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A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Local News

Leading Off (3/2/21)

| 1 hour ago

COVID Update. Dallas County reported 751 new cases yesterday and 42 deaths. Those numbers include data from Sunday. Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Dallas will be one of 26 Texas counties to participate in a new effort called Save Our Seniors, which aims to vaccinate homebound folks over the age of 75. Right now, according to state data, 290,451 people in Dallas County have gotten one dose of a vaccine, and 157,611 people are fully immunized.

Celebration Celebrates 50 Years. The family-style restaurant on Lovers today marks five decades in business. What a great run.

Magnolia Building Sold. Grapevine-based NewcrestImage bought the iconic building topped by the red Pegasus. The company plans to upgrade the 325-room Magnolia Hotel.

Record Number of Flights Were On Time. With the pandemic driving down the overall number of flights last year, carriers were more on time than ever. Overall, 84.5 percent of flights were on time. Southwest hit 86 percent, putting it fifth of the 10 major carriers, and American hit 82.3 percent, putting it eighth.

Mavs Beat Magic 130-124. Luka finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, and two possessions played without a left shoe.

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Dallas History

CBS This Morning on Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation

| 17 hours ago

By now, most tuned-in Dallasites are familiar with the story of The Accommodation, our friend Jim Schutze’s landmark study of Dallas’ racial history. Over the weekend, CBS This Morning brought the tale to national audiences. In the report, Schutze and civil rights activist Peter Johnson speak about Dallas history, segregation, and the resurgent popularity of the long out-of-print book that will be republished by Deep Vellum later this year. Schutze bashfully admits to being somewhat flabbergasted about the whole ordeal.

“I feel like this book is this weird stone tablet that somebody found,” Schutze tells CBS News producer Rodney Hawkins. “When this regeneration of interest started ten years ago, I just didn’t get it at all. All the people who wanted to talk to me about it were young, 20- and 30-year-olds.”

CBS does well to note that the network’s fabled newsman Walter Cronkite was hired by Dallas civic leaders in the 1960s to create a piece of propaganda intended to tamp down on civil rights protests in Dallas. They fail, however, to note that Schutze’s book will be brought back by Will Evans’ non-profit publishing house after a bootleg .pdf version of the book floated around youthful circles of Dallas history and politics wonks for years (thought its Twitter handle gets a shout out).

Instead, Hawkins reports that “John Wiley Price fought to republish it.” Schutze, you may remember, sold the rights to Price decades ago, before the two had a falling out. Price also features in the report, and he has a new forward in the Deep Vellum edition. The CBS clip is after the jump:

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Politics & Government

Watch Dallas State Rep. Grill the Chair of Texas’ Public Utilities Commission

| 19 hours ago

If you are looking for a little more insight into what went wrong with Texas’ electrical power grid a couple of weeks ago, I suggest taking the time to watch the video (after the jump) that shows Texas State Rep. Rafael Anchia grilling DeAnn Walker, the chair of the Public Utilities Commission, during Friday’s Joint Commission Hearing. If you don’t have the full 36 minutes to devote to it, click ahead to about 22:00 mark. Up to that point, Anchia spends time walking through the scope of the PUC’s regulatory responsibilities, particularly as they relate to legislation passed after the 2011 winter storm – and further refined in 2013 – that was precisely designed to avoid what happened two weeks ago.

The legislation the state passed, Anchia argues, didn’t merely suggest that the PUC monitor ERCOT, the private entity that manages the state’s grid, in order to prepare for extreme summer and winter weather. Reading from a house document that laid out the full details of the 2013 bill, Anchia recites details of the legislation that gave the PUC cease and desist authority over ERCOT, instructed the PUC to come up with performance measures to evaluate ERCOT, and required the commission to prepare annual reports on ERCOT’s performance. Walker admits that after a 2012 report, the PUC did not submit another annual report on ERCOT’s preparedness to the legislature.

“We told you to report to us if you thought we were unprepared,” Anchia says. “Because we had promised our constituents that this was not going to happen again, and we told the PUC to take care of it, and we gave you power – we gave you rulemaking authority to take care of it.”

Walker is appointed directly by Gov. Abbott, and prior to serving as the chair of the PUC, she worked as a senior policy advisor to the governor and as Associate General Counsel and Director of Regulatory Affairs at CenterPoint Energy, a Fortune 500 electric and natural gas utility.

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Local News

Leading Off (03/01/2021)

| 1 day ago

Russ Martin, RIP. The longtime local radio host, practically synonymous with The Eagle, was found dead in his Frisco home early Saturday morning. He was 60.

Shingle Mountain is Gone. After three years of hemming and hawing by the city, it took 90 days to remove the six-story health hazard. Marsha Jackson deserved better than that.

Dallas County No Longer Reporting COVID Cases On Sundays. Spokeswoman Lauren Trimble said they will only report Monday through Saturday going forward, but didn’t say why.

One-Shot Vaccine Coming. Dallas will have 6,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine next week, and are aiming it at-risk populations that would be less likely to get a second shot. Every bit helps. As of Friday, 272,244 people in Dallas County (13.5 percent of the population 16 and up) had gotten at least one dose, and about 7 percent had received both doses.

Luka Doncic Rookie Card Sells for $4.6 Million. It’s a one of one and autographed by my Slovenian son, who turned 22 years old yesterday. Here is a compilation of his 21 best moments someone put together last year on his 21st birthday, and it is insane that there are probably at least half that many new best moments in the year since.

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Arts & Entertainment

Fair Park’s Hall of State Suffered Millions in Damage After the Storm

| 4 days ago

Fair Park’s historic Hall of State suffered about $3 million worth of damages after a pipe burst, flooding prominent rooms that contained historical archives dating back to the early 1900s. The Hall of State is among three Fair Park buildings that we know suffered damage in last week’s storms, which include the Tower Building and the Cotton Bowl. (The Tower Building is where vaccine recipients are observed 15 minutes after receiving their doses, but Rocky Vaz, the city’s director of the Office of Emergency Management, said the damage didn’t affect those efforts this week.)

Julian Bowman, a spokesman for Fair Park’s management company Spectra, declined to discuss the extent of damage elsewhere among the 277-acre grounds. He said the company is waiting to complete a “parkwide” assessment that will identify any other problems after last week’s storm. Spectra will determine the source of damage in affected buildings, fix it, then establish longer-term solutions for severe weather conditions in the future. The Dallas Historical Society estimates about 10 percent of its collection was damaged.

The Dallas Morning News reported that the Cotton Bowl sustained $2 million worth of water damage, but Bowman would only say that Spectra hopes to complete its estimate by early next week. The State Fair Classic between Grambling State and Prairie View was scheduled for this week, but has been postponed until March 13 and moved from the Cotton Bowl to AT&T Stadium.

The damage to the Hall of State was particularly painful. Fair Park’s most visible landmark, which is home to the Dallas Historical Society, had just completed a $14.4 million renovation last month. Now, the same company responsible for the renovations, Phoenix 1, will get back to work.

Karl Chiao, the executive director of the Dallas Historical Society, says most of the cost will be for building restorations. He believes only 10 percent of its archives—which include documents, photographs, maps, and other paper artifacts—suffered any sort of damage. Nine orotone prints produced in the 1930s by photographer Polly Smith had to be restored. The city of Dallas dispatched a conservator to help work on them; they were removed from the East Texas room.

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Music

Fifty Years of Erykah Badu

| 4 days ago

Fifty years ago, Erica Wright was born. In her teenage years, Wright rapped under the moniker Apples, a young female MC in The Fresh Ones and The DEF Ones, one of the first hip-hop groups in Dallas. In her twenties, Wright re-introduced herself as Erica Free, a jazz singer who incubated one of the first cyphers for the city’s underground hip-hop community with Cold Cris and Big Ben. Now, she’s known to the world as Erykah Badu, the four-time Grammy winner.

Since last year’s annual Birthday Bash at the Bomb Factory—about a month before the shutdown—the local legend debuted Badu World Market, her online store that hosted The Quarantine Concert Series: Apocalypse, Live From Badubotron, a live music streaming platform. In May, she performed alongside Jill Scott to over 700,000 viewers on Verzuz, a virtual music series started by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. Several months later, Live.e, a Dallas-raised singer, held her album listening party using Badu’s platform. Recently, the local legend participated in #FutureofBlackMusic with Houston musician Tobe Nwigwe.

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Media

Listen to New Leon Bridges and Keite Young Cover of “Like a Ship”

| 4 days ago

Something special will happen June 12, which is Record Store Day. The guys behind the local record label Eastwood Music Group — that’s Skin Wade from Mavericks broadcasts and The Eagle’s Ben and Skin Show, and Luke Sardello from Josey Records — will drop a full-length triple LP as part of their Truth To Power Project. It’s a righteous cause, and you should read more about it here as you listen to this advance track.

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Health & Fitness

After the Storm, North Texas Faces a Critical Blood Shortage. Here’s How to Donate.

| 4 days ago

When COVID-19 first arrived in Dallas and the shelter-at-home order took effect, all of North Texas’ scheduled blood drives were canceled. As a result, the American Red Cross experienced an unprecedented shortage of blood. We urged you, our readers, to consider donating once you felt safe to do so. Now, we’re urging you again.

This February, record-breaking temperatures and winter storms forced the cancelation of over 10,000 blood and plasma drives nationwide. The American Red Cross is asking all healthy North Texans–especially those with type O blood–to help replenish our local supply. Without donations, many of our medically vulnerable neighbors won’t receive the lifesaving care they need.

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Local News

Two Men Who Saw the Storm Coming and Sold Their Electric Companies Before Disaster Hit

| 4 days ago

State lawmakers in Austin spent all of Thursday grilling the people responsible for keeping the power on in Texas. They want to know where and how the system broke down last week. But it really isn’t all that hard to figure out. Two former CEOs in Dallas saw this coming years ago, which is why they sold their companies. They’d separately come to the same conclusion: if something like last week occurred, it would put them out of business. One of those CEOs believed a disaster was likely, if not imminent.

Stream Energy and Ambit Energy are electricity retailers. Both companies have, by all accounts, achieved great success. After Stream began registering users, in March of 2005, it took only 10 months to become the fifth-largest retail electricity provider in Texas. This was three years after the Legislature deregulated the state’s electricity market, turning what the rest of the country considered a closely regulated utility into a free-market spree.

For the first time, Texans could choose their energy provider. Upstart retailers didn’t generate their own power but would instead buy wholesale from major generators. They would market that energy to consumers, usually undercutting the retail arms of the larger producers. (The Legislature froze established rates to trigger market competition.) The retail market ushered in creative delivery plans like free usage during nights and weekends. Some credit the proliferation of Smart Meters directly to this free market approach.

The idea of deregulation was to let the market drive energy production instead of any government agency, but that didn’t translate into sufficient reserve power or infrastructure improvements that may have helped keep the plants online in single-digit temperatures.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as ERCOT, manages the grid. It can order utility providers like Dallas’ Oncor to cut power to preserve the grid during periods of extreme demand, which is what happened last week. But ERCOT is supposed to be overseen by the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission of Texas, known as the PUCT. Neither did nearly enough to motivate generators to winterize their facilities or create enough additional power to fall back on in an emergency. The federal government even warned the electricity grid manager to do this in 2011.

ERCOT can make its utility partners like Oncor put customers in the dark, but it can’t order the private generators to pay for infrastructure improvements to prepare its generating units for a freak storm: insulated power lines, de-icing equipment on wind turbines, removable structures for natural gas plants, all of which is less expensive if you’re not retrofitting existing generators.

That’s not to say the state government didn’t dangle carrots. Deregulation introduced scarcity pricing. Generally, a megawatt of energy costs anywhere from $40 to $150 to produce, depending on the source of that energy—coal, natural gas, renewables—and the conditions under which that energy was being generated. But renewables were becoming so subsidized that it was actually priced negatively, spurring the PUCT to come up with a way to motivate more natural gas generation. (A megawatt can power about 200 Texas homes during peak demand, according to ERCOT.)

So when demand soared, the state allowed energy generators to sell electricity for an inflated price. It was capped at $1,000 per megawatt, then $3,000, then $4,500, then $9,000. The idea was to use this inflated pricing to motivate generators to produce more when prices were higher. The Public Utility Commission of Texas’ hope was that this would prompt these private generators to build more natural gas facilities; the more power you generate, the more money you make during moments of scarcity.

But for years, Texas generators rarely charged the inflated cap, especially not for consecutive hours. That wasn’t the case last week, when unprecedented temperatures froze natural gas in the pipelines, shuttered some coal production, held wind turbines in place, and knocked off a nuclear plant. Natural gas, coal, and nuclear account for 70 percent of the state’s production. It’s rough to lose renewables like wind, but when those traditional sources fail, we have a problem. And the traditional sources of energy lost about 41 percent of their generating capacity in a flash.

Texas had no backstop. And, ironically, some generators couldn’t benefit from the scarcity pricing because the cold had stifled the gas production.

Nevertheless, Stream almost certainly would have had to purchase wildly inflated electricity for its customers at the height of last week’s storm. The difference between that inflated cost and the lower income from its customers might have sunk the company. Its general partner and founder, Rob Snyder, sold the operation and its customers to NRG in May of 2019 for $300 million.

The company was doing well at the time of the sale. In May of 2019, days after the deal closed, Snyder quipped in an email to a Dallas Morning News editor that Stream was “such an efficient cash flow machine that I have almost become numb to the size of the federal income bills that I have been paying over the past seven years.” 

So why sell? Stream and Ambit sold energy like Mary Kay sells cosmetics, through thousands of direct-to-consumer salespeople.

Snyder says he saw last week coming and got out. He predicted the circumstance, if not the timing. He figured the grid would fail, or come close to failing, during the summer. That’s when demand has historically been at its highest, when rolling outages were sometimes necessary to conserve energy. Besides, Texas just doesn’t dip into single-digit temperatures, especially not across the entire state. But then it did.

A quarterly NRG earnings report in 2019 caught Snyder’s eye. Generally, ERCOT wants a reserve margin of 13.75 percent that can be deployed if generators can’t produce for whatever reason, including extreme weather. But there is no legal requirement for such safety nets. By 2021, Houston-based NRG was predicting reserves so low that the state wouldn’t be able to sustain even a day without blackouts if generation failed. The market had not motivated enough new generation to keep up with all the new Texans and their power usage should a catastrophe occur that resulted in generators not being able to operate.

“If we have a recurrence of the summer of 2011 (when we had 40+ consecutive days of 100+ degree weather), there is virtually no chance for the survival of independent retailers that do not have vertical integration with significant generation capabilities,” Snyder wrote in his email to the editor at the News. He was saying that companies needed to be in the generation game if they wanted to stay in the retail business. He sold to one of those generators.

Snyder said he saw retailers like Stream to be “shock absorbers” for when there was volatility in the market. Generators like NRG benefit because they can sell the electricity they produce at an inflated margin when energy is scarce. Customers who were locked into fixed-rate plans would be protected from market swings. The retailers—known as REPs, Retail Electricity Providers—would be the ones left holding the bag. (Customers with variable-rate plans would feel the pain, too. That is what happened with the much-publicized California-based Griddy. Powering your home at wholesale rates is great when demand and prices are low, but when scarcity pricing kicks in, five-figure electric bills follow. During Thursday’s hearings, the head of the PUCT said about 40,000 to 45,000 Texans out of 7 million total customers were enrolled in such a plan.)

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Local News

Leading Off (2/26/21)

| 4 days ago

Senate, House Take Aim at Who to Blame for Outages. Over the course of 14 hours yesterday, the Texas House and Senate grilled the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electricity grid. They ducked blame. The legislature grilled the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, which is supposed to oversee ERCOT. They also ducked blame, pointing the finger at the agency below them. One thing ERCOT CEO Bill Magness—whose annual salary is a cool $803,000—did note is that the Legislature could change the agency’s governance power. It could give them teeth to mandate generators winterize and further protect their equipment during extreme weather events, which will surely become more common as we live through the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, Curt Morgan, the CEO of Dallas’ Vistra Energy, said the natural gas companies couldn’t get gas to the power companies with the required pressures. Morgan told legislators that his faith in the deregulated energy market has been shaken. NRG’s CEO, Mauricio Gutierrez, basically said the same.

COVID Numbers Ticking Back Up after the Storm. Dallas County reported 614 new coronavirus infections on Thursday and 24 new deaths. The infection count has been artificially low because of how the storm affected testing and our ability to move about the city. County Judge Clay Jenkins anticipates those numbers to begin their ascent soon, but he believes deaths will begin to decrease.

It Really Hailed Last Night. I’m exhausted with this weather. Last night, two rounds of hail battered mostly parts of the northern corners of Dallas-Fort Worth. That’s where we got more reports of golfball and quarter-sized hail. The rest of the weekend brings a mild, springlike cold front on Saturday and widespread storms on Sunday. Saturday looks dry but cloudy, yet there is a chance we’ll get some precipitation.

Mavs Fall to Sixers. Luka had trouble against Ben Simmons, posting 19 points on 6-13 shooting with only four assists and seven turnovers. The Mavericks, who were without Kristaps Porzingis again, fell 99 to 111. Doncic posted a miserable +/- of -20 while Josh Richardson was even worse against his former team, with -24. The Mavs fall to 15-16 and snap a two game win streak.

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Sports & Leisure

Colonial Tickets Will Cost $475 This Year (!)

| 5 days ago

As FrontBurner’s duly elected golf correspondent, it is my duty to tell you that the folks running the Charles Schwab Challenge (aka the Colonial) are proud of their 75th anniversary, as evidenced by the ticket prices they announced today. The tourney runs May 23 through May 30. Attendance will be limited by pandemic precaution. The cheapest ticket will cost $475 ($514.19 including sales tax).

You’re saying, “Tim, that’s insane! For that cash, I could buy a Cobra RADSPEED driver.”

I’m saying, “Sure. But if you bought a Cobra RADSPEED driver, it would become outdated, and you’d just wind up replacing it anyway, whereas if you went to the Colonial, you’d have an experience, a memory to cherish for the rest of your life, even though science has shown us that the more you access a memory, the more its fidelity to actual events degrades, so 40 years from now, you might be reliving a really expensive trip to Chuck E. Cheese.”

What were we talking about? Oh, yeah. With that $475 ticket, you get an all-inclusive deal, with booze and food on the course; access to the Palmer and Crenshaw villages, where you get ambassador greeters, waitstaff, shaded seats, and TVs; and use of the Colonial Country Club pool house and adjoining patio. This is the first time Colonial will have tried the all-inclusive thing. And there are more expensive options.

By the way, the AT&T Byron Nelson runs a few days prior to Colonial. It’ll be played at TPC Craig Ranch this year. The cheapest ticket I see is the $100 Bourbon Bunker. Sounds delectable, right? The bourbon costs extra.

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Policy

Four Key Questions that Could Determine the Future of Texas’ Failed Electrical Grid

| 5 days ago

The Texas Legislature is conducting hearings today to determine what led to last week’s massive power outages. We’ve all learned a lot about how Texas’ energy infrastructure works in week since the historic winter storm, and the story of the failures of the deregulated marketplace has remained at the top of the nation’s headlines.

What is now clear is that last week’s event was brought about by a confluence of factors, ranging from physical challenges in natural gas distribution and power plant operation to market-related issues with how plants are incentivized to prepare for catastrophic weather events. There have also been a lot of potential fixes tossed about, ranging from reconsidering the independence of Texas’ grid from the rest of the nation’s infrastructure to taking to task the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which operates and manages the state’s electrical grid.

The legislative sessions hope to bring some additional clarity as to what went wrong, as well as identify ways the state’s leadership can ensure that such a cataclysmal event – which has resulted in the deaths of a still un-certain number of Texans – never happens again. But as the legislature deliberates, keep an ear out for any answers to these four key questions that must be at the heart of any attempt to repair Texas’ broken electricity system.

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