Common sense and the Texas power grid

For better or worse, this sat around in my draft queue for longer than I had wanted. But I still consider it timely, as I haven’t heard anything new about the underlying problem and what’s been done to solve it.

As recently reported in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (among many other news outlets), a rather disturbing development has arisen regarding the 2021 Valentine’s Day ice storms and the resultant power grid disruption. Meters which belonged to parts of critical natural gas infrastructure had signed up for ERCOT’s Emergency Response Service (ERS). (ERCOT is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., a non-government corporation in charge of regulating the mostly independent power grid in Texas.) Normally enrollment in this service is from large industrial users of electricity which will power down in extreme situations to keep residential customers from being affected by load shedding (i.e. rolling blackouts). From the article:

UT Austin researchers discovered that 67 electric meters run by natural gas companies were enrolled in the program. In turn, those meters, which were part of the fuel supply chain providing energy to millions of Texans, lost power when the program was activated on Feb. 15.

At least five of those meters were later identified as “critical natural gas infrastructure,” including natural gas compressors, processing facilities or other parts of the supply chain, according to Joshua Rhodes, a research associate and co-author.

“It seems inconsistent that critical infrastructure should also voluntarily allow themselves to be turned off when they are needed most,” Rhodes said.

So, not only were key parts of the natural gas supply chain powered off when they were needed the most, ERCOT actually paid these companies to shut off the power, further reducing the availability of natural gas and causing the wholesale prices of electricity to go through the roof.

This is absolutely despicable and unconscionable. How was this allowed to happen? How will we keep it from happening again? You would think this was common sense, that parts of the natural gas infrastructure shouldn’t be shut down when we have power plants that use natural gas to make electricity. The old saying “common sense isn’t that common anymore” comes to mind, thus the title I used for this post.

I’m now in the process of digging through ERCOT’s website and later news stories to see if there’s something I’ve missed. I don’t think there is, but I’ll happily follow up if it turns out this has been fixed going forward.

Amending the ECPA: 2017 technology versus 1986 law

From the about-damned-time department:

TechCrunch recently reported that a long-needed update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) has passed the House of Representatives, a good sign that the bill may actually be signed into law this year.

Unfortunately, the roadblock to passing this bill in 2016 was that the Senate wanted to water down the bill, crippling the gain in privacy that is the whole reason why the bill exists. It is only common sense, in the era of providers like Gmail offering quotas that are effectively infinite thus allowing people to keep everything, that email is just as protected from warrantless searches as any other personal electronic data.

I can’t think of a good reason why emails over 180 days old should be legally obtainable with just a subpoena instead of an actual warrant. This is one reason I have not kept emails on other servers for anything approaching the 180 days in the ECPA. (Interestingly, the other big reason is space: I currently only have emails going back to 2016 November 22 and later, and I’m at 76% quota used. As much as I get right now, I could not keep 180 days’ worth of email on the server I’m using if I wanted to.)

The ECPA is now over three decades old. Its effective date of 1986 October 21 predates widespread public access to the Internet by almost a full decade. The laws which amended it did nothing to amend the 180 day subpoena rule, which is ass-backwards and patently devoid of sense. Even if it did make sense in late 1986, the world has changed a lot in the three decades since. For example: in 1986 UUCP and FidoNet were the predominant forms of exchanging email (unless one was emailing someone on the same BBS that one was dialed into), and today, both are extinct for practical purposes with the impending death of analog telephone lines (though FidoNet still technically exists, most of its traffic now goes across the Internet). The sooner we can get a law that is tuned to the reality of living in 2017 with a connection to the Internet, the better.