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What the power crises in Texas and California tell us about America's infrastructure

The crisis gripping Texas' power grid is very different from California's fiery emergencies in recent years, but there's connective tissue there: Electricity grids and infrastructure need to be better equipped for a changing climate or they can have deadly consequences.

Driving the news: Texas is reeling after a bitter blast of Arctic air and a related demand surge led to widespread outages, causing millions of customers to lose power that as of this morning is only partially restored.


What they're saying: "This crisis is illustrating the need for our energy systems to be more resilient to extreme weather," Rice University energy expert Daniel Cohan tells Axios.

The big picture: Climate change is creating new challenges in the form of both extreme heat and polar vortex events that push Arctic air southward. Severe weather puts new strains on infrastructure while increasing demand for heating and cooling — making grid planning and resource allocation harder.

  • In California, hotter temperatures push up consumption and are a threat multiplier for wildfires.
  • Extreme heat and stronger storms are a big problem in Texas, even though the current woes occurring during the cold snap are front and center.

But, but, but: This New York Times piece on the climate-grid nexus — and the planning problems it poses — captures why some nuance is needed on what's happening in Texas.

  • It notes that cold extremes in Texas are becoming less common.
  • "But some climate scientists have also suggested that global warming could, paradoxically, bring more unusually fierce winter storms," they report.
  • However, the piece also notes that some experts aren't certain that polar vortex disruptions are happening more, "making it even trickier for electricity planners to anticipate the dangers ahead."

What we're watching: One question going forward is whether this disaster will lead to major changes in the way the Texas power grid is regulated or operated — and how the crisis is spilling into national energy debates.

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott yesterday called for an investigation into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's grid operator.
  • Meanwhile, Politico explores the political dimensions of the crisis and also asks whether it "could be a boon to Biden’s proposal to spend huge sums of money to harden the nation’s electric grid as it connects giant wind and solar power plants to cities and states thousands of miles away."

The intrigue: The state, unlike large swaths of the country, does not have a "capacity market" that compensates power generators for commitments of future supplies — even if it remains idle.

  • Texas has an "energy-only" market that aims to have reserve capacity but relies heavily on market forces, which let prices soar during high demand periods.
Power outage in McKinney, Texas, on Feb. 16. Photo: Cooper Neill/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Zoom in: There are many reasons why the situation in Texas is exceptionally bad.

  • The Wall Street Journal notes that the extreme cold affected "nearly every major category of electricity producer, from wind to natural gas to even nuclear power," and coal too.
  • "But a shortage of natural gas also appears to have played a role. Texas gas wells froze up, limiting supply of the fuel and driving market prices sky-high."
  • Bloomberg reports that regulators have let Texas power plant operators "leave their pipes, valves and pressure gauges exposed," which is a big problem in extreme cold.

UN human rights chief: At least 54 killed, over 1,700 detained since Myanmar coup

Police and military officers in Myanmar have killed at least 54 people during anti-coup protests, while "arbitrarily" detaining over 1,700 people, United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said Thursday.

Why it matters: Protesters have demonstrating across Myanmar for nearly a month, demanding the restoration of democracy after the country's military leaders overthrew its democratically elected government on Feb. 1.

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The U.S. may be setting itself up for a fourth coronavirus wave

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The U.S. may be on the verge of another surge in coronavirus cases, despite weeks of good news.

The big picture: Nationwide, progress against the virus has stalled. And some states are ditching their most important public safety measures even as their outbreaks are getting worse.

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Sidewalk robots get legal rights as "pedestrians"

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Why it matters: Fears of a dystopian urban world where people dodge heavy, fast-moving droids are colliding with the aims of robot developers large and small — including Amazon and FedEx — to deploy delivery fleets.

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The biggest obstacle to a wealth tax

Taxing the rich is an idea that's back. An "ultra-millionaire tax" introduced by Elizabeth Warren and other left-wing Democrats this week would raise more than $3 trillion over 10 years, they say, while making the tax system as a whole more fair.

Why it matters: New taxes would be a necessary part of any Democratic plan to redistribute wealth and reduce inequality. But President Biden has more urgent priorities — and Warren's wealth tax in particular faces constitutional obstacles that make it a hard sell.

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House passes For the People Act to expand voting rights

The House voted 220-210Wednesday to pass Democrats' expansive election and anti-corruption bill.

Why it matters: Expanding voting access has been a top priority for Democrats for years, but the House passage of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) comes as states across the country consider legislation to rollback voting access in the aftermath of former President Trump's loss.

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House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The House voted 220-212onWednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

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Republicans are demanding a full 600-page reading of Biden’s COVID relief bill

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

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Here’s how a single resignation, retirement or death could flip control of the 50-50 Senate

Note: Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Data: Axios Research/ProPublica/NCSL; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Nineteen seats in the U.S. Senate could potentially flip parties if there's an unexpected vacancy, according to Axios' analysis of state vacancy rules, which most often allow the governor to appoint a replacement.

Why it matters: Depending on the senator, a single resignation, retirement or death — by accident or old age — could flip control of the 50-50 Senate, or give Democrats a two-vote cushion.

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