Updated: Feb 20, 2021
The devastation that is unfolding in Texas is heartbreaking to watch and infuriating to know that it could have been avoided. This post is not bashing the state of Texas. I have many friends and family who live there and hope that everyone is safe and well there and that it warms up to more seasonal temperatures soon. This post will however highlight how the powers that be in Texas have cut corners and skirted regulations for years in exchange for short-term profit gain at the expense of millions of suffering Texans. The maddening part is we've been here before, and will likely repeat this again as the climate changes, causing more intense weather events and temperature extremes and we all need to heed the warning now coming from the Lone State State.
Past is prologue. A Federal Energy Regulation Commission report studying a February 2011 cold weather event in Texas and the southwest reported that the event was unusual but not unprecedented. "This cold weather event was thus unusual in terms of temperature, wind, and duration. It was not, however, entirely without precedent. The Southwest experienced other cold weather events in 1983, 1989, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2010. In fact, two of those years, 1983 and 1989, had lower temperatures than 2011. But only in l989 were the severity, geographical expanse, and duration of cold temperatures and high winds comparable to the February 2011 event." (Page 169). If you're reading this as I am, then you can see the frequency with which cold snaps like this can happen in the South and would expect the utilities to be better prepared. And with extreme weather events like this happening more often, our energy grids need to invest in resiliency going forward. Texas' power infrastructure isn't winterized like their counterparts in other parts of the country are, and this was a conscience decision made in order to save money. In fact, the 2011 report came up with a list of voluntary suggestions that Texas utilities could have followed, but didn't. They were voluntary because Texas power utilities don't have to follow Federal energy regulations (more on that below). And as much as their governor is blaming the problem on frozen wind turbines, most of the supply problems have been caused by natural gas plants that weren't prepped for cold weather. Wind turbines in colder climates are often treated with carbon to help prevent ice build-up and sometimes even sport heated blades. But natural gas and other fossil fuel plants (which make up the vast majority of Texas' energy supply also need to be outfitted with special equipment for the winter. The upsetting and now tragic thing is Texas didn't do this, because they weren't required to, in order to keep electricity cheap. We are now witnessing the results of this.
One of the other major reasons for the lack of preparedness now being circulated is that Texas avoided Federal energy regulations for years because it has an independent energy grid and thus doesn't trade energy with other states. All the other lower 48 states have the benefit of being a part of two large interconnected grids that can share energy and smooth out each other's demand/supply. Texas chose decades ago to have its own grid independent of the two others that make up the rest of the contiguous US and most of Canada, the Eastern and the Western Interconnections, with very few connections to the Texas grid. Being separate and thus not trading energy with other states allows Texas to skirt many Federal energy regulations. The goal of this was to cut red-tape and lower prices for consumers. You've heard this before, haven't you?
For all the talk about lack of regulation and less cost, Texans don't even pay the lowest rates for their energy, there are 7 states that pay less. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA) Texans paid on average 8.48 cents per kWh in 2018, comparable to Kentucky (8.52 cents) and Nevada (8.67 cents). Louisiana paid the least at 7.71 cents and Hawaii the most at 29.18 cents per kWh. Connecticut paid the most in the lower 48, 18.41 cents). But like I stated, these other states (with the exception of Hawaii) can trade energy with each other in order to smooth out regional imbalances and swings. And speaking of energy cost, because the Texas energy market is a free-for-all bonanza, consumers have been receiving their bills for the most recent period some of them are opening bills for upwards of $8,000 for just days of use, even while some haven't even had electricity!
It truly is sad to see millions of people struggling to keep warm in the supposed wealthiest nation on Earth. I wish my friends and family in Texas the best and hope that the message to come out of it is to invest in our infrastructure everywhere in order to prevent this from ever happening again. I should also remind those of us in the North that just because you're sitting toasty warm in your homes now, don't forget that this can easily happen to us in the future, and probably will.
A woman walks past the front desk at a Gallery Furniture store which opened as a shelter for those in need of food, water and heat Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. Associated Press.