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Roots of the Texas Power Disaster

Millions of Texans without power, heat, and water last week led the national news for days. They became the face of a severe winter storm that hit much of the nation. This raises the question: Why Texas? Yes, that state faced severe cold, snow and ice, and a surge in power demand, but so did other states. Why was this particular state hammered so much harder?

If you got your news from conservative media sources like Fox News, you heard the Texas governor and some lawmakers blame frozen wind turbines. They were prompted and echoed by conservative media pundits who bemoaned the supposed horrors of clean energy. The reality is natural gas infrastructure was the culprit for much of the collapse in electric capacity.

Fortunately, the real story has quickly come out, detailing the deeper and broader causes of Texas’ 2021 power failure catastrophe. (Hint: It wasn’t the wind turbines’ fault.) Here are the facts:

Years ago, Texas state lawmakers chose to create a unique Texas-only power grid in order to avoid federal regulation. Texas is the only state which has its own, self-contained power distribution system, run by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT’s grid is privately run, largely unregulated, and cut off from the wider national grids. Unlike other states hard-hit by the storm, when power demand surged in Texas, they could not call on power from plants in other states to shore them up.

Not all of Texas is served by ERCOT, however, and the areas that weren’t fared much better in the storm. The lights stayed on in El Paso and parts of eastern Texas, for example.

Texas’ private power companies had chosen not to prepare their power generation systems to operate under these extreme cold-weather conditions, despite a winter storm that caused similar though less severe rolling blackouts just ten years ago, after which an audit suggested upgrades to weatherize the system for such disasters. All the state’s power generation sources (wind, natural gas, coal, and nuclear) were compromised as a result of this failure to adapt and heed this advice.

Wind energy was not the problem. Other states with wind turbines have de-icing systems built in, but not Texas. Wind was only the immediate political scapegoat that fossil fuel-funded conservative media had trained many listeners to be ready to blame.

Many public water supplies are temporarily unsafe to use without boiling, and some customers whose power has been restored now face huge costs from frozen pipes bursting and causing water damage, plus the high cost of repairing the pipes themselves. On top of that, Texas’ weakly regulated electric utilities are allowed to offer contracts charging variable rates based on power demand and scarcity. As a result, some small residential customers have seen their bills so far this month skyrocket to as much as $6,200 or even $16,700.

What happened in Texas clearly shows the catastrophic potential of the intersection of extreme deregulatory fervor and climate change. It’s a lesson that our nation should heed, and swiftly. The Biden-Harris Administration and congressional leaders are calling for national electric grid modernization, as well as greater investment in varied, resilient, and severe-weather-protected renewable energy infrastructure.

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