Eye On Illinois: Texas power grid crisis can be a learning experience for us

What do Iowa and Texas have in common?

Aside from robust agricultural economies and a significant population with Czech heritage, not a ton. But Illinois (which also has big ag and lots of Czechs) has a chance to learn lessons from recent disasters in the Hawkeye and Lone Star states.

In mid-August, a derecho ripped across Eastern Iowa into Western and North Central Illinois, weaving a fatal path of destruction and leaving nearly 2 million customers without electricity. About six months later, extreme cold wreaked havoc on Texas’ power grid, killing dozens and leaving millions without power for days.

The derecho weakened as it hit Illinois, but our state wasn’t spared. Neither did the Texas outage leave Illinois untouched, as natural gas prices exploded. Riverton Mayor Tom Rader told the Springfield Journal-Register his town spent $640,000 for five days of natural gas last week — and $940,000 in all of 2020.

But mostly for Illinoisans these disasters can become learning experiences. First there are basic lessons applicable to most kinds of catastrophes — have enough shelf-stable food, a good supply of clean water, flashlights, batteries and a way to charge your cellphone. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has a handy guide at https://tinyurl.com/IEMAkit.

Beyond the basics, these outlier fiascoes warrant examination. The derecho, an unexpected natural phenomenon, provided a case study in disaster response, crisis management and the unmatched value of direct aid volunteers. Texas additionally presents an opportunity to investigate what went wrong and ensure steps are taken to prevent a similar occurrence here.

Look for Texas to be invoked often as Illinois lawmakers advocate for passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, and prepare for debates about the efficacy, reliability and resilience of tools like wind turbines and solar panels. Beyond the supply side are consumer protection measures.

The future of Illinois’ nuclear generation facilities is routinely up for discussion in Springfield. Seeing the downsides of Texans’ reliance on fossil fuels should give rhetorical ammunition to those who stump for the relative stability of nuke plants.

A recent Capitol News Illinois report explained the wisdom of responding to the 2014 polar vortex by making sure Illinois power plants and wind turbines could sustain another prolonged bout of extreme cold, as well as Texas’ failure to take similar steps after a 2011 deep freeze. Politicians swiftly responding to natural disasters makes for great nightly news footage and campaign commercials, while the expensive drudgery of preventive maintenance often is significantly more meaningful over the long term.

Hopefully what Iowa and Texas can share going forward is relative tranquility and reliable electricity. But nature’s potential power remains a persistent threat to human safety, and pretending otherwise is a recipe for eventual disaster.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.