Could it happen here?

By Mike Barhorst - Contributing columnist

I was recently walking along a downtown street and as happens more often than not, was stopped by a resident and asked a question. This question concerned the recent confluence of disasters that turned life upside down in much of the state of Texas. “Could it happen here?” was the question I was asked near the end of the conversation.

It is a fair question, and certainly one that deserves an answer. While none of us are immune from the wrath of Mother Nature, the city of Sidney is certainly prepared to handle the quartet of events that impacted so much of Texas.

Let us begin with temperatures. According to information compiled by the National Weather Bureau, the normal high temperature in Texas in February is 65, and the normal low temperature is 45. In Ohio, our normal high temperature in February is 45, and our normal low temperature is 29.

The Arctic weather that plagued both Texas and Ohio in February 2021 was cold, but in the case of both states, residents have experienced worse. Much of Texas endured a five-day stretch where the average high temperatures over the five-day period ranged from 13.4 to 25.5 (depending on the area of Texas in which one lived.)

During the same period, Sidney experienced a 15-day period during which the temperature did not climb above freezing. The low temperatures ranged from -7 degrees to 19 degrees. The high temperatures during that period ranged from 19 degrees to 28 degrees.

However, neither the five-day period in Texas nor the 15-day period in Ohio was record setting. While the five-day stretch in Texas marked one of the lowest five-day average temperature periods in the past 40 years, it did not set new records. The coldest February on record in Ohio was in February 1936, and the 15 days of below freezing weather this year did not come close to the temperatures that impacted Sidney during that year. Clearly, Ohio is better prepared than Texas for cold weather, simply based on our annual experience.

Snow removal in Texas also proved problematic. Most southern states rarely experience heavy snow events. In fact, February is usually Texas’ second-driest month of the year, and they almost never see snow in February. As a result, they lack snow removal equipment.

Locally, we received precipitation on 10 of those 15 days, ranging from freezing rain to heavy snow with accumulation totaling more than nine inches. Our experienced crews were quickly able to respond to the changing weather conditions and the motoring public was only temporarily impacted.

Let us now look at the power issues that plagued Texas. For historic reasons too numerous to delve into for our purposes, most of Texas is served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT is not part of the national power grid and as a result, when the system began to falter, there was no connection to the national system to provide the support necessary to prevent the system from failing.

The failure of the system was primarily due to the failure of their generating capacity. About 24% of the generating capacity in Texas is from wind turbines. As the turbines froze, they ceased producing power. Another 56% of Texas’ capacity is derived from natural gas. The cold weather impacted that generating capacity as well, and the electrical generating system ground to a halt.

Local residents will remember electric outages that have occurred in the past, perhaps the worst recent example being the ice storm of Jan. 4-5, 2005. It was during that event that many Sidney residents were without power for several days. It is important to note that our outages have primarily been the result of trees falling across power lines, not the failure of either the grid or of generating capacity.

Numerous Texas residents who had chosen to roll the dice and select a variable electric rate made national news when the demand for electric drove their rates “sky-high”. Variable rates are also available in Ohio. Such rates enable residents to take advantage of extremely low rates when there is little demand. However, when demand is high, rates can increase rapidly. Having a contracted fixed rate,

such as that available through the city’s aggregation program, allows residents peace of mind knowing that the next disaster will not impact the rate paid. Most of us choose not to gamble when we can lock in rates that allow us to budget effectively.

The failure of the Texas electrical grid simultaneously caused the failure of public water systems throughout the state. We have taken precautions, such as back-up electric generators, that will hopefully prevent or at least lesson such a catastrophe here.

While that’s a long answer to the original question (and I’d never say that it couldn’t happen here), I will say that such a catastrophic failure of multiple systems is highly unlikely to happen in Sidney. The current city council and those who preceded us have worked closely with staff to try to ensure the viability of systems and services, no matter the circumstances.

In closing, this is an appropriate time to thank those who work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure we have safe drinking water, the effective cleaning of wastewater, snow removal, street maintenance and repair, and the repair and maintenance of the electrical grid. They are truly unsung heroes whose efforts make our lives easier every day.

By Mike Barhorst

Contributing columnist

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.

The writer is the mayor of Sidney.