While the South East has thawed out since the February winter storm, evidence of the United States’ dire need for infrastructure reform remains.
In a previous post, we discussed America’s decaying infrastructure. Our grading from the American Society of Civil Engineers for energy is D+, and our ratings for other areas of infrastructure are not much better.
Here is a Breakdown of ASCE’s Ratings:
Inland Waterways: D
Hazardous Waste Management: D+
Cumulative Rating: D+
What Happened in Texas
Now, what implications does America’s poor infrastructure rating tell us about the Texas blackouts?
On the week of February 14, millions lost power as electrical grids proved ill-prepared to handle the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures that pummeled the South. Rolling blackouts were used to conserve energy, and frozen pipes left many without water for days.
According to Scientific America, “Many power plants in the southern United States are not enclosed inside a building, with boilers and turbines exposed to the elements. This is by design. Leaving key power plant infrastructure outside prevents excessive heat build-up during warmer periods. But it can leave power plants vulnerable to cold weather, as a 2019 NERC report examining a 2018 cold snap in the southeastern U.S. makes clear.”
South Eastern plants are purposefully designed to handle extreme heat. However, unfortunately for Texans, power grids failed because of wind turbines freezing and the state’s natural gas supply was unable to keep up with the spike in energy demand.
“The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”
While the rarity of winter storms is the reason why southern states choose not to invest in salt trucks, plows, and weatherized power plants, this lack of preparedness has proven catastrophic.
Jonathan Shieber wrote in his article No Place is Safe From Failing US Infrastructure, “The shock of seeing the cradle of America’s energy industry crippled by its inability to prepare its own power grid for the ‘once in a century storm’ … underscores a point that should have been plain years ago: By refusing to invest in adequate public infrastructure, the country’s leadership has failed to perform the basic duty of protecting the health and safety of its citizens.”
What Needs To Be Done
Clearly, energy is one of many infrastructure sectors that is in need of an upgrade.
So what is being done?
According to Insider, President Joe Biden has reportedly discussed infrastructure spending in the wake of the winter storm disaster. Last Friday, the House passed a $1.9 Trillion Covid-Relief bill that includes infrastructure relief. Other potential Senate changes could redirect some of the $350 billion for states and localities to other purposes like broadband infrastructure.
If passed, here is a breakdown of the portion of the bill that will be allocated to infrastructure provided by the Washington Post:
- Approximately $90 billion will go toward various transportation and infrastructure causes.
- About $47 billion will increase funding for the Disaster Relief Fund.
- Transit agencies will get $28 billion in grants.
- $11 billion will go to airports and aviation manufacturers.
- $2 billion goes to Amtrak and transit-related spending.
- Another $12 billion provides grants to airlines and contractors to freeze layoffs at airlines through September.
- $120 billion is set for education and childcare relief.
**Update: Covid relief bill passed by Congress on March 10, 2021**
Along with infrastructure being up for investment in the covid relief fund, Congress is also deliberating on a multi-year infrastructure investment package. Lauren Schapker, vice president of legislative affairs, ARTBA, reports that the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee is taking steps to reauthorize the U.S. surface transportation program before Memorial Day.
“This is going to be a transformative bill,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at the AASHTO Washington Briefing. While Defazio is critical of the 2009 infrastructure bill passed under the Obama administration, he believes this bill will accomplish what its predecessor failed to do (check out our previous post covering the 2009 stimulus bill). “This is finally going to be a 21st-century infrastructure bill,” DeFazio continues, “and it is going to get done this year.”
At this point, 47,000 bridges of the national highway system need to be rebuilt, 40 percent of road surfaces need to be replaced, and our energy system has proven to fail during natural disasters.
However, the hope here is that the 2021 winter storm may be the catalyst for a bi-partisan push for transformative and long-lasting infrastructure reform.