Texas’ Privatized Power Grid is a Disaster 20 Years in the Making
While most Texans have long since grown used to lukewarm Christmases and balmy weather by the New Year, February 2021 brought with it an onslaught of freezing temperatures and unprecedented weather conditions that left millions of Texas residents without power, water, or any real idea how to navigate the situation they found themselves in.
The initial days of the freeze were whimsical, with snowfalls providing rare experiences for Texans so accustomed to heat and humidity. It became clear, however, that Texas’ infrastructure was ill-equipped to handle the challenges brought on by extreme cold, and things grew tense when blackouts began rolling across the state. Unfortunately, Texas is no stranger to unimaginable weather. 2017’s Hurricane Harvey swamped most of the Houston area with unparalleled rainfall and flooding that “exceeded the rate predicted to occur once every 1,000 years”,¹ leaving thousands to rebuild their lives in the aftermath. With Winter Storm Uri, Texans were faced with frustrating and difficult circumstances that felt all-too-familiar.
Millions of citizens were left without power, some for up to three days or longer.²
This, coupled with subsequent orders to boil all water for consumption due to treatment plants losing electricity, left many in impossible situations — after all, not everyone has the means to boil water without power. Additionally, countless Texas homes suffered heavy damage after temperatures continued to plunge and caused pipes to burst, destroying residents’ plumbing, ceilings, and flooring depending on where the water damage occurred. In light of Texas’s inability to function under conditions like those brought on by Uri, the question was naturally raised: just why were things so devastating? Other parts of the United States experience winter storms, snow, and ice regularly, though manage to carry on just fine. While yes, a portion of Texas’ unpreparedness can be attributed to simple inexperience, not all misfortune can be placed on the circumstance. The causes of such disaster are deeply engrained in the state’s infrastructure and can be traced back decades, to several culprits.
Texas is uniquely abundant in energy sources, thanks to natural geographical conditions; the United States Energy Information Association tells us that it is the top producer of both crude oil and natural gas, as well as wind energy, of which it makes up 28% of the nation’s wind-powered electricity.³ On a surface level, it makes sense for Texas to lean toward independence in electricity and power, if for no other reason than to act in the interest of efficiency due to the state’s sheer size and to take advantage of natural and renewable resources. Unfortunately, these were not the motives in mind when Texas switched to independently managed energy. Out of any other state in the country, Texas produces the most power. It operates on a unique system dating back to 1999 and what has been called the “nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation.”⁴ Deregulation, of course, refers to the divorcing of Texas from the federally controlled electrical system that is, you know, held accountable for its actions. The whole of Texas’ power system is controlled by privatized generators and companies based primarily on market — a system maintained exclusively by the Lone Star State.⁴
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, took over managing the assembly of different competitors involved in Texas’ “deregulated” electrical grid after Gov. Bush’s landmark decision to operate independently from the eastern and western grids.⁴ Operating apart from the rest of the country puts Texas at the unique, but obvious, all things considered, the disadvantage of being without outside support — the majority of Texas is simply unable to rely on anyone but itself. El Paso, which suffered the very same weather as the rest of the state, had a far easier time during the worst points of the freeze because it is included on the western power grid, which has been “winterized” to withstand intense cold.⁵ Support from the inside was a no-go as well, seeing as Texas has notoriously refused to invest in extra reserves of power to fall back on should the demand spike unexpectedly; the functionality of the Texas grid is dependent on the free market and is majorly run by businesses, therefore preparation for unlikely situations such as extreme cold much like February’s freeze is overlooked.⁴ Such maintenance would be cost-heavy and put participating companies at a “competitive disadvantage,” says the New York Times. And isn’t that exactly what Texans want to hear of the people in charge of regulating their electricity? That sustainability through emergencies is sacrificable in the name of profit? Lack of regulation or accountability within agencies tasked with supervising the Texas system practically invites decision-making based purely on company acquisition. There is little to no incentive to protect consumers and little to no way to enforce said protection when it is otherwise disregarded.
There has not been any concrete evidence brought up to support the notion that ERCOT acted with nefarious or profit-driven intent when it came to handling the system’s collapse, but the agency is under investigation. Gov. Greg Abbott called for resignations across the board, as well as for “greater transparency,” as ERCOT is a “public entity.”⁶ (In light of Abbott’s recent decision to lift the mask mandate from Texas and subject his citizens to the risk of contracting Covid-19, it is hard to say where his threshold for protecting human life lies. But that’s a different article.) Politico reported on February 23rd that ERCOT’s leadership would be stepping down indefinitely following the devastation of the previous week and increased speculation into the agency’s operation.⁷ It is unclear whether this was in response to Abbott’s comments, but needless to say, it did not assist in making the agency look more responsible.
Texas’ emphasis on state pride and independence has always danced on hubristic, but recent events have proven just how dangerous such an attitude can be. The decision to not participate in a nationwide power system meant to keep Americans safe and secure in the name of self-reliance and the free-market reeks of arrogance. Of greed. It is time to stop regarding profit and corporate convenience over human life. The devastation in Texas only proves the skewed morality that is so present in our nation and should encourage Americans both in and outside of Texas to truly consider where we find ourselves placing our values.