This week Texas temperatures plunged to record-breaking single digits not seen here since 1949. In many homes the power inexplicably cut off starting around 1:30am Monday, Feb. 15. If there’s one thing Texans take for granted, it’s having plenty of heat. As temperatures inside grew chillier by the minute in the dark, we looked to Governor Greg Abbott and his own appointed energy commission – the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – for answers.
Abbott responded laconically 15 hours later on his official Twitter feed by simply posting ERCOT’s notice about the need to shift power around Texas neighborhoods using “controlled” rolling power outages lasting 15 to 45 minutes. A swift flood of responses to his post included videos reporting “snownadoes,” photos showing 40-degree interior temperatures, sharp rebuttals that the heat was shut off but not rotating, many expletives and someone comparing this to being like a steer on an oil slick.
By Tuesday, Feb. 16, more than 3 million Texas homes had lost electricity. I was among the 1 in 20 northcentral Texans without power for 4 days. As the power grids continued to weaken and lose stability in subfreezing polar vortex conditions, water treatment plants also began losing power and 13 million Texas are now warned to boil their tap water. That is, if they have any water and if they have electricity. Grocery stores have sold out of bottled water and gas stations have run out of fuel as people bought up supplies for emergency home generators. Many fuel trucks are off the road in the icy conditions.
When Abbott finally appeared for a short press conference Tuesday, he looked tense in a casual navy windbreaker – as if he was ready to climb a utility pole himself. Responding to questions about ERCOT’s failure to prepare the energy grid for this cold spell or even adequately warn the public, he waved his arms tersely and said he told ERCOT to “move faster.” Abbott is up for reelection next year, and rumors abound he may enter the Republican Presidential primaries in 2024. Abbott was interviewed later Tuesday by Sean Hannity and he called the Green New Deal a “deadly deal,” speciously blaming frozen wind turbines and solar power outages for the power grid failure. Abbott also criticized ERCOT and called for the upcoming Texas legislative session to take up an emergency item to investigate it. However ERCOT CEO Bill Magness haughtily refuted Abbott’s claim saying 61 percent of the 46,000 megawatts forced offline was from fossil fuel and nuclear sources while only 18,000 megawatts were from wind and solar sources. U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett also rebutted Abbott’s words saying, “Renewable energy did not cause this crisis; fossilized thinking did.”
The real reasons for the Texas power grid collapse are complex. ERCOT did not adequately winterize the power grid in preparation for this predicted storm. But much of the grid is cobbled together with antiquated natural gas pipelines forced offline this week with frozen well heads and generators. Texas has deregulated the energy market and the state maintains its own separate power grid. Also not enough natural gas was available to surge to this emergency as much natural gas is being sold out of state. System neglect, cronyism and opportunities to price-gouge, cut corners and reap massive profits fuel power system corruption.
Speaking of being out of Texas, while thousands of air flights were canceled in the polar vortex’s icy blast, Senator Ted Cruz and his family made a fast exit from Texas on Wednesday to vacation in Cancun; his wife’s text messages to friends show the trip was prompted by their home’s freezing temperature. They planned to return Sunday, but apparently the uproar over his disappearance during this statewide catastrophe prompted him to hastily return. So far 32 deaths statewide and 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning hospitalized in Harris County alone are attributed to cold as desperate families try to keep warm by dangerous means such as gas generators, barbeque grills and cars idling in garages. The effects of this power grid failure will last for months with frozen pipes bursting to flood thousands of homes as well as businesses, hospitals, churches and museums. President Biden has already declared Texas a federal emergency and FEMA is sending emergency power generators, water, blankets and food.
Severe Texas weather in 2011 with rolling blackouts and power generators going offline prompted the state to enact a law requiring the “best practices” of tracking and reporting the status of the electric grid for weather emergencies. But in reality, the power industry has been left to regulate itself. Years of neglect from Republican leaders, lack of transparency about decisions and the power of oil money has led to very little oversight over ERCOT. Only El Paso has winterized and upgraded its system by extricating itself from the Texas power grid and joining a power grid with Western states.
Remember the running joke about the former Trump administration’s recurring infrastructure week that never was? Power grids all over the country are in urgent need of major upgrades. When President Biden and the Democrats sponsor bills to improve the country’s power grid infrastructure, the Republicans will certainly oppose these bills because they do not want Biden’s agenda to succeed. When these bills are enacted by Democratic Congressional majorities, the projects will undoubtedly require state matching funds. In states such as Texas with inhumane Republican-dominated legislatures and cold-hearted governors we must apply pressure to get the necessary state matching funds. During this human catastrophe, Texans are proving themselves to be resilient and big-hearted. Texas volunteers even had the fortitude to wade out in the cold waves of South Padre Island to rescue thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles off South Padre Island. We will support the Green New Deal. We must turn our hearts and minds to rebuild the power grids across the country for the safety and welfare of all.