The following article was written by the Texas organization POWER, or Public Ownership of Water and Electric Resources. POWER began organizing after the 2021 winter storm in Texas where millions of Texans lost water and electricity and hundreds lost their lives. The organization “demands that water and electricity in Texas be brought under public control.” You can follow them online at https://www.wepowertx.com/.
A year ago, millions of Texans were left without power and water as a result of a catastrophic power grid collapse during a winter storm. Over 700 people died in the state, and the storm caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage across the country. Since then, Gov. Greg Abbott has declared that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid,” implying that the badly needed upgrades and restructuring of the grid are complete.
Has Texas really fixed the power grid? If not, how can the grid be ready for increasing climate change-driven catastrophes? Has there been any justice for the Texas residents who were price-gouged for energy or who died during the storm? We take a look at the situation one year later.
Legislators scramble to do nothing, declare mission accomplished
In the days immediately after the storm, every entity involved in Texas power pointed fingers at each other for the disaster. Meanwhile, poor and working-class Texans struggled with lack of utilities and gouged energy prices and began to come to the consensus that the entire system was broken.
After initially blaming green energy and being forced to retract that absurd claim, Abbott quickly identified one of the major culprits whose negligence led to the collapse: the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT is a private “non-profit” entity dominated by energy industry executives. While it serves a public function, its private status means it considers itself unaccountable to the public.
In May 2021, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 2, meant to reform ERCOT, which reduced the number of seats from 16 to 11. Eight of these seats would be appointed directly by a selection committee of three people, who are in turn handpicked by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House, with the help of an “outside consulting firm.”
Senate Bill 3, also passed in May, additionally beefed up the role of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, which coordinates other state energy regulators such as ERCOT. In practice, many of the new members of TERC were handpicked by the oil industry.
Immediately after the 2021 legislative session, Abbott received $4.6 million in contributions from the energy industry. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick received $1.3 million. $1 million in contributions alone came from Kelsey Warren, whose pipeline company Energy Transfer made $2.4 billion during the storm.
Besides collecting energy company donations and appointing handpicked energy industry representatives to regulate themselves, Abbott has played one other major role in Texas energy: courting bitcoin miners. As of last year, Bitcoin mining alone consumed about the same amount of electricity as the entire country of Finland. Abbott is so aggressively courting crypto-miners that by 2023, ERCOT may account for 20% of the global Bitcoin network. Abbott is using the backwards logic that Bitcoin miners will demand so much electricity that “someone” will come along to build more power plants, and that Bitcoin miners will then voluntarily shut off their mines during major storms.
What should Texans expect now?
Even if oil industry executives are handpicking the regulators of their own industry, is there at least new regulation in place? SB 3 requires upgrades for power generators and transmission lines to better withstand severe winter weather. But there are major loopholes that allow natural gas companies to opt out of weatherization requirements, as long as they do not voluntarily declare themselves “critical infrastructure” to the state of Texas. Legislators, for their part, are furious that natural gas companies are using the loophole that the legislators themselves wrote into the law.
By not declaring themselves “critical infrastructure,” natural gas companies risk having the power cut from their own facilities during another crisis. Since power plants use natural gas as fuel, cutting power to natural gas wells could lead to a feedback loop, causing severe resource and power shortages. This is the exact scenario that led to the collapse in 2021. A repeat of this scenario would be terrible for Texans, but great news for price gougers.
Texas politicians also promised relief to consumers whose bills skyrocketed due to gouged energy prices. A bill that would have provided relief to consumers immediately fell through. Instead, a portion of SB 3 allows for $6.5 billion in ratepayer-backed bonds for natural gas utilities and electric cooperatives. What this means is that Texas is promising $6.5 billion to utility companies and guaranteeing those funds by charging consumers more on future bills.
Cities like San Antonio have wasted no time in passing on the price-gouged costs of the 2021 storm to residents. The city initially tried to raise the price of energy 10 percent overnight, but after major public backlash, reduced this number to 3.4 percent. They are planning for two additional rate hikes of 5.5 percent each in 2025 and 2027.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear whether the grid is actually more stable or prepared for any weather, hot or cold. Heat waves in early summer 2021 severely strained the grid, while a mild winter storm in early February knocked out power for 70,000 people. Experts have been warning that Texas hasn’t done enough to winterize plants, some of which aren’t even expected to make changes until early 2023, according to the Texas Railroad Commission’s proposed timeline.
Different links in the energy chain are winterizing at different speeds and to different degrees, but any break in the chain could lead to catastrophe. As Texas state Senator Robert Nichols asked an energy industry executive, livid at the loopholes in the legislation that he voted for, “So you’re weatherizing your plants, but your fuel supply is not?”
Only a mass movement can avert another catastrophe
It would not take that much in terms of resources to fix the Texas power grid. ERCOT is claiming that they are too short-staffed to meet the reliability deadlines set out by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas. As of that statement, there were just 65 job openings on ERCOT’s job board. Like other U.S. entities, ERCOT would rather claim a “labor shortage” than put proper resources toward hiring qualified workers.
The actual cost to winterize all natural gas facilities in Texas would be between $85 million and $200 million annually, the equivalent of one or two days of revenue from the Texas gas industry. Given that natural gas was a major cause of last year’s failures, we should also be looking to increase green energy such as wind turbines, which proved much more reliable during the storm. Right now, Exxon Mobil — which receives almost $5 billion in public funding — is planning a $100 billion carbon capture “innovation zone” in Houston. That funding and those resources could be better spent building actual green energy across the state, which would also protect energy workers’ high-paying union jobs for years to come.
The problem is not the lack of resources — it’s the lack of willpower by billionaires who profit richly from climate destruction and destitution. An energy company executive described the deadly 2021 winter storm as “hitting the jackpot,” while a wind turbine company lost 18 percent of its share value that same year, warning that wind turbines were too cheap to turn a profit! The for-profit system of corporate greed that we live under is profoundly irrational and needs to be ended. Above all, energy, water, and other utilities necessary for human survival need to be put under public control for the public good. The only way to make that happen — to avert climate catastrophe and save consumers all across the state from financial and personal ruin — is with a people’s movement willing to fight for it.
Photo credit: POWER. Used with permission.