Friday, September 22, 2017

Being taken to the cleaners

We see many examples of the negative effects of monopoly power with little effective oversight, the Equifax debacle just to cite one. Even worse, however, is monopoly power that has captured the regulatory oversight that monitors it. That appears to be the case in Florida with Florida Power and Light (FPL).
A Miami New Times article points out the billions in dollars that FPL gained through rate increases in order to be more prepared for hurricanes was apparently totally ineffective, as 90% of FPL’s customers lost power when Irma hit. That includes areas on the east coast of the state where winds only reached the strength of a Category 1 hurricane. Despite supposedly spending $2 billion to reinforce more than 500 critical power lines and trimming trees near power lines, a major cause of power loss, the damage to the power grid was substantially more extensive than the Category 2 hurricane, Wilma, that struck the state in 2005. Now, obviously, there were differences between the two hurricanes, especially as Irma’s more destructive side hit Florida. But the billions of dollars spent by FPL preparing for a storm just like this does not seem to have had much effect.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Lessons to be learned

Thoughts to consider in Florida:
The cycles of storms and droughts are an inevitable fact of life in Texas. But as he will also tell you — even if you could make the case that climate played no role whatsoever in Hurricane Harvey’s fury or that we weren’t to blame at least in part for the severity of the last drought or the next — those storms and droughts are still more destructive than they ever were before, simply because there is more to destroy.
In the 16 years since Tropical Storm Allison deluged Houston, that city, which famously balks at any kind of zoning regulation, and the surrounding region, which encompasses all or parts of 15 counties, have undergone a period of explosive growth, from 4.8 million people in 2000 to more than 7 million today. Harris County alone, which includes the city of Houston, has grown to 4.6 million, up from 3.4 million.
You can almost feel it, that wave of development, of strip malls and gated communities, of big-box stores with bigger parking lots, rising up from the outskirts of faraway Austin, ebbing toward Houston and gaining strength as it rolls south toward that very spot.
A century’s worth of unchecked growth, has brought prosperity to many. But it also has altered the landscape in ways that have made both the droughts and the floods more destructive and made that prosperity fleeting. Much of the region sits atop the overtaxed Gulf Coast Aquifer, and though efforts have made over the last 40 years to limit withdrawals from it, enough water has been sucked out of it that the ground still subsides in some places, altering runoff patterns and allowing flood waters to gather.
What’s more, those more than 2 million newcomers to the region are living in houses and driving on roads and shopping in stores built atop what once was prairie that could have absorbed at least some of the fury of this flood and the next. What once was land that might have softened the storm’s blow is now, in many cases, collateral damage in what could turn out to be a $40 billion disaster.
It will take months before the full weight of Hurricane Harvey’s ruinous rampage along the Gulf is realized, and it will be years before a full recovery. And in the space between those two points, there might just be a moment to consider how best to rebuild, to pause and rethink how and where we build, to reflect not just on whether we’re altering the weather, but whether there is a way to make ourselves less vulnerable to it. Perhaps we could build differently, or set aside land that would both help recharge the dwindling water supplies in times of drought and slow the floods when they come.