. We rationalize our own actions and become defensive, all the while doubling down on prior positions. It’s like a Republican Stockholm Syndrome where people find themselves reaching back to conservative rhetoric to explain any and all of their problems. I’m actually surprised that they couldn’t figure out how to blame the blackouts on immigrants. Although there’s still time.
Misattributing blame is the main reason that we repeat these same mistakes. We refuse to learn from our experiences because we refuse to recognize the cause. Until we’re willing to do that, we can’t begin to improve.
Stop Worrying about Accountability.
“Of all the things a leader should fear, complacency heads the list.” — John C. Maxwell
On January 17, 1995, George W. Bush succeeded Ann Richards as the Governor of Texas. That was the last day that Texas had a Democratic governor, with subsequent elections all coming as decisive Republican victories.
One of the key aspects of great leaders is that they never stop trying to be qualified for their job. But in a state where future elections are all but assured, politicians don’t need to worry about this. They can spend time promoting conspiracy theories and feeding sound bites to Fox News instead of actually governing.
If you look up Congressman Joe Wilson online, his claim to fame is shouting, “You lie!” in the middle of Barrack Obama’s address on the American Care Act. Despite earning a censure for his action, Wilson’s reelection campaign saw a sharp spike in donations the week after his outburst. His ability to get on the news with some fabricated outrage was more productive than actually developing legislation and adding real value to his constituents.
As we prioritize this superficiality over depth, we stop focusing on things that matter. We lose sight of actually solving problems and focus on trivialities and vanity metrics.
We also stop focusing on the long-term. The 2011 FERC report came out in August after a February crisis. At that point, the crisis was over and no one was pushing for immediate action. Texas politicians didn’t feel any pressure to improve the grid because the majority of people no longer saw it as a pressing issue.
The antidote is to demand this accountability — both from ourselves and from others. Stay focused on what matters. Communicate these expectations. As we elevate our standards, people are much more likely to raise their performance to meet them. And if not, we’re better able to drive meaningful accountability.
Undercorrect and Ignore.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
Rick Perry recently said, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” I expect that at least a few people in Texas would trade regulation for reliable power, but that’s another discussion for another day.
Given this attitude, it’s not surprising that Texas politicians didn’t take the 2011 FERC report seriously. It was another example of the federal government trying to tell them what to do. FERC also didn’t do themselves any favors by packaging it in 357 pages of dry, government language, but that doesn’t exempt those whose job it is to identify improvements and implement solutions.
A key rule in responding to crises is the need to overcorrect on your solution. Texas chose to take an alternate route. Instead of implementing new regulations, they offered best practices. Instead of requirements, they made everything voluntary.
Again, it’s not surprising. Texas leaders refused to recognize the source of the problem. Politicians and energy providers abdicated their responsibility. It’s easy to see why the result was a set of voluntary practices that had no impact on the next emergency.
The other factor is to step back and assess the effectiveness after some time. If ERCOT had looked at the state of their grid in 2012, 2013, 2014, or any subsequent year, they would have easily seen that energy generators failed to implement the voluntary measures and the risk of major blackouts was still very real. Of course, they didn’t do any of this. And people paid for this failure with their lives.
When you’re in these situations, ask yourself, “If this solution was in place, would it have conclusively avoided this recent problem? And how will I assess whether it’s having the result I want?” If you’re not doing this, you’re not really solving anything.
Start Learning from Your Mistakes
“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” — Bill Gates
Learning from our mistakes really only requires three things.
We need to be willing to acknowledge the cause, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
We need to hold ourselves, and others, accountable, even when it goes against our instincts.
And we need to overcorrect on the solution, even when we know it may be overkill in the future.
Acknowledge the cause. Hold yourself accountable. Overcorrect.
It’s that simple. Which makes it even more frustrating that we repeatedly struggle with the same problems.