Reflections of When Texas Froze Over – Part 2
(If you have not read Part 1 of my reporting, I invite you to read that to fully understand everything in this article)
In the midst of a winter storm, Texas’ electrical grid broke down, leaving millions in the dark and the cold. I venture to explain why.
The anger had been mounting for a while. People from across the state of Texas were taking to social media to share their stories of being blacked out, of freezing in their own homes, of pipes bursting and their places of residence being flooded. When a natural disaster occurs in a place, it is often the case that blame is laid upon the feet of different people or agencies (take the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for example: some blamed the local government of Louisiana, some the response of President Bush and some the mayor of New Orleans), but for the snowstorm which hit Texas it seemed that everyone pointed the blame specifically at the state government of Texas and its gross mismanagement of the state’s power supply. In order to fully grasp the situation of Texas’ power supply, it is important to note that Texas operates its own power grid. This situation is unique within the United States, since every other state in the country runs on a national power grid (two national power grids exist outside of Texas, one for Eastern states and one for Western states). But Texas, despite not being the largest state by area or population, operates its own power grid. The reason for Texas’ forced isolation from the national power grid is purely voluntary and is another part of Texas’ “independent spirit”. Texas has long been prideful of its independent spirit, rejecting big government and the ideals of “liberalism”, whether in the classical or modern sense. This spirit reflects itself in many policies of the state, but most importantly for this article, in the state government’s renunciation of regulations, instead following the idea that fewer regulations will lead to better business. Although government regulations can indeed prove to be an obstacle for business, in some things, like public utilities, government regulations are essential. These regulations are usually put in place to enforce environmental or public health standards, but also to enforce proper weatherizing, or making sure that public utilities will not stop working in extreme weather conditions, like flooding, extreme heat, or, in this case, snow. The two national power grids in the country are, due to federal regulations, properly weatherized to help power the electrical grid through extreme weather events (even if this weatherization does not protect the national power grid from all weather events, it surely would have helped preserve Texas’ grid in the case of this snowstorm). In the state of Texas, the power grid is operated by ERCOT, an officially non-profit organization which has been tasked to provide the state with power. ERCOT, not being forced to adhere to federal regulations for power and energy, failed to properly weatherize the Texas grid to protect against extreme cold. When the snowstorm spread throughout Texas, the major cities of the state, all with well-over one million people living in them, began to lose power as the electricity grid across the state slowly froze over. With generators not being built to withstand cold temperatures, their components froze and made delivering electricity nearly impossible. Slowly, towns and cities across the state lost power, with some people in the city of Dallas losing power for nearly a week. According to ERCOT, they were forced to carry out “rolling blackouts”, meant to last for only 10-50 minutes, in order to preserve the electrical grid, but as more generators and power stations froze, the rolling blackouts became day-long blackouts. Heat stopped working in people’s homes and with no other means to warm themselves, some Texans were treated for hypothermia, and some even froze to death. As the anger towards ERCOT mounted, the organization as well as the government of the state of Texas were quick to deflect blame. ERCOT made public statements commending their work and said that through their emergency processes, a state-wide blackout lasting “weeks or months” was averted; perhaps the only silver lining to come from this storm (this report was first reported in the Texas Tribune). Meanwhile the Republican Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, went on TV during the blackouts and blamed the blackouts on wind power, frozen wind turbines and the Green New Deal. These three rationales can be quickly labeled as false: In the state of Texas, wind power only contributes to about 20% of the total power in the state, wind turbines are perfectly able to operate in cold and snow, as can be seen by their winter-time operations in countries such as Sweden and Norway, and the Green New Deal has not been passed as legislation by the United States Congress. Facing mounting pressure from the residents of Texas affected by the blackouts (most of whom live in urban, Democratic-held areas), Governor Abbott has promised to make the revitalization and improvement of the Texas energy grid “a priority” of his term, although it remains to be seen what this means exactly. (It is also worth noting that some areas of Texas, such as the far-western city of El Paso operates on the national electrical grid and not that of Texas due to its isolation and far distance from other parts of Texas, and El Paso did not lose power during the winter storm). Although the open competition present on the Texas electrical market, where customers may choose from a variety of electricity providers instead of being forced to use one company only, may be good for the consumer, it is clear the ERCOT and the independent nature of the Texas electrical grid is completely overwhelmed in an extreme weather scenario. Perhaps instead of Governor Abbott lambasting “green politics” and environmental regulations, the state of Texas should spend more time ensuring its citizens have access to water and electricity, even during rare and extreme weather events. The myth of “intrusive big government” has long plagued Texas and hurt its citizens. Perhaps this event will finally force the state government to reflect on how to properly serve the citizens it has been elected to represent.