HOUSTON — Texans are angry. I mean, all of us. Right now, I’m not sure anyone cares about stories of coming together and perseverance in times of crisis. At the moment, Texans aren’t asking what happened or why. Most of us know all about this. We know who’s responsible. It’s all happened before. But Texans being Texans, most also assumed the powers that be had addressed the electrical grid’s shortfalls a decade ago. Yet, here we are.
As we begin to thaw in Southeast Texas, the northern half of the state is living in a proverbial block of ice. Most Texans have no access to fresh water and food shortages are being reported throughout the state. Delays for areas still under freezing conditions continue to increase extending the length of time some might have to endure with no food, water, and/or electricity; the most basic necessities in American life. The desperation continues to grow.
Now, with most of the grid back online. Access to food and water has become a priority.
This is not a third world country. This is Houston, Texas. I spotted a line of people filing up buckets of water from a spicket at Haden Park. Why? Millions either have no water or are under a Boil Water Advisory. pic.twitter.com/VHYH5Hbqjj
— Erica Simon (@EricaOnABC13) February 18, 2021
Laying It Out
Freezing rain, sleet, snow, and ice aren’t unheard of in Texas. Much of the state experiences some of the same weather seen throughout a good portion of the country during January and February. Persistent hard freezes lasting days coupled with several inches of snow, however, are quite rare. With as much as two-weeks notice, the state where citizens constantly discuss secession from the United States couldn’t survive on its own for a week of severe winter storms.
When people say, “everything is bigger in Texas,” surely they must be thinking of some of the largest failures in American history. The lackluster response to COVID with over 40,000 deaths; the hurricane of 1900 that killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people; Hurricanes Ike and Harvey that devastated the cities of Houston and Galveston; it seems messing with Texas is one of Mother Nature’s favorite pastimes. The extreme cold weather event of 2021 is no exception.
Texans like to boast of having their own electrical grid—using that as one of many arguments for secession. Texans also boast about the lack of regulation in the state. The same deregulation has led to several electrical grid failures. This latest supply failure pales in comparison only to that of Puerto Rico’s grid failure after Hurricane Maria. I use this comparison only because of some sharp criticisms lobbed at Puerto Rico by the same elected officials that failed Texas.
In fact, officials in Texas are now saying the state was “seconds and minutes” away from catastrophic months-long blackouts.
Texas’ power grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months, officials with the entity that operates the grid said Thursday. https://t.co/3Uk8YrTB89
— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) February 18, 2021
Like Puerto Rico, Texas’ problems are the result of neglect, corruption, and greed. Texas was warned years ago about the impending doom of continuing to ignore the growing needs of its infrastructure. However, conservative political leadership at the state and federal level dismissed those warnings. While Texas is not subject to federal regulation as long as the state’s electrical power remains independent of the national grid, Senators and Congresspeople are all influenced by the same in-state and out-of-state political dollars as state elected officials are.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) operates the state’s electrical grid—servicing about 90% of Texas households. ERCOT is a membership organization that is governed by a board of directors. One-third of ERCOT’s board does not reside in Texas, with one member residing in Canada. ERCOT’s current CEO and three of its current board members were on the board in 2011 when 3.2 million Texans lost power after a winter storm ripped across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. That event led to a federal inquiry on how ERCOT operates.
The inquiry by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) resulted in a 357-page report detailing nine separate findings that showed exactly what happened inside ERCOT’s power grid that left millions without power for so long. Much like what occurred this week, the report questioned decisions concerning the failure to activate energy reserves as the forecasts showed what was coming toward Texas. More on that in a minute.
Beginning around 2 a.m. Monday morning, we got a call from my sister informing us that her power went out. It was then that Texans began experiencing power outages as temperatures dropped to historic lows. ERCOT informed customers that the outages were part of rolling blackouts even as millions of Texans suffered without electricity for several days. With temperatures in the single digits, it was only a matter of time before we lost cell service and we began experiencing water outages as infrastructure began to fail across the state.
For many who maintained access to water, pipes both inside and outside of homes began to burst, flooding homes during freezing temperatures. Two of our neighbors had their homes flooded despite taking precautions to prevent pipes from freezing and another neighbor had the water main burst at the meter in front of his house. From that point on, we knew how bad things were about to get and it was time to level-up our survival game.
Shortly after, an elderly neighbor was taken to the hospital via ambulance for showing signs of hypothermia and another was transported minutes after the power came back on for unknown reasons. After nearly 50 hours without electricity in sub-freezing temperatures, it’s clear we are far from being out of the woods. Aside from nearly non-stop reports of extensive damage to people’s homes, repairing damages to the state’s infrastructure is likely worse than anyone has yet to imagine.
For the first time in 35+ yrs, our emergency shelter & transitional housing have been completely shut down due to burst pipes & power loss. If you are currently in a position to help, we ask that you make a donation; our needs are critical and immediate: https://t.co/ROAvzIsHBg pic.twitter.com/qXPdWsylyn
— GenesisWomensShelter (@GenesisShelter) February 18, 2021
From washed-out roads to flooding that may not be evident until Texas begins to thaw, we’re awaiting the worst. Temperatures in the Houston area remained at freezing or below on Friday morning, five days after Texas began losing electricity. The Houston Independent School District (HISD) reported flooding because of burst pipes in more than 65 of its facilities including several schools. Hospitals are struggling without access to clean water.
With a limited water supply, people are lining up at wells and open spigots to carry water in buckets and containers back to their homes. Water trucks are transporting water into various communities to help supply citizens with enough water to simply flush their toilets. If by some chance anyone does have access to water, a boil water notice has been implemented throughout the state as the safety of Texas’ water supply is undetermined on a near state-wide level.
Like many of our neighbors, we resorted to storing our perishable foods outdoors to prevent spoilage and we’re storing water in bathtubs to make sure we can flush our toilets. Yet, we’re the lucky ones. Despite not having electricity or cellular service for several days, we were able to cook on a gas stove and use our vehicles to warm up and charge our devices. Others had it much worse and we didn’t have to go far to find them. Too often, those who need help the most are right next door (as we learned upon realizing just how many of our neighbors are seniors).
VIDEO: Frozen wind turbines near Midland
With ice buildup on blades, many of the state’s turbines have been unable to produce energy. Texas leads the nation in wind power generation.
(video from local helicopter pilot J. Cattaneo)
— Brian New (@BrianNewCBS) February 16, 2021
As Texas Republicans point to frozen windmills for the power outage, out-of-state Republicans are trying to turn this into yet another culture war.
Ted Cruz should not have apologized.
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) February 19, 2021
Ted Cruz’s effort consisted of signing a letter with fellow Republicans asking Joe Biden for emergency funds. I guess he felt that was good enough and went to chill in Mexico until the crisis was over. Cruz is so out of touch about what’s happening that at one point he addressed the media saying something about getting the power back on after most of the state already had their electricity restored.
To be fair, he was in Mexico when it happened.
What Texans Know
As mentioned previously, Texans love to brag about having an independent grid. It fits right in with the concept of the “Republic of Texas” that everyone down here also brags about. It breathes independence when people say it too. It’s something to be proud of. And Texans are proud of it to a fault. Now they are paying for those choices.
Texas voted to deregulate the electricity market in 1999. The concept of deregulation at the time was marketed as fostering competition which would drive prices down for consumers. It was seen as an opportunity to demonopolize electricity providers by allowing companies to compete for customers. While deregulation forced companies who owned transmission lines to turn over maintenance of their power plants to third-parties, it created a market for electricity providers to wholesale electricity to third-party retailers creating an expansive web of nonsense.
For-profit, of course.
— Cathy Kyle (@cathknit) February 16, 2021
This exceedingly capitalist endeavor to deregulate Texas electricity served only to drive costs up as third-party industries popped up seemingly overnight in the state. The wholesale market did open the door for renewable energy such as wind and solar but the market is now oversaturated with vendors selling the exact same thing. Deregulation eliminated the prospects for consistent customer numbers and the state’s power plants operate on slim margins because of it.
All of this leads to a lack of investment dollars resulting in a grid that can’t keep up with Texas’ growth. That doesn’t mean Texas can’t manage a situation like this. In the summertime, power companies have no problem avoiding blackouts when the price of energy in Texas hits its peak because of people using air-conditioners. The problem is demand in the winter months is at its lowest. Since they’re not profitable, operators take plants offline for maintenance.
Again, this doesn’t mean Texas couldn’t handle the winter storm. Some of the other reasons that have been cited as problems are the lack of winterization of power plants which left many generators frozen and inoperable and the lack of preparedness by not bringing additional natural gas plants online in advance of the winter storm. Both of these show a lack of concern for residents based on a profit motive. Electricity providers are only willing to use the additional plants when demand and profits for natural gas are highest. State leaders blindly relied on them to pick up the slack and not surprisingly, they didn’t.
— Hakeem (@Hakeem_Ali_) February 18, 2021
University of Houston energy economist Ed Hirs tells Quartz, “There’s no compensation or incentive for generators to stay ready when they’re not needed. So there’s been a lack of reinvestment, a lack of maintenance, and this was exactly the outcome you would expect.” It’s not lost on any Texan that power plant operators refused to bring backup systems online that could have handled the load when prices are down. Every Texan sees it.
CEO of the Texas Tribune, Evan Smith, told Chris Hayes on MSNBC, “If we’re going to talk about what happened here, how we got here, the Texas moment for the again. I think it has basically three key features to it familiar to anybody who’s followed the politics of the state over the last couple decades. The first is a slavish devotion to markets. Right? Markets are the be-all and end-all. Markets fix everything. That’s the attitude about everything here in the state of Texas except when they don’t fix things. And in this case, markets did not fix things, did not anticipate the problem adequately, and have left us where we are.”
UDPATE: @ERCOT_ISO will now update energy prices to reflect the demand.
In emergency meeting, @PUCTX said “energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply, the market price for the energy needed to serve load being shed in the face of scarcity should also be at its highest" pic.twitter.com/Dphmkt2L1t
— Tori Larned (@ToriLarnedtv) February 16, 2021
It’s also not lost on any of us that electricity came on almost immediately for the entire state once the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) authorized ERCOT to raise prices to peak-level numbers. Within 24 hours of the announcement, the lights were coming on all over the state and Texans have taken took notice.
Profits were put over people, and millions of Texans are suffering as a result.
Arturo Domínguez is an anti-racist political nerd, journalist, and founder of The Antagonist Magazine. He is a top writer on racism on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. If you’d like to learn more about the issues covered here, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.