Power Outages, Natural Disasters, and Racialized Space in Houston

Nathaniel Leazer, Graduate Student, School of Architecture

My research project for the Diluvial Houston Seminar for the summer of 2021 examines the relationship between natural disasters and power outages in Houston, Texas. This interest was spurred by the outages that occurred during the winter storm from February 13th to 17th, frequently referred to by the unofficial title Winter Storm Uri. It is estimated that almost 200 people died from the blackouts during Uri. In Houston, most of these blackouts were load shedding transmission disconnections ordered by ERCOT and executed by CenterPoint Energy. There are certain critical facilities that are prioritized to have power during blackouts by Texas law, however, the general calculus by which CenterPoint Energy shut off power to low priority areas remains opaque.

After Winter Storm Uri, a group of researchers from e-GUIDE concluded that “areas with a high share of minority population were more than four times as likely to suffer a blackout than predominantly white areas. Income status of areas did not appear to be a strong factor in the share of blackouts… Further work is needed to explain what drives these disparities.”* My research project responds to e-GUIDE’s provocation by developing stronger correlations between demographic data and the disparity of the power outages. Although data from past outages is sparse, large future outages caused by heatwaves and natural disasters as well as daily outages can be analyzed; moving forward I will crawl CenterPoint Energy’s online outage tracker and scrape it for shapefile data to develop an archive for outage data. I will also research the development of CenterPoint’s infrastructure in Houston.

I will examine this disparity through the lens of George Lipsitz’s concept of racialized space. Lipsitz writes, “Racialized space shapes nearly every aspect of urban life. The racial imagination that relegates people of different races to different spaces produces grossly unequal access to education, employment, transportation and shelter. It exposes communities of color disproportionately to environmental hazards and social nuisances while offering whites privileged access to economic opportunities, social amenities and valuable personal networks” (How Racism Takes Place). In this sense looking at energy infrastructure failure is an uncovering of a sedimented white spatial imaginary that promotes antagonistic privatism and defensive suburban localism.

I believe that theory of racialized space will help reveal the racial disparities in the outages. In order to examine the racialized spaces of Houston, I will look at public amenities, gerrymandering, infrastructure development, property values, gentrification, levels of home ownership, the presence of chemical and environmental hazards, 311 data, and more. In regards to property, I will use HCAD’s data on Houston, which is regularly updated and goes back to 2005. I will then look at the property data combined with demographic data at the census block group level and compare it with accessible data on infrastructural failures during natural disasters. Foremost, I want all findings to be understood spatially; I will experiment to find which techniques of map-based data visualization (scattered dots, heatmaps, etc.) make my findings most understandable.