The deep freeze that has held Texas in its grip this week brought back memories –definitely not “warm” ones—of the ice storm that caused blackouts and brownouts in Houston in December 1989. At the time, I was living in the Dominican Republic, where “unreliable” would have been generous at best in describing the power supply. Multiple, hours-long daily blackouts were the norm. If the power came back everyone dropped everything else in order to do whatever required electricity.
That winter, I was so excited to spend the holidays in Texas visiting my family and my friends at Rice University, from which I’d graduated the previous May. What I remember most, however, was how much I was looking forward to spending a week or so in a place with first-world infrastructure that meant not worrying about the power going out. Well, as they, say, the best-laid plans…
My friends in Houston tell me that this year’s deep freeze was even colder than the one I experienced. It certainly lasted longer and affected many more people much more dramatically –including a fellow Rice alum, who like me now lives in Chicago and had decamped to Texas for the month for warmer weather. (The best-laid plans, once again, fell short.)
Over the past few days, I’ve received so many messages from friends who said that the extensive blackouts in Texas are a classic gray rhino. They’re right.
Some publications have come out calling the disaster in Texas’ power supply and grid a surprise black swan –by definition unimaginable and unforeseeable. Sigh. In reality, it followed not just the 1989 blackout but another similar weather-related one in 2011 and many unheeded warnings, including a report published in August 2011 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation.
The Texas crisis is far from the first major power outage in the United States; I personally was “lucky” enough to experience the 2003 Northeast blackout when I lived in New York City. That one was a perfect storm of damage to power lines by tree branches, which combined with human error, software glitches, and equipment failures.
Quite simply, when something similar has happened before, and if people have warned about it publicly, an event like Texas’ power crisis is simply not a black swan. (Regular readers will recall that I made a similar argument in 2020 that COVID-19 was not a black swan but rather a gray rhino.)
The author of the book that spawned a black-swan-spotting frenzy, has noted that in hindsight, many people try to describe black swans as having been foreseeable. In fact, the opposite has happened. I’ve lost count of the crises for which warnings were plentiful but people have insisted on calling them black swans anyway.
Friends and acquaintances have deluged me with messages this week calling out the grid failure as the obvious, high impact gray rhino that it is: obvious, highly likely, and impactful. I love that people have embraced the metaphor I coined when they see examples and are applying it for themselves.
But I’ve also seen some instances in which the gray rhino has been used as an “I-told-you-so,” whether for the Texas situation or for the January 6 attack on Congress. Despite some snide Amazon reviewers’ comments, is not at the purpose for which I intended the metaphor. The gray rhino is a tool and framework to draw attention to obvious problems simply because we’re more likely than we’d like to think –but are not condemned–to ignore them.
I don’t want gray rhinos to become misused like the black swan has been. By definition, we can only talk about a specific black swan in hindsight, because by their very nature they are unforeseeable, even unimaginable. Wall Street, negligent policy makers, and other guilty parties have gotten used to calling things “black swans” as a way to avoid accountability and put mistakes behind them.
Gray rhino theory doesn’t work that way, and is not meant to be used for looking backwards. To be sure, examining at how and why gray rhinos have trampled us in the past is helpful as an example and learning opportunity. To be sure, I often talk about past gray rhinos as examples to illustrate the concept because hypotheticals are not so useful for this purpose.
Gray rhinos –unlike black swans whose outlines are impossible to see– are most useful when looking ahead at what’s coming. When it comes power grids and gray rhino theory, identifying vulnerabilities correctly as a gray rhino is just the beginning of the conversation.
We know that extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more extreme, so it is only reasonable to expect more of the same, and likely worse, in the future. Possible cyberattacks remain a major concern for the power grid. And so does chronic under-investment in infrastructure.
That’s why we need to be talking in earnest about how to keep this kind of blackout from happening again. Here are some questions to get us started:
- How much risk is appropriate when it comes to the energy grid? How close is our current setup cutting it to “too much risk”?
- How do our estimates of likelihood of catastrophic failures match up to reality? Given what scientists tell us about the dangers that climate change is creating as a result of increasingly extreme weather, how do we need to change probability assessments?
- How much extra capacity do we need to add to prepare for possible future extreme weather events? On a related note given other concerns about power grid vulnerability: what kind of measures and redundancies do we need to put in place in case of future equipment or software failures, cyber attacks or human error?
- Which stakeholders are most affected; which ones have the ability to solve the problem; and how do we get the right ones around the table to find a solution?
- What do we need to do to hold policy makers and power companies accountable for protecting the power grid from climate and weather-related threats, cyber vulnerabilities, human error, and possible equipment failure? Who bears the cost when systems fail?
- How do we set up the appropriate set of protections –a risk umbrella, if you will– for people who pay the cost of another catastrophic power failure?
Now that the conversation is going on, we need to keep talking, listening to experts, and debating the best options, until we’ve satisfied ourselves that we’ve done everything possible to prevent it from happening again.
COMING APRIL 6, 2021: YOU ARE WHAT YOU RISK: The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. Available for pre-order!
This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
To subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts, click the blue subscribe button on this page. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.