Podcast published date:
S2E3: Did Windmills Mess with Texas? Misinformation about the Power Grid in Texas.
Mon, 4/5 2:03PM • 31:31
misinformation, people, texas, wind turbines, conversations, infrastructure, event, failure, power grid, power, explanation, frozen, policy, wind, players, complex, generation, grid, energy, talking
Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone
Michael Simeone 00:00
This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo Weekly is made by the unit for data science and analytics at Arizona State University Library. Hello, and welcome.
It's Friday, February 19. And today we're going to be talking about the freak winter storm in Texas, the failure of the power grid and the misinformation event that's been swirling around this entire thing. Shawn, what's going on in Texas?
Shawn Walker 00:30
Well, as of right now, it looks like the power grid is sort of coming back up and power is being restored. But it's been a rough couple of days, starting around the 13th of February, this freak winter storm caused power generation to fail all types of power generation to fail in the state. But when this kind of piqued our interest, whenever we started seeing notices that, you know, some government officials and some prominent folks on the news, were saying that, due to the failure of a handful of wind turbines, that's what brought down the entire Texas grid.
Michael Simeone 01:02
Yeah, that feels like a, like a stretch claim. But let's break down the chain of events or as best as we can. Let's try to give the Texas blackout The Paw Patrol treatment, in that we try to go from beginning to end and try to understand how we went from a comment or a rumor to headlines to a full fledged misinformation event. All this stuff starts February 13. What's going on, on that day?
Shawn Walker 01:34
Um, it's cold. There's ice, there's snow. I feel…
Michael Simeone 01:37
Freakishly cold. Yeah.
Shawn Walker 01:38
For Texas it's freakishly cold. For Arizona, that's super freakishly cold.
Michael Simeone 01:42
We Yeah, we wouldn't. I don't even.
Shawn Walker 01:45
Yes, so, we have ice we have snow, and not sort of the usual ice and snow that we see in only certain parts of Texas. And then we see the morning of the 13th, there started to be some problems with some types of power generation. And we kind of get kicked off by ironically the Montana and Secretary of State. She posts on Facebook saying that they offer Texas and all other states in during the freezing polar vortex their thoughts and prayers, and is thankful for the natural gas, oil and coal companies. Because the wind turbines are frozen, solar generation is down to nothing when the sun isn't shining. And this sort of kicks off. Not necessarily the Genesis, but this is one of the first comments that we've found that kicks off this idea that we have fossil fuels are reliable. We have the renewable power generation is failing. And so that sets this sort of stage as the power grid failure. And the blackouts are basically this renewable production versus fossil fuels. And then the conversation kind of keeps staying in that area for a while.
Michael Simeone 02:50
Okay, okay. Yeah. So by the time you know, I'm looking through here, and by the time we get to the 15th of February, so by now the 15th of February, people have lost power. There are, you know, people who are trying to improvise ways to stay warm posts on social media, you know, show people covered in blankets, wondering what happened, people are legitimately stunned that this kind of thing is even possible. On the 15th of February, we get a headline for Fox Business, filed under renewable energy. Texas electric grid operator says frozen wind turbines are hampering state power output. And so we go from the 13th, where there's that first mention that we could find this connection, all the way to now after just two days. It's headline news for Fox Business. And later on, goes on is a key bullet point for a feature segment of Tucker Carlson's.
Shawn Walker 03:47
And also as part of this, we start to see, you know, we we think about the power grid infrastructure and its infrastructure we don't really think about, except for maybe when we're looking out the window or walking down the street, and we see a power line, we really don't think where our power comes from. We don't think how the grid actually operates. We don't even probably most people have not heard of, ERCOT before, which is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. They run the power grid, but no one had heard of them before. But now it's sort of common everyday language of Well, what does ERCOT say today? This is similar to like, in our conversations about COVID. There are all these medical terms and understanding virus transmission that were not part of everyday language, but due to the pandemic. And now due to this combination of a natural and sort of manmade disaster, then these sort of infrastructure and unknown regulators start to pop up into everyday language.
Michael Simeone 04:38
That's not the full story we really get between the 13th and the 18th. Right? By the time the 18th rolls around. This is just yesterday, we've got a bunch of fact checking stories coming out. We've got some think pieces and feature stories on like Washington Post in New York Times that are all trying to provide a more nuanced explanation for why power was lost in Texas. It you know, we don't have to go through all of it. But it's like a cocktail of frozen gas pipelines, non weatherized equipment, deregulated grid and an isolated grid that can't really borrow power from anywhere else. Plus a freak winter storm. Add up all those things up together, and we've lost power. By the 18th, you know, it's basically there's been the response to that initial rumor that you identified, which is I'm going to set wind power versus fossil fuels. And we're going to say that the deficiencies of renewable energies like wind power, this is the problem.
Shawn Walker 05:38
So, why do you think that this dichotomy is being set up? I mean, it's not just sort of like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons moment. Right. It's that. I mean, do you have any thoughts on why setting the public conversation around the grid failure, even though we haven't done the analysis yet might be helpful.
Michael Simeone 05:57
I think just to kind of tie up the preliminary timeline that we're sketching at the outset here. It's it's interesting to look at how in less than a week, we've gone from a crisis event, we have some misinforming alternative or misinforming ideas, kind of make it out there. In this example, a really simplistic understanding of how wind power matters, and the misinformation about its wind powers fault. And then we have a correction. And so these basic beats of the story here, you know, we've seen before and one thing that that we know, one thing that like previous work shows up is we can't count on these corrections, being a full remedy for the misinformation
Shawn Walker 06:37
Definitely. And there's a whole series of cascading failures. So we have cascading failures within the grid, because these are complex systems that are interacting, you know, different power companies, different power generation, things like that. But then the power grid interacts with hospitals, water processing and filtration systems, heating systems, 911 systems, and those interact together, as well as like public in systems for public announcements, other things. So it's really complex system, where the power grid underlies many of these systems, it's kind of like these, this little enmeshed web. So sort of natural disaster that's happening, you know, in a way in Texas, is far from over, even though power is being restored, we still then have to deal with the second and third and fourth order effects like, you know, all these water systems that are having issues around boiling water, all those other things like how are you supposed to boil water when you don't have power? So like, people are scared, people are uncomfortable, some people have passed away as a result of this. So there's also, as we've talked about before, there's a lot of emotion involved here. And so we also want something or someone to blame as a potential solution at this moment in time so we can make sure you know, when this is over, that it will never happen again.
Michael Simeone 07:51
Right, you know, you get back to your question. What is the incentive for anyone to offer an overly simplistic explanation? And I feel like at this point, it might be helpful to break down kind of a cast of characters or list of components, if you will, for an infrastructure failure that we typically observe. So for instance, we spent some time talking about the Oroville Dam.
Shawn Walker 08:16
Can you give us kind of like a 30 second "What's the Oroville dam" just for those that?
Michael Simeone 08:21
Yeah, yeah, so Oroville dam was one of those situations where freak rainfall in Northern California, one of the components of it, the spillway started to fail structurally, they had to go to some kind of emergency plan for getting rid of all the excess water. Why? Because they didn't want the dam to be completely overloaded and buckle, because it had to hold back too much water in a situation like that one. Or when a storm hits or when the temperature drops to unforeseen levels and the power grid goes up. In each one of those times, it is absolutely part of the genre. When people go back, they see that this had preventable elements to it. There will always be an opportunity to go back and see this could have been fixed, this could have been fixed, this could have been anticipated. Infrastructure failures, we often encounter them because of a lack of preparation. So to me, that's one, one piece of this puzzle that we often observe in these kinds of events.
Shawn Walker 09:20
So does this interact with misinformation? And now that there's a speculation of what could we have done to prevent this? And what are the causes, there's a bit of a sort of fight in the public to then set the public's memory as to what we could have done and what we should do in the future to prevent this. Is that what you're saying?
Michael Simeone 09:35
Well, I think that's a great point that, that this becomes part of the next phase of things right, which is, what do we learn from all this? And what do we what do we want to take away from this event? Or as you said, How do we make sure that this doesn't happen to us again, and I think that is not an obvious extension of the first part. Right? So there's, there's always some kind of inciting event. There's always some exploration of what could have been done. And then there's some kind of conversation about what there is to learn from this event. There's a recovery effort. And then there's a kind of long term set of policy decisions or policy conversations that might spring out of it as well. To your question, I think when we try to figure out what we observe as typical across these kinds of misinformation events, across infrastructure failures, one thing that we see is that that misinformation can really interfere with that process of trying to understand what really happened, and what we should do about it in the future, so that it doesn't happen again. And so to me, that's where misinformation can really be harmful. Yes, it can be harmful if you're interfering with people's ability to know where resources are and where supplies are. I think that in the most immediate response, you can see misinformation happen there. But the misinformation we observed around this event, didn't have anything to do with, you know, bot accounts telling people, you know, clandestinely or under the radar that how to respond to something in a way that was directly harmful to them. Instead, we have stuff that's being spoken by prominent officials on cable news. That's where the misinformation is coming from. And this misinformation about that we're talking about, I think, specifically interferes with people's collective ability to understand what happened.
Shawn Walker 11:17
So what are the implications of sort of this misremembering?
Michael Simeone 11:20
Misinformation often oversimplifies problems, right? If we have a bunch of forest fires, and they're the result of a complex intersection of federal policy, climate change, and, you know, other kinds of behaviors of the people moving through the forest in the first place, if we get a bunch of forest fires, we don't want to deal with it's much easier, right. And when we talked with Steve Korman about this, this is one of the things that came up, it's much easier to just blame antifa. When we have complex political controversies at all, it's just much easier to polarize the other side, or to polarize the conversation and, you know, demonize the other side. Misinformation loves simple explanations for complex scenarios, and complex dynamics. So I think, to some extent, the complexity of this situation, lends itself to misinformation.
Shawn Walker 12:10
And see simple explanations also offer a higher level of certainty than the sort of more complicated, more accurate explanations of what could lead to the failure or what the potential solutions are. And now, you know, if we kind of frame this as wind turbines and renewables -bad, fossil fuels reliable and good. Then we have a sort of easy path to walk from, you know, this disaster to solving the problem. So that doesn't happen again. We just, you know, throw all the wind turbines into the ocean and crank up the fossil generation facility, power generation facilities. And, you know, boom, we're done. Right. I mean, it's not going to be that simple. But that's an over simplistic, you know, description, I think, right?
Michael Simeone 12:57
Well, yeah. And what came out of the Oroville Dam incident, people were blaming illegal immigrants from Mexico. Yeah, supposedly, all the money that could have gone to Infrastructure Improvement was spent by the governor on giving services to people who had immigrated to the United States, quote, unquote, illegally. Right. So that is a very straightforward explanation for a really complex set of events that could, that created the Oroville Dam crisis.
Shawn Walker 13:24
Right, And that leads to the simple answer is lead to the perception that there's simple solutions that are like 100% effective. Liike, we need to do this one thing, we can do this one thing tomorrow, that'll be solved next winter, this is not going to happen. I think the public also wants to know, this is not going to happen again next week, this is not going to happen again next year, or the year after. Do what you have to do, boom, we're done. Versus you're talking about sort of restructuring, potentially the grid, looking at what roles like all of these players have understanding the many, many governmental organizations and commercial organizations that are involved in getting power to your house. Like that's, that's just not what we want to talk about right now. In the midst of this, we don't want to have hours long conversations. You know, the five minute soundbite provides a lot of comfort, actually.
Michael Simeone 14:13
We may look back historically, and say, Oh, the year 2020 through 2022. That's when we learned that in general, people don't like conversations about risk. And that really put a point, an exclamation point on decades of data indicate that people struggle with conversations about risk. Right, all throughout the covid 19 pandemic, actually getting a bead on what people's real risk is. Right? communicating that out getting everybody on the same page. That's been a really hard thing to do. But risk surrounds us everywhere. And it's also kind of intertwined with our, with our power generation, right if you want to take some examples of say, how people perceive risks surrounding nuclear power, all the way to what is the total risk we face based on how vulnerable our grid is. Our grid could be vulnerable to a cyber attack, our grid could be vulnerable to any number of perturbations that could come from the outside like weather, or could come from the inside, like equipment failure. So we face all these different kinds of risks. But it seems like, you know, having conversations about risk is another one of those areas where you know that, as you mentioned, that certainty or that misinforming explanations can often provide sounds a whole lot better than, well, it looks like I need to just have a better comprehensive understanding of the collective risk of all this systems in my power grid. Right? That's a lot of work, blaming it on wind energy, that's a little bit more ergonomic.
Shawn Walker 15:42
We're really bad at communicating risto, right, you know, your diet here leads to your risk for certain health ailments. We're really bad at like communicating that what does that mean? I mean, that's why we play the lottery and go to casinos. So we're really bad at calculating risks and percentages.
Michael Simeone 15:57
So here we are, we kind of traced the timeline, we talked about some of the components that we've observed in this story, that seem really familiar to us. Let's talk a little bit about the impact of the misinformation that we see circulating around this event. I think one thing to take away from this is how framing from say a journalistic point of view, had a big impact on this wind turbine story. So, you know, we go back to that Texas grid operator, who was maybe cited and, you know, at least half a dozen different news stories, who reported that, yeah, the frozen turbines are interfering with our ability to generate power. And that one fact, what was it report were reported some like a 12,000 megawatt shortfall, in any event. That shortfall, you know, depending on where you tune in for your news is either a minor part of the energy portfolio and a bit player in a bigger systemic failure. Or if you're getting news from another place, it is the reason that we're losing power. And it is the reason that people are suffering right now.
Shawn Walker 17:09
Well and I, I think it's interesting to focus a little bit on the language of some of the initial press releases from ERCOT, the the grid operator. Is that they sort of in the press release, saying that they're experiencing record breaking electric demand due to extreme cold temperatures. And then this part, I think, is important in higher than normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines, and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units. So by putting the turbine, wind turbines first, that's kind of where we stopped reading. We're like, Oh, this is caused by this. And no one sort of reads the last part of that sentence to say, well, and it's also these other fossil fuel generating power plants, too. It's not just the turbines, it's this whole combination, then you throw in a couple of videos of helicopters de-icing, the blades of wind turbines, and you have like, all the drama that you need to pin this all on the turbines.
Michael Simeone 18:04
Ah, so what you're saying is the even not just the idea, but the images of the frozen turbines are far more charismatic.
Shawn Walker 18:11
I think it's more interesting than visual images ofr frozen natural gas pipelines. I mean, it's just like that's a pipe. There's some snow versus helicopter pouring hot water in a turbine. That's pretty darn sexy and dramatic.
Michael Simeone 18:24
Yeah, that sounds like it could be in a Michael Bay film. Bruce Willis is in a helicopter trying to thaw out a wind turbine, broken natural gas pipe. That's you're right, no good at all. Well, let's talk about a couple more elements of this, of the of the misinformation event that we're that we're thinking there are two, what are some other kind of misinforming elements here that bother you?
Shawn Walker 18:47
I think one thing that's important to talk about is that existing interests then start to play in this space. So we have, you know, power generation companies, we have politicians, we have renewable companies, we also have, you know, oil gas generation companies. So they're trying to basically fight to set the public's memory so that they kind of unintended, the sort of wind blows, the regulatory winds blow in, not in their direction, right. So there's all these different players are trying to basically focus the attention of regulators and the potential anger of the public towards someone else, not towards them, so that they come out looking like a savior versus sort of the evil player that needs to be fixed in the end.
Michael Simeone 19:31
You know, the call for reforms were pretty quick, after the Oroville Dam incident. You know, Hurricane Katrina was an example, hurricane Harvey is an example. Right? After big events, it is not uncommon to call for change at the policy level.
Shawn Walker 19:44
Right. And I think we have these many players that are part of this, that are kind of jockeying for the agenda setting to basically set you know, what are you know, members of the Senate and members of Congress going to say about my industry and can I push more of the blame off back and forth. So they're they're just basically trying to, you know, ensure that they avoid regulation and avoid the ire of the public. So they're getting involved in this conversation in various ways to kind of steer it in certain areas.
Michael Simeone 20:11
Why does misinformation matter so much around infrastructure crises? And one of the reasons is, is the stories that people agree on, about how we had the crisis in the first place, directly impacts the subsequent policy conversation.
Shawn Walker 20:29
And I will bet you a very expensive cup of coffee that during the upcoming hearings, which I believe are next week, in the Congress in the Senate, someone will say, but the frozen windmills, I'll bet you a really expensive cup of coffee, that's something similar to that's going to pop up.
Michael Simeone 20:43
It will be fascinating to see how many narrative elements that we've observed during this approximately a week in Congress.
Shawn Walker 20:53
But we should maybe keep accounts maybe a future episode for that.
Michael Simeone 20:56
So let's zoom out and think a little bit longer term. Beyond next week's hearings, what are some of the policy implications or policy stakes of some of the misinforming material that's been going around in the last week,
Shawn Walker 21:12
I think it's important to think about some of the larger context and some of the shifts in policy that are happening because of a change in administration, from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. So we have changes in responses to climate change, the US just joined or rejoined the Paris Climate accords. And so we have all of these different players trying to sort of jockey for different positions, and you know, those that are already in power. So we think of, you know, fossil fuel dominates our energy production universe in the United States. So the existing players want to stay in that position of power. And then we have renewables and other types of energy that want to topple that regime, in response. And so I think misinformation plays in that this sort of complex stew of what's happening, and changes for the future. So this is one component, but potentially a component that whatever player in Texas comes out looking bad. This has long term implications for that player, because we often have a tendency to put in regulations, and I'm not going to say, over regulations, but we want a response to an event that's as widespread as what's happening in Texas. Like this is an outlier event, you know, certain communities lose power. That happens, let's turn the power back on. But, you know, potentially an entire state losing power during a winter storm where it's cold, you know, people don't have water. I mean, it’s, it's very dramatic event. It's kind of like a Hurricane Katrina esque event, where you have the power grid interacting, we're gonna have a long sort of memory about that within the policy community. And so that then has long term implications with some of the new policies and a new government.
Michael Simeone 22:59
Yeah, so what we remember becomes very, very important. And if anybody has a leg to stand on when making an argument, coming from the position that this is wind power's fault, that is ultimately a very impactful consequence of that misinformation. If you know, and, again, that we, we've talked about, and we've talked with folks mentioned how it's important to repeat misinforming information over and over and over again, so that eventually, it sticks as truth, if that's what we get out of the situation, that one of the root causes of the of the catastrophe in Texas was wind power, then that is going to supply plenty of material for one side of a political debate about our upcoming configuration of energy in our country.
Shawn Walker 23:50
In many ways, this you know, to take a page from literature, right, this becomes a Scarlet Letter for whatever sort of energy source or sector then is blamed for this. They have to do all of this extra work to overcome that, instead of spending all of their time and energy to, you know, advocate with policymakers just for, you know, the next best policy. So they're wasting a lot of energy overcoming the bad look, so to speak for a little while. And so no one wants to get stuck with that Scarlet Letter.
Michael Simeone 24:20
Yeah. And so I mean, manufacturing, misinformation in this case is incredibly cheap, compared to the downstream cost. I mean, the more complex the system, the more seductive the misinformation. And I think we see a great example of this here, where a complex system of energy, organizations, climate, you know, other kind of peripheral infrastructure systems. It's just easier to blame wind, easier to blame the windmills.
Shawn Walker 24:49
They were already causing blame for causing cancer during the previous administration. Right. So, but I also want to say we're not saying that, you know, an oil company is the one that started this misinformation. Or others. It's just that this type of environment, all of these actors, you know, want to shape what's happening to the best of their advantage. And so it's shaping the misinformation environment. So if not coming to the rescue of wind power is advantageous, you're not going to run to the rescue of wind power.
Michael Simeone 25:17
Yeah, yeah. And again, you know, this is not, this does not appear to be on its face, a misinformation conspiracy hatched somewhere on a state sponsored, you know, Russian troll farm that hit the social media. And now we're all misinformed. That's not the kind of misinformation about we're talking about here. We're talking about something that was homegrown that, you know, circulated because of its simplicity. And because it resonated with a lot of different existing political positions. But it is still incredibly misinforming, nonetheless. And that's going to have some long term consequences on policy conversation surrounding energy.
Shawn Walker 25:57
And I think your point about, the about resonating is important because this resonated with certain folks. So certain communities were already primed as being sort of anti green New Deal, you know, over the last couple years. So those folks that were already primed, this fits in with their existing set of biases. So they're already like, Oh, yeah, wind, no dice, this is horrible. They're already primed for that. So that just kind of, you know, that that sort of runway was already open for this misinformation to land there. And for them to continue to spread it.
Michael Simeone 26:26
I think this is a really good example of how, if you're, if you're out there, and if you're listening, and if you're thinking about, you know, how do I try to escape misinformation? Or how do I live with it? How does this not happen, to me? A really good acid test for any of this stuff is, How simple is the explanation that's being offered? Versus how potentially complex is the system that we're talking about? And if that ratio is, you know, a symbol, that looks something like one very simple explanation for something that is incredibly complex, the chances are it is a misinforming, or a misleading explanation. Even though as you mentioned, you know, sometimes those are the most charismatic explanations available.
Shawn Walker 27:11
Right. I also think we can slip in here at the end, I think the role of expertise is important here. Right? So the question is like, who do we then believe to tell us, you know, here's the problem, who's the expert at this moment in time to say, this is what happened. And at this, if we look at this event, it's sort of unclear who the primary expert, there wasn't someone to stand up and have the trust of the state of Texas and the population as well as outside of Texas to be like, this is what's happening. Instead, there were just a lot of disparate voices, there was no one expert voice to basically calm the public and say what was happening. So that led to a bit to, a bit of a chaos, which then was ripe for this misinformation.
Michael Simeone 27:51
This point about expertise is great. I'm thinking through how this whole thing would have unfolded. If there was someone who was very visible, have a lot of authority. Kind of like an energy analog of Dr. Fauci. People could look to for reliable and trustworthy information. I don't think there is a Dr. Fauci analog, or energy systems in our country right now. And it feels like that kind of expertise and authority at the same time, might have had a guiding effect on what turned out to be pretty chaotic and pretty misinforming.
Shawn Walker 28:29
Do you think their lack of this visible expert is because infrastructure sort of less sexy, it's basically something that we don't pay attention to unless it breaks, maybe?
Michael Simeone 28:39
Yes. I think that's an explanation that I can get on board with when I'm thinking about the kinds of television shows that people make. There are a whole lot more television shows, glamorizing the practice of medicine, than television shows that glamorize the production and maintenance of infrastructure.
Shawn Walker 28:57
Telecom 911 it's just not the next reality TV show that we're gonna have.
Michael Simeone 29:02
I don't know, it sounds great to me.
Shawn Walker 29:03
Some CenturyLink or XFINITY, Comcast employee fixing broken fiber or copper wire.
Michael Simeone 29:12
Also bridge builders LA, and Bridge Builders New York. The design, the implementation, all the all the contracts.
Shawn Walker 29:21
Is this the next Paw Patrol?
Michael Simeone 29:22
Yeah, sure. Let's do that too.
Shawn Walker 29:25
Well, I mean, I can see the show for kids, but when adults watch? I mean, like, because kids like trucks and infrastructure and wires and things like that. So.
Michael Simeone 29:31
Oh, kids. Yeah, you're right. kids would absolutely watch a show that was nothing but bridges being planned...
Shawn Walker 29:38
Or demolished is more fun.
Michael Simeone 29:40
Shawn Walker 29:40
So to go back to this idea of expertise. If we look at the ERCOT's Twitter feed, we can see that on the 11th, February 11, they actually posted a public warning stating that the winter storm was coming. So, winter is coming. Prepare the power grid But it seems like that potentially fell on deaf ears or that might not have been enough notice for everyone to prepare.
Michael Simeone 30:07
But I think your point is very interesting that even when we do have a regulating body or an organization of experts, if we're not kind of attuned to listen to them...
Shawn Walker 30:16
And I predict that in the coming days, weeks, months, years, we're going to have larger conversations about the role of regulation, the role of regulators, what power no pun intended, but what powers a ERCOT versus the Public Utilities Commission of Texas had. So, if we think of that tweet, was that just sort of, Hey, guys, this is something to think about, or was ERCOT an organization that could say, do this, if you don't do this, there are consequences. And, you know, so that's the rule of regulation in your public utilities and monopolies, things like that. So I think we're gonna have those conversations, and maybe some of those things are going to change because oftentimes, policymakers are motivated to respond to big disasters versus kind of everyday regulation.
Michael Simeone 31:08
Yeah, I like that thought. That seems like a good place to end. Thanks for joining us this week. Be thoughtful and be well. For questions or comments, use the email address email@example.com. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu/data.