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2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card | Part 3 In A Series


2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card | Part 3 In A Series

Beyond Storms – discovering new challenges when critical infrastructure is stressed

The emerging risks of interconnected infrastructure

July 2021

by Geoffrey Roberts (Chair, Texas ASCE Beyond Storms Committee)
and Mark K. Boyd PhD, PE, M. ASCE (Chair, 2021 Infrastructure Report Card Committee)

The 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card came out in February, but it needs to stay up in the minds of our State Legislature, the public at large, and the ASCE community. This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the most acute issues. If you have not read them yet, we invite to browse the last two editions of the Texas Civil Engineer online so you may catch up on your reading! [Part 1; Part 2]

The Texas GPA of C did not tell the whole story.

Texas GPA rose even though 12 categories were evaluated, 4 more than 2017 which included 2 categories never before assessed. The Report Card is all about setting the right priorities and targets for smart infrastructure investment. Most of the 4 additions dragged the GPA down, as well as some other categories that continued to reside at the bottom of the grade scale. The last article addressed the worst grades. This article tells you all about the big elephant in the room which appeared with the combination of the February winter storms and the Report Card best B+ grade assigned to the Energy chapter. The severity of impacts from the February winter storm has spawned a new task committee we call “Beyond Storms” which is being led by the primary author of this article, a Texas IRC Subcommittee leader and now, Beyond Storms Committee Chair Geoffrey Roberts. Our goal is to develop a report to describe the interconnectivity of all aspects of the energy sector and how it may be made more resilient to the stresses placed upon it during a very cold Texas week in February 2021.

The recovery from the devastation of Winter Storms Uri was well underway in late February when the Texas Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (TexASCE) formed the Task Committee to develop a detailed understanding of the facts to determine what issues led to the failure of critical infrastructure in Texas. Over 25 members plus Section staff from across Texas quickly volunteered to begin this complex and challenging assessment effort. The goal was simple – let’s understand the facts, analyze the most impactful problems, and develop real world actionable recommendations that can be implemented. It is a significant task that will take this team of experts through the end of 2021 to complete. However, we have already identified key insights. Preliminary analysis confirms an underlying theme common throughout the initial fact-finding efforts regardless of the type of critical infrastructure. We have named this issue as interdependence or integration creep, to describe the gradual increases in the reliance of multiple types of infrastructure on other infrastructure. Interdependence creep will require TexASCE to develop new insights and solutions for assessing compounding risks that arise from complex infrastructure interdependence. Understanding infrastructure interdependence begins with a common understanding of what is critical infrastructure and what is the difference between reliability and resilience.

What is infrastructure?

We traditionally think about infrastructure based upon its static physical nature. Infrastructure is composed of concreate, wood, aluminum, and steel. Infrastructure includes the towers that bring power from distant power plants to the utility poles that serve your home or business. It brings treated water to your tap. It provides access to communicate with the world from a handheld device and the roads to travel to work or school. We think about critical infrastructure as the physical infrastructure that is designed, built, and maintained to provide essential services to our families every single day including:

  • Telecommunications and broadband
  • Drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and dams
  • Energy: electricity, natural gas, fuel (heat and light)
  • Transportation: from roads and bridges to rail and ports

We expect critical infrastructure to be reliable.

We expect to have electricity when and where we need it at a flip of a switch. We expect that clean water will be there when we turn on the faucet. The electricity system is tremendously complex to operate. It must balance supply and demand on a real time basis to provide reliable service regardless of changing conditions. As interdependence increases between critical infrastructure, then interruptions and changing conditions will be increasingly felt across critical infrastructure types. In times of stress this interdependence magnifies the impacts of condition changes in vicious cycle that can lead to a chain reaction of failures. Resilience is the ability to plan, prepare for, mitigate, and adapt to changing conditions from hazards to enable rapid recovery of physical, social, economic and ecological infrastructure. How quickly can we return to normal after a hazard? Increasing interdependence can work virtuously and accelerate recovery or it can slow recovery depending upon the steps taken. Winter storm Uri identified both reliability and resilience shortcomings.

We also tend to think about infrastructure as static investments, we first design and then build the road and then maintain it over time. No infrastructure remains static. The reality is that we constantly repurpose these assets over their lifetimes and ask the infrastructure to meet different, sometimes substantially different needs than it was originally defined to perform. As we evaluate infrastructure, we need to reflect on how this infrastructure is being used today and how well is it meeting current needs.

For example, during the last ~25 years the energy industry has gone through a massive transition from an economically regulated, largely integrated industry to a less regulated and more market driven industry. Customers were given choice in who provided them energy services and under what kind of service level for the first time in history. During this transition to competitive markets in Texas the physical energy infrastructure remained substantially unchanged. We built more infrastructure, but smart Texans also figured out new and different ways to use the legacy infrastructure and adapt it to new needs. We now work in an environment where markets and related regulations define the “rules of the road” for how the infrastructure would be used in new ways.

Infrastructure may perform as designed but fail to perform in support of the rules and regulations. Rules may conflict with operational realities. Failure to understand the rules that define how the assets operate and is used by the market will lead to incomplete understanding of the problem. Incomplete understanding of the problem will lead to failed solutions. The reality is that all three aspects must be understood to develop sustainable solutions to solve the root cause of reliability failures. The ultimate “fix” for a problem may require physical infrastructure changes, market changes, rule changes or some combination.

Prior to this transition the different infrastructure sectors largely operated independently. Each routinely worked with and used other types of infrastructure, but redundancy, dual fuel capability, back-up generation and interruptible loads, allowed critical infrastructure to be largely self-sufficient in times of stress. This has changed.

During the transition, the industry gradually became less self-sufficient and more reliant, dependent, or interdependent on other critical infrastructure. The examples abound.

  • The increase of non-dispatchable power, largely renewable resources, in an energy only marketplace increases the complexity of managing the system and the importance for firm dispatchable resources to meet the needs of Texans.
  • Natural gas pipelines that used to consume a portion of the gas transported on their systems to fuel compressors to move the gas were converted to electricity
  • Electric generation that was inherently fuel flexible with the ability to change fuel types has largely been lost. Upstream production and processing largely reliant on electric driven operations without back-ups or alternative solutions.
  • Complex operations between the natural gas industry and the power industry require ever more complex processes and procedures that when coupled with an erosion of self-sufficiency creates increasing probabilities of failures from paperwork and processes.
  • Firm power supply in an energy only market is compensated the same as interruptible power supply while the customer wants the reliability of having their lights come on at a flip of a switch.
  • Our daily lives rely on laptops, cellular phones, and internet access to be able continue working from home and communicate with the outside world, friends, and family. Individually and collectively, we have increased interdependence on the infrastructure that serves us.

These were well known and observable events.

These are all examples of the explicit integration of infrastructure. However, this interdependence was consistently considered discretely, as an individual event, instead of systemically as the accumulation of individual events built up over time. Events of stress highlight these weak points and often result in finger pointing and assigning responsibility by one class of infrastructure to another when in fact they may both bear responsibility. This brings us to the issue of integration creep that made this situation worse.

Scope creep in a project occurs when the boundaries of the project get bigger or more complex. Integration creep is the non-explicit, incidental and below the radar increases of interdependence and reliance between infrastructure sectors that individually does not rise to risk awareness level but collectively creates potential catastrophic systemic risk.

The combination of explicit interdependence and interdependence creep has created an interdependence problem for critical infrastructure. Going forward we must address specific infrastructure investment needs and now we must also consider how to invest and manage growing interdependence risks. Just as we must consider now look at infrastructure holistically and understand how the regulations, the markets as well as the infrastructure itself work together we now must also include the complexities of interdependence.

The winter storm Uri severely stressed and almost broke the system. Based upon what we know today, solutions to address this interdependence problem will be a critical aspect of our recommendations for improving both the reliability and the resilience of the critical infrastructure system.

>> Read the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Series – Part 1: Infrastructure Crisis? What Are You Maniacs Talking About?

>> Read the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card Series – Part 2: The Worst Grades of Texas: Levees and Wastewater

Keep an eye out for Part 4 of this series as our IRC Committee leaders dive deeper into the many new and updated Texas Report Card categories.