By Stephanie Thomas
During February’s brutal deep freeze, Texas was as cold as hell with the furnace out.
As temperatures plummeted, snow fell and ice gripped the state, the furnace went out for millions of us Texans because of a massive electric grid failure. And when the power failed, so did the pumps at water stations, reducing water pressures. Boil water notices were issued leaving some folks to wonder – how the heck do you boil water without power?!?
Recently, the Healthy Port Communities Coalition in Houston held a town hall to discuss the Winter Freeze. Catch the replay here and check out our Resource Guide for Harris County residents here.
In the section below, we address some questions from the town hall. We encourage you to call your legislators and/or talk to their staff about the storm’s impact on you. You can also send them your story in writing here.
Q: Has any legislation been introduced to fix what happened?
A: Texas lawmakers have filed several bills trying to address the blackouts because Texans are outraged and want to make sure this never happens again.
The bills that have been filed focus on things like regulating/eliminating of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) which manages Texas’s independent grid, ensuring power reserves, managing blackouts, and weatherizing the grid.
You may be aware that this isn’t the first time that the Texas grid has been flaky during cold weather. During a freeze in 2011, Texas’s grid faced similar challenges although then, Texans who lost power lost it, at most, for 8 hours. At the time, people were outraged yet after the news cycle moved on to other issues, so did our state’s leaders, and the recommendations made by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission went unheeded.
Looking back through Public Citizen’s archives, this is a familiar pattern. In 2011, we reported that recommendations made by the Public Utility Commission in 1990 were largely ignored, as well. Will the enormity of these power outages be enough for our state’s elected officials to finally take serious action? We sure hope so, and we’re aggressively working this year’s Texas Legislatyure to make sure of it.
Q: Who is to blame?
A: There is plenty of blame to go around. Let’s start with a different question. Who, or in this case, what is not to blame?
Shortly after the blackouts began, Texas conservatives, including Gov. Greg Abbott, began spinning a story that clean, renewable energy was, in essence, the spawn of Satan, responsible for the power failure harming millions of Texans. Conservatives blamed the Green New Deal for blackouts, even though the Green New Deal hasn’t been passed into federal law. The idea of frozen wind turbines captured the attention of Americans across the country as pundits repeated this bold-faced lie across national media outlets.
If you know you know, but if you don’t, then get this: wind turbines operate in a wide variety of climates across the world. Canada and Antarctica, two frigid places, are powered in part by wind energy.
When we look at the massive failure that happened in Texas, energy sources across the board were affected by the freezing temperatures. But guess which energy source failure?
If the state had required that the energy industry weatherize energy sources across the board, then Texans could have rested a lot easier through the storm, instead of shivering and shaking from the unbearably cold temperatures.
Now to the question: who is to blame?
The massive grid failure that occurred last month’s winter storm was a failure of epic proportions: 4.5 million customers without power, burst pipes in homes across the state, and more than 40 people in the Houston area alone dead from the freezing temperatures and power outages.
Where does the buck stop? With Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott appoints the three-member Public Utilities Commission, which serves to regulate the ERCOT, a 501(c)4 organization that was formed in 1970 to manage the independent Texas grid.
Abbott and many other elected officials across the state knew about the vulnerability of the Texas electrical grid to extreme weather yet did not require electricity generators to make the changes necessary to prevent power failures during future freezes. Electricity generators failed to make the changes necessary to prevent these failures. This failure to adequately prepare is too often a failure of a system that relies too heavily on the market to work out its own troubles.
Rick Perry, who was governor when the 2011 winter storm blackouts happened, had this to say about the recent disaster: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.”
Even if said rhetorically, Perry’s comments left me feeling extra frostbitten after I spent three days shivering in the cold of my Houston apartment. Dozens of my fellow Houstonians died and some of these deaths could have been prevented through better communication with the public and a better managed grid. No, Texans are not expendable. And no, Rick Perry, do not consent to putting our lives on the lines so that our electric grid can fly under the radar of federal oversight.
Time and time again the state of Texas puts the interests of corporations over the interests of its people.
After the storm Gov. Abbott stated, “This is no longer going to be a suggestion. This is going to be a mandate. This legislative session is not going to end until we both mandate and fully fund the winterization and I’ll add the summerization of our grid.”
For years, our leaders have dropped the ball and allowed corporations to mind themselves, even as extreme weather is becoming much more common. This year’s ongoing legislative session will be a test to see how our lawmakers and governor move this mandate forward.
Q: How can we get Texas state government to objectively determine the causes of the power failures and take real corrective action?
A: Call and write your legislators. If you need to know who represents you at the state legislature, use this guide. Tell them how this disaster impacted you. Keep the pressure on your legislators to act.
Q: How long will we be without water?
A: At the height of the storm, 17 million Texans were under boil water advisories to prevent illness from consuming the water. Many Texans were completely without water due to pressure drops and broken pipes. As of this writing, about 8,000 Texans are still on boil water notices.
If you are without water at this point, it is likely due to broken pipes. If you own your own home, you may be aware that plumbers are in high demand, making it challenging for people to get the repairs that they need to fully restore water in their homes. The costs of repairing pipes may also be prohibitive for some people. People who are renting may also be without water due to broken pipes. If that is your situation, check out Lonestar Legal Aid’s guide to requesting repairs.
Q: Why would officials expect citizens to turn down the thermostats when outside temperatures were 9 – 28 degrees?
A: As the winter storm hit Texas, power plants went offline. Power generated through natural gas, coal, nuclear, and even some wind turbines stopped functioning as normal due to the cold and ice. And as temperatures dropped, Texans turned to electricity to keep themselves warm, meaning that demand was high.
Officials asked people with power to turn down their thermostats, conserve power, and reduce demand.
Having lived in an old and poorly insulated home in the past, I know that it can be challenging to keep homes like that at a reasonable temperature during cold snaps. While weatherization of power plants could have helped keep them running during the cold snap, home weatherization can make people’s houses more energy efficient and reduce demand, too. Home weatherization could also have helped keep homes warmer for longer after the power went out, possibly saving lives. Home weatherization also helps people save money on their electricity bills. You can learn more about Texas’s home weatherization assistance program here. Tell your legislators that you want the state of Texas to do more to help vulnerable Texans weatherize their homes.
Q: How should our elected officials educate the public on the ABCs of dealing with the weather? It’s not just the cold, the heat is going to be worse, too.
A: This question is on point because while the Texas grid has faced challenges due to cold weather in the past, like in 2011, it often faces high demand and the possibility for brownouts or blackouts during the summertime when searing heat bears down on the entire state.
Some legislators are filing bills to develop a statewide emergency communication system to better inform Texans of hazards like February’s grid failure and blackouts. Using an Amber Alert type system, as well as TxDOT road signs, news media, and social media can help spread the word when Texans are in imminent danger from natural and manmade disasters.
For those of us Texans along the coast, living with the threat of hurricanes is a way of life. Developing emergency kits for a range of disasters, including winter storms, can be a way that Texans can help protect themselves. Our state and local governments can help spread the word on how to prepare for the next big one – whether it’s an ice storm, a hurricane, or a chemical explosion or some other calamity.