Sunday, February 28, 2021

A simple free solution to TX winter storm blackouts, Houston's reinvention + Texas' future, housing affordability survey, HEB, and more

Our lead item this week is confirmation that a simple bureaucratic fix could have prevented the massive Texas winter storm blackouts and easily prevent them in the future: simply add natural gas pipeline electric pumps to the list of critical infrastructure like hospitals so they don't get their power cut. If the gas had kept pumping through those pipelines, the gas-fired electric generation plants would have stayed online:

"Grant Ruckel, vice president of government affairs at pipeline company Energy Transfer, testified that the biggest failure during the disaster was cutting power to gas pipelines, many of which are not listed as essential services, a designation made for hospitals and other critical infrastructure." ... 

"Deshotel said he had asked generators how many plants would have gone down if they hadn’t lost gas pressure, and the answer was only a couple."

UPDATE: Verified! - This simple paperwork blunder left Texans cold during the deadly freeze, Houston Chronicle. And verified again: Natural gas trade group blames power outages for production decline during winter storm - Houston Chronicle

Moving on to this week's items:
'We surveyed our employees, and the No. 1 concern that people had was quality of life—but also taking mass transit to New York City any time in the foreseeable future.” There's another benefit for the well-paid workers too. They will “see a lateral pay move, which amounts to around an 11% increase in salary because Florida has zero income tax.”'
  • NYT: The Future of Texas. I like this opening excerpt, but the rest of the story is a bit silly, pretending that if Texas didn't produce fossil fuels climate change would be magically solved instead of just importing more oil from the Middle East. (archive link - h/t George)
"You can make a case that the U.S. state with the brightest long-term economic future is Texas. It’s a more affordable place to live than much of the Northeast or West Coast and still has powerful ways to draw new residents, including a thriving cultural scene, a diverse population and top research universities. Its elementary schools and middle schools perform well above average in reading and math (and notably ahead of California’s), according to the Urban Institute. 
These strengths have helped the population of Texas to surge by more than 15 percent, or about four million people, over the past decade. In the past few months, two high-profile technology companies — Oracle and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise — have announced they are moving their headquarters to the state, and Tesla may soon follow. As California was in the 20th century, Texas today looks like a state that can embody and shape the country’s future."
"Look at the cities. I’m not sure we see the implications of what has happened there. In New York we are witnessing, for the first time in a century and a half, the collapse of the commuter model. ... 
A lot of cities, not only New York, are going to have to reinvent themselves, digging down and finding newer purposes, their deepest value. They’re going to have to take stock in a new way: New York has the greatest hospitals, universities, the media, parks. What else? 
And they will be doing this within a hard context. Public spending is skyrocketing due to greater need; the city and state budget deficits are through the roof. New York is Democratic and public sentiment will be for tax increases, big ones. ... 
The Partnership for New York City reports 300,000 residents of high-income neighborhoods have filed change-of-address forms with the U.S. Postal Service. You know where they are going: to lower-tax and no-income-tax states, those that have a friendlier attitude toward money-making and that presumably aren’t going hard-left."
Does Houston need to reinvent itself as well? Clearly, we have big needs to invest in resilience infrastructure (Build the Ike Dike! h/t Evan ;) and our innovation economy as well as take steps for the energy transition (more than that, we need to actively shape it with better carbon capture technologies). But as a city, our core value proposition is strong: a global culture of Houspitalityopportunity, and resilience welcoming to immigrants (who spread the word thru their networks) while also providing one of the highest standards of living in the world. While the rise of remote work may cause issues for commercial office space (especially downtown, which may have too many new and renovated buildings coming online), the nature of Houston's core industries - energy, medical, industrial, space, the port - do seem to demand enough of a physical presence to keep workers close and the region strong (as opposed to finance in NYC and tech in SF).  And here's to hoping remote work permanently reduces some of our worst traffic at rush hours!  Overall, I feel fairly good about Houston's position in a post-pandemic world. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments...

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Affordably improving Texas power grid resilience

Hope you emerged from this crazy winter storm + power/water outage week relatively unscathed.  I certainly learned the value of stockpiling water and draining water pipes (esp. with a power outage), and ERCOT learned that it's a bad idea to cut off power to natural gas pumps across the state during a winter storm. I hope they spend a bit of time doing analysis before jumping to expensive solutions like full winterization of all facilities.  It's possible that if they had simply mapped natural gas pumps and compressors across the state and treated them as critical non-blackout facilities like hospitals, we might have gotten away with short-duration rolling blackouts that would have been far more manageable (like 2011). 

From the Wall Street Journal:

"Solutions will have to be nuanced and incremental. Winterizing all power plants would be unnecessarily expensive, and so would a complete overhaul of Texas' market design, which is partly responsible for consistently low power prices compared with the rest of the country." 

And an excellent idea: "One option could be rewarding liquefied natural-gas processing facilities in Texas to both curtail electricity usage and to redirect the feedstock natural gas for electricity rather than for exports."

And from Forbes - This Blizzard Exposes The Perils Of Attempting To ‘Electrify Everything’. Gas = resilience: 

"to equal the 80 Bcf/d of gas delivered during cold snaps, the U.S. would need an electric grid as large as all existing generation in the country, which is currently about 1.2 terawatts."

Unpopular observation: gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs were a critical source of resilience during this never-ending mass power-outage disaster by providing heat and recharging. If we all had electric vehicles, this disaster would have been epically worse. A hard truth. 

UPDATE 2/27/21: Confirmed that there may be a very simple solution here

"Grant Ruckel, vice president of government affairs at pipeline company Energy Transfer, testified that the biggest failure during the disaster was cutting power to gas pipelines, many of which are not listed as essential services, a designation made for hospitals and other critical infrastructure." ...

"Deshotel said he had asked generators how many plants would have gone down if they hadn’t lost gas pressure, and the answer was only a couple."

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

The future of superstar cities and Houston, CA's problems, warehouse glut, why tech in HTX?

Hope everyone's staying safe and warm during this way-way-way-too-cold Valentines+Presidents Day winter storm.  The lead item this week is a really interesting piece my friend George sent me on the future of superstar cities by Matthew Yglesias.  I think his observations are directionally correct, but he’s missing some pretty important nuances.  

First, he’s completely ignoring extended family pulls that bring people back to regions.  

Second, he’s seeing everything thru the lens of the footloose and fancy-free celebrity rich (the Matt Damon and NBA references), and that is an incredibly tiny part of the population. His alternate lens is 20-something tech startups – also a pretty narrow niche.  Normal people have family ties and different reasons for picking places.  A lot of the NYC/LA amenities he thinks are so key aren’t that valuable to families, and they’re the ones most likely to leave.  

Third, he’s ignoring the *relative* impact of remote work.  NYC and LA have a mix of people who want to be there for lifestyle and have to be there for work. Once the work reason is gone, a lot of them have left and will continue to leave (look at the Wall Street types moving to Miami). The lifestyle people may stay, but those cities are still declining relative to what they were when they could hold onto both groups.  They will face massive budget deficits which will push them to raise taxes which will push even more people to leave.

As far as Houston, we’re not on the national media radar, but I have personally seen a *ton* of out-of-state plates around recently. The media forgets that they don’t drive most people’s location decisions – it’s what they hear from friends and family, and most Houstonians like it here and plug it to their extended friend/family networks (including talking about the kind of home they can afford), and those friends/family decide to move here based on that recommendation.  But obviously the weak oil industry is not helping, and the GHP is absolutely right we need to diversify our economy and build our innovation economy (my latest idea for that).  But our core engine is a good sustainable one – not oil, but having a great lifestyle (esp restaurants) at an affordable price (from lack of zoning) that people tell their networks about. As long as we sustain and keep improving that, we will keep growing, even as ‘hotter’ cities like Austin and Miami become ever more crowded and unaffordable.  As long as articles like this are being written about us, we’ll do just fine:

Moving on to this week's items:

Houston. Houston has done it right. (one of my more popular tweets) More of these cities should look to our model for handing rapid growth without unaffordable housing.

"Conservatives do not resist many regulations of the sort seen in California because we want cities to be horrible or because we secretly are in the pockets of developers who for some reason want their cities to be horrible; rather, we are skeptical of such schemes because they tend to create artificial shortages, distort markets and investment decisions, and prevent solutions from emerging organically. “Markets work!” is cartoon libertarianism, but you know what? Markets work. And if you don’t let them work, you end up with artificial scarcity, high prices, and rationing."

Hear, hear!
    1. Houston has a welcoming and collaborative culture
    2. Great sports teams and miles of biking trails
    3. Self-care is an important part of the culture
    4. The legendary food
    5. The large talent pool
"In some ways, Houston is anomalous. Its business-friendly regulation puts very few restrictions on building. “There’s no zoning,” said Ryan Byrd, a principal of Colliers International Houston. “If there’s land that doesn’t have a pipeline, wetlands or is in a flood plain, you can build a building in less than one year.”

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Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Astrodome campaign ideas, MaX Lanes, pandemic migration, SV to TX, 4 post-pandemic predictions, superstar cities are in trouble, and more

The lead item this week is the Astrodome Conservancy spring campaign to re-engage the public on what to do with the Astrodome.  My blog has had two main ideas over the years on the Astrodome - a “go big” one that requires big money, and a far more modest, affordable one as a climate-controlled weekend festival park.  (other ideas here)

Honestly, I think the second one is the more realistic option right now, and could be very popular. The simple pitch for the second one is the world’s largest climate-controlled park. People love going to parks, but not during Houston’s extreme weather, especially summers and thunderstorms.  Having an activated park full of activities and festivals on weekends that is always protected from heat and rain would be a very popular spot for Houstonians, especially families desperate to find affordable activities every weekend. And it could easily start very modestly and then expand over time with philanthropy (like has been happening with the zoo, MFAH, and HMNS) as well as parking charges to cover operations.

Moving on to this week's items:
"But there’s another factor I hadn’t considered, one that so far appears to be the single largest driver of pandemic-era migration: family."
"Part of the reason for this trajectory had to do with another institution that continues to play a key role in driving technological innovation in the state: Houston’s Rice University, which played a role comparable to Stanford's vis-à-vis Silicon Valley. In fact, many of the early players in Silicon Valley actually moved to California after graduating from Rice, constituting what is sometimes called the “Rice Mafia.”

How appropriate, then, that Rice would play a key role in the next step in the rise of Texas. In 1961, the university donated more than a thousand acres of land for the construction of what became known as the Johnson Space Center, flooding a once-provincial city with literal rocket scientists. Like Silicon Valley, where government contracts and connections proved essential in getting the region off the ground, Houston’s leadership in the space race kick-started a host of related industries."
"If California is a vision of the sort of future the Biden administration wants for Americans, expect Americans to demur."

  • The Atlantic: Superstar Cities Are in Trouble - The past year has offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work, and it isn’t optimistic for big cities.  It includes four predictions and a conclusion I would never have expected to see in a magazine like The Atlantic!

    1. The rise of the supercommuter
    2. The decline of the coastal superstar cities
    3. The rise of the rest
    4. The next Silicon Valley is nowhere
"As an urban resident of Washington, D.C., writing from my dining-room table, my claim is not that I believe the internet could or should replace the riotous physical-world collision of urban work, culture, art, and life. My humbler assertion is that 2020 has punctured my confidence that the internet cannot encroach on the benefits of urban density and proximity. Going forward, many fledgling companies may agree, as they find that the city in the cloud essentially acts as a more accessible version of the city on the Earth, eerily reproducing its forces of agglomeration, specialization, and convenience. The past 12 months have offered a glimpse of the nowhere-everywhere future of work."

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