More than 4 million customers faced power outages in Texas during the week of February 15th, 2021. This constitutes the worst power crisis in the state in a decade.
Nearly 12 million Texans have also seen major water disruptions, including frozen water supplies, bursting pipes, and unsafe drinking conditions as a result of low water levels.
WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
Deregulation, Underinvestment & Neglect
The widespread grid failures in Texas are linked to the state’s deregulated power system, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT is the only deregulated energy market in the US that is NOT overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The ERCOT grid operates separately from larger grids, and doesn’t provide power generators with the returns needed to invest in maintaining and improving power plants; therefore, it suffered from underinvestment and neglect until it finally, and predictably, broke.
What happened in Texas? A perfect storm of deregulation, climate crisis, and corporate greed, where the lack of forward-procured capacity destroyed the state’s grid stability. This is because the ERCOT market, in contrast to a market like the Pennsylvania-Jersey-Maryland (PJM) Interconnection, aims to keep costs low by avoiding what they see as an unnecessary surplus of capacity.
The Climate Crisis is Now
The winter storm that caused the power outages was a direct result of man-made climate change. While usually a strong jet stream confines Arctic air to the north, stabilized by a big difference in temperature between low and high latitudes, the poles are heating faster than the rest of the planet, diminishing the temperature difference and weakening the jet stream. The smaller the difference in temperature, the more the wind belts meander, hitting more areas of the country. This also means that these types of weather patterns – periods of intense rain or drought – are locked in for longer periods of time.
WHO WAS AFFECTED?
The Working Class
Water pipes are bursting across Texas, causing infrastructural damage and creating a financial burden on the working class. And not only that: the blackouts in Texas were not homogeneous. Economically vulnerable communities were affected most extensively. Severe power disruptions have also initiated downstream effects on semiconductor supply, affecting an already-struggling auto industry.
Warming shelters are scarce and losing power intermittently throughout the state, leaving many unhoused people stranded in below freezing temps. More than 20 Texans have died of carbon monoxide poisoning and other accidents related to attempts at staying warm. Hospitals are losing heat and water, forcing them to transfer their patients. Prison conditions have also deteriorated rapidly, with some experiencing blackouts earlier than most of the rest of the state.
COVID-19 Vaccination Process
Thousands of vaccines are at risk of spoiling – especially if the entire electrical grid gives out, which ERCOT officials have confirmed is a possibility. Also, over 700,000 doses of vaccines were delayed in their delivery due to the winter storm.
Escalating Climate & Public Health Crises
When gas can’t reach power plants, it blasts into the air. A whopping 131 tons of methane, 100 pounds of Benzene (a carcinogen), 4.4 tons of natural gas, and over 600 pounds of hydrogen sulfide were released this week due to weather conditions causing pressure on the natural gas system to increase. Reports surfacing in days to come are liable to follow this dangerous trend.
Disaster Capitalists & ERCOT Perpetrators
Texans seeking refuge from the cold are running up against disaster capitalists in local hotels and motels, who are price gouging their rooms, in some cases raising fees to over $1,000 per night.
Equally as egregious: the current retail energy market allows ERCOT to drastically raise Texas energy prices, passing the bulk of the cost of their failure down to consumers with an unmanageable 10,000% spike in energy prices (from just around $50 to over $9,000 per megawatt).
This is unacceptable, especially because ERCOT was warned in February 2011 about the dangers of not weatherizing properly for winter storms and failed to effectively take action. The 2011 report called out many of the deficiencies that directly caused the current crisis in Texas:
- Failed or inadequate heat traces
- Missing or inadequate wind breaks
- Inadequate insulation and lagging (metal covering for insulation)
- Failure to have or to maintain heating elements and heat lamps in instrument cabinets
- Failure to train operators and maintenance personnel on winter preparations
- Lack of fuel switching training and drills
- Failure to ensure adequate fuel
Even worse: ERCOT is the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity.
Conservatives in the Pockets of Oil & Gas
Conservatives are falsely naming renewables like wind turbines as responsible for this crisis. They’re also taking this opportunity to invalidate the push for a Green New Deal. The truth is the opposite: over 76% of the offline gigawatts in ERCOT’s grid were attributed to “thermal” sources, meaning the true problem areas were gas and coal.
Additionally, there is no Green New Deal in Texas – but polluters, and the politicians nestled in their pockets, are eager to argue that non-fossil fuel energy sources are vulnerable to disruption. Texas Republicans alone have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from oil & gas corporations.
And besides: issues with frozen wind turbines could easily be solved with investment in winterizing equipment such as water resistant coating on blades, more deicing drones, or upgrades in heating packages. Wind turbines can even work in the Arctic if they have the right upgrades.
The situation is simple:
Texans deserve an end to environmental racism and classism, an end to power cutoffs designed to preserve power in wealthier, whiter areas, and a new beginning with public utilities that are reliable for everyone.