Wow. Am I happy that I don’t live in Texas right now. Not that we haven’t experienced our fair share of winter weather and power outages in Virginia, but my state seems far better prepared for weather extremes, thankfully.
By now, we’ve all seen the viral pictures of the disaster in Texas. Water gushing out of homes from burst pipes. Icicles dangling from ceiling fans. Exhausted pizza makers at Domino’s, which was one of the few places open to buy food. Lines of cars waiting for bottled water. Empty shelves in grocery stores. Bathtubs full of snow, waiting to melt so residents can actually flush their toilets. Definitely not a situation we would expect in the US. I can’t even imagine the desperation of these circumstances.
We’ve got two different issues going on here. One is climate change, the other is a catastrophic failure in government regulation, as the state of Texas chose long ago not to participate in the national grid. There are exceptions on the fringes of the state, but for the most part, 90% of the state’s electricity is privatized.
Let’s address climate change first. I know, I know… it’s been cold in Texas. Not just cold, but frigid. This seems counterintuitive to what we have heard about the dangers of climate change, which is typically all about global warming. And, yes, we have the heat to blame for dry conditions, brutal summers, severe fires, and intense and more frequent hurricanes. But bitterly cold temperatures and winter storms? So, what’s the deal? I asked myself the same question.
Apparently, as the poles of the earth warm, arctic air becomes energized, causing significant fluctuations in the jet stream. The jet stream is the major current which propels weather systems in a generally west to east pattern, and it’s typically very powerful. So powerful, in fact, that flights to the west coast are slower than the trip back east.
But with a weakened jet stream, the polar vortex has an opening to drift south, wreaking havoc on our typical weather patterns. This is how we ended up with a major winter storm in Texas, of all places. This happened in 2011 as well, with dire results. That should have been a wake-up call to utilities management, but recommendations to winterize the Texas grid were voluntary and expensive. So in great capitalist fashion, profitability won over consumer safety.
But, wait, isn’t our government supposed to provide structure and regulate our power utilities so that major outages due to safety issues don’t happen? Well, yes. And if you live anywhere else in the US, that is the case, as the rest of the grid falls under federal legislation. However, our infrastructure as a whole is in need of a major overhaul. I mean, what does it say about our grids when in the year 2021, the only way we can avoid total failure when demand for energy is at all time highs, such as a severe heat wave, are rolling blackouts? And, thinking more locally, how many of you live in communities where newer neighborhoods with underground power lines never lose electricity, while older neighborhoods with above ground lines are significantly more vulnerable to power outages?
Getting back to the situation in Texas, the failures there have nothing to do with limitations in renewable energy, as some have claimed. It has to do with frozen natural gas pipelines and a grid that is not built to withstand freezing temperatures. On top of that, rolling blackouts intended to avoid overwhelming the system are ongoing, too.
Texas decided to stay off the national grid way back in 1935 to avoid federal regulation. As previously stated, 90% of the state utilizes this grid, while some counties on the fringes of the state do not. The current company managing the grid, ERCOT, formed in 1970, continuing the tradition of avoiding federal regulation, opening the door for safety issues in the name of increasing profits. In fact, it’s so profitable right now due to jacking up natural gas prices from high demand, that the major stockholder in the game is reveling in his “jackpot” moment. Is it really all about money? What about the 47 people in the state who have died so far in this crisis? What happened to taking care of your customers and helping those in need? Sigh.
This is clearly a case of where small government does not work. When we let capitalism run amok, this is what we get. Greed, ignoring the safety of citizens, and catastrophe. It’s the same story in Flint, Michigan. These are preventable crises.
We now have a crisis on top of the crisis of the pandemic. How is anyone managing to stay sane when they have to struggle to merely survive? There’s only so long one can exist in a fight or flight state.
Are basic human needs a right, including access to affordable power? Or are these to remain luxuries for the rich? I mean, who can afford a power bill of several thousand dollars? It seems the owners of the grid are laughing all the way to the bank. President Biden has declared a state of emergency for Texas, ordering federal assistance for recovery, and multiple lawmakers from other states have led the charge for raising funds and organizing distribution of goods to the citizens of Texas.
Of all the things we need to worry about to maintain our wellness, at least in the US, we shouldn’t have to be concerned about the stability of our utilities, especially in the midst of evolving climate change. Yes, this time, the utility crisis was in Texas, but it could happen anywhere. Although it seems we are powerless to prevent these issues, it’s important to let your voice be heard. Contact your local, state, and federal legislators and let them know that you want to ensure the safety of our utilities infrastructure. These are things that we take for granted until they don’t work. If you are in Texas and are affected by this crisis, I’m sending you love and light. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.