When I moved to Texas, I thought I was done with the harsh winters I had endured in New York. I had expected cold rainy weather and a couple of chilly days, but nothing to the magnitude of what was to come during winter storm Uri. Many have argued that the severe condition millions of people found themselves in was an anomaly. The National Weather Service categorized the extreme weather as “unprecedented and expansive”. Although the effects were comprehensive, in terms of just how many and how severely people suffered, the crisis was not completely unforeseen. A saga of deregulation, profit optimization, and negligence created the right conditions to nearly bring the entirety of Texas’ grid to collapse during one of the worst extreme cold weather crises the state has ever experienced.
Here’s what the situation looked like during the beginning of the storm. Almost 3 million households lost access to heat and electricity. Nearly 12 million Texans were affected by issues of water quality and shortages. The Texas grid was “seconds and minutes” away from a complete and total collapse (one that would have actually taken months to recover from), said Bill Magness, the President, and Chief Executive of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). The council was formed to manage the wholesale market and is supervised by the Public Utility Commission of Texas. It’s important to note that Texas is the only state that operates its own grid, independent from the rest of the continental United States. Its prices and procedures are set by an array of energy companies that are in competition with one another.
Texas’ independence is a source of pride within the state, with numerous high-profile politicians touting the move to a free market as a means to provide people with cheap power throughout the state. George W. Bush (former Texas governor) argued that the competition would reduce cost and broaden the market, giving customers more choice. According to the Texas Tribune, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was reported to have said that the “current disaster was worth it if it keeps rates low and federal regulators from requiring changes to the system.” It should be alarming for us to hear this from a former governor. But this further illuminates how profit margins and limiting governmental reach comes before the livelihoods and safety of residents.
Compared to other regions that have stronger customer protections and have annual planning reports to show that they are adequately prepared for demand, Texas’ regulations do not mandate such protections or transparency. Instead, utility companies and energy providers are given more leniency within Texas and hold greater influence in terms of legislation and policy. Energy companies are not required to provide power during times of emergency, which creates no incentive and is compounded by the lack of real repercussions. This lack of preparation applies both to extreme cold weather and heatwaves, the latter of which is not rare in Texas. Further, instances of pushback from the largest energy providers have reportedly also obstructed several pieces of legislation from passing. The level of unpreparedness and general negligence highlights the inherent problem with a free market. Yes, this process has provided cheap electricity and power for the people of Texas, but has the cost been worth it?
Warning Bells for Climate Change
Typically, freezing air from the Arctic swirls over the North Pole a couple of miles above the Earth’s surface. Due to the steady rise of global temperatures and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, we’re seeing more of this cold arctic air creating unpredictable weather Southbound. What this means is that what happened in Texas is no longer an irregularity. This will only keep happening in Texas and in other parts of the world that might not be ready for such extreme weather.
Several winter storms have rocked Texas in the past 20 years; each time, the severity and the outcomes become more dire, but we see even less action from politicians and energy utility companies. In 2014, another winter storm caused a major push for integrating cold weather preparedness into energy infrastructure. Although there was a call for action, no official policy was ever instated. Those empty promises are even more apparent now.
Communities Most Impacted
People of color and low-income communities are already disproportionately affected by climate change. These marginalized communities are more likely to experience higher pollution rates and are afforded fewer resources and protections when extreme weather events occur. What happened in Texas last month showcases the need for stricter regulation as the effects of the storm were felt unevenly. Due to the lack of adequate funding of infrastructure within minority communities, the storm’s effects left many in these areas without power and water for longer amounts of time. Without proper assistance, many lacked the financial resources and opportunities to seek refuge elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Ted Cruz).
The Need For Stronger Protections
The case of Texas should sound the alarm. As weather and climate become more turbulent, we must address changing weather patterns and mediate their effects. Texas also demonstrates how deregulation and inadequate preparation for cold temperatures made the outcomes of the storm that much worse, especially within marginalized communities. The need for Texas to update its power regulations is apparent. Energy is an integral part of public health and safety, as well as the environment. Future energy policy must reflect the community’s needs while still being flexible enough to adapt to the increasingly unpredictable climate ahead.
Notably, we must advocate for Texas to rejoin the national grid. It will ensure that access to power during times of emergency is possible and ensure that people’s safety is a higher priority in Texas energy policy. Additionally, climate disasters will only worsen all over the United States, and Texas will be a key player in protecting the future of the U.S. through cooperation and solidarity. Lastly, we must focus on the people we elect into office. The 2022 midterm elections are already coming up. The election will be an opportunity for individuals and communities to push for candidates that will ensure environmental protection. The winter storm highlighted how unaccountable many of our elected officials are. From Gov. Abbott blaming renewable energy for the blackouts to Ted Cruz going on a trip to Mexico, it’s apparent that not all our politicians have the best interest of Texans at heart.
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