Opinion

Lessons from the Texas Energy Disaster

By March 3, 2021 March 4th, 2021 No Comments

By Larry Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

Stranded without power, heat, or running water for several days, 4.4 million Texans were on their own as politicians deflected blame or left the country. At least thirty Texans died, and hundreds more were hospitalized. Many suffered hyperthermia while others were overcome by carbon monoxide trying to stay warm with misplaced emergency generators and by auto exhausts. Other homeowners burned furniture in fireplaces for a brief respite from the bitter cold. Frozen water lines burst, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses across Texas. 

Texas has ample wind and solar to become a leading clean energy state. Still, the politicians are under the thumbs of oil and gas interests. Governor Greg Abbott claimed, “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America, our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis… It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” It should come as little surprise that this talking point came directly from the fossil fuel interests that caused the failures. 

Oil and gas enriched Texas and sponsored its politicians, including George W. Bush. None has reaped campaign money on the scale of Abbott, who in six years in office has raised more than $150 million. According to an analysis by the National Institute on Money in Politics, more than $26 million came directly from the oil and gas industry. According to an analysis by Will Englund of the Washington Post, the “governor’s arguments were contradicted by his own energy department, which outlined how most of Texas’s energy losses came from failures to winterize the power-generating systems, including fossil fuel pipelines.”

Scientists have long warned about our weather’s weirding as weather events will become more extreme. Moody’s Analytics calculated that the climate crisis could inflict $69 trillion in damages to the global economy by 2100 if warming breaches 20 Celsius, while $54 trillion in damages will occur at 1.50 C. As the world approaches the 1.50 C., Republican elected leaders have failed to acknowledge weird weather and the growing dangers of climate change. Alexander C. Kaufman was writing for HuffPost on December 20, 2018: “For years, the Republican Party’s unabashed embrace of the oil, gas, and coal industries established its outright denial of the near-universally accepted science that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of the climate crisis.” Ariel Cohen wrote in Forbes, Texas Energy Crisis Is An Epic Resilience And Leadership Failure, “Climate change is empirically leading to more frequent and more extreme weather events on both sides of the thermometer – this is a fundamental reality. At the same time, America’s energy infrastructure has grown increasingly fragile, with vulnerabilities.”

Elected officials in Texas created what was to be a “least cost” utility scheme that turned out to be neither cheap nor reliable. The recent weather emergency that hit all 254 Texas counties should have been anticipated. Regulators were warned years ago to winterize the grid. They should have incorporated insulation and sufficient reserves into their reliability planning, but that would have required responsible regulations and enforcement. The minimalist approach to oversight encouraged energy providers to make bad decisions that added to an unreliable and costly energy supply. The failure to mandate weatherization impacted renewable and thermal power sources led to the worst energy crisis in nearly two decades, costing homeowners billions. Damage in Texas will be the costliest disaster in the state’s history exceeding the $19 billion damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. Reckless energy policies in Texas will increase home insurance rates across America. We will all pay for Texas energy failures through higher home insurance rates and Federal emergency assistance.

To avoid Federal oversight, the Lone Star State chose to go it alone, isolate its grid, and not share power across state lines. Ninety percent of Texas is on an energy island. Former Texas Governor and Trump’s energy secretary Rick Perry bragged about the self-reliant electrical grid and energy independence as a significant energy producer. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” While investigations will document the many failures, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) should be required to join a regional grid to meet energy demands. The isolationist theory of energy policy should not survive this nightmare. Because Texas was not connected to either the Western or the Eastern grid, they could not obtain the needed energy from other regions. 

Texas may want to come into one of the regional grids with special dispensations to avoid Federal oversight. That should be strongly opposed since it would risk the host grid and undermine overall reliability. If Texas comes into a nationalized grid, it must play by the same rules as every other state. 

It has been politically fashionable to champion deregulation as a cure-all for what ails us. Texas has led the way in utility deregulation, promoting a free-market approach to energy production. Using a supposed “least cost” approach to energy production has had devastating consequences when producers cut corners on insulating and assuring sufficient reserves. The lack of grid preparation is to blame, not cold weather. 

In a get-rich-quick scheme, Enron, a one-time energy supply trader, fermented the move to deregulate energy markets, allowing speculators to place bets on future energy prices. Enron was poised to take advantage of the deregulated wholesale market environment but ended in a colossal bankruptcy and some jail bars. Unexplainably, Texas allowed its consumers to do what Enron did. Consumers speculated on the market by buying energy on the wholesale market. Since they were betting on the spot market, this dangerous practice triggered outrageous rates and enormous even thousands of dollar electric bills.

With the most deregulated economy in the nation, Texas lawmakers and regulators ignored explicit past warnings about weather-related vulnerabilities and failed to require producers to prepare for the expected extremes in weather conditions. A federal report in 2011 and a state report in 2012 warned that the Texas power system could not handle extreme cold following a storm that caused widespread outages. Texas lawmakers, driven by willful blindness that only money could buy, ignored the reports and failed to heed recommendations. 

Texas provides explicit warnings about the dangers of a corrupt energy/political system. Like so many other Republican politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, Perry has a way of looking foolish. We might remember during a Presidential debate, he promised to abolish three federal agencies but could not remember the name of the Energy Department. Governor Greg Abbott attempted to blame the Green New Deal for Texas energy failures and failed to take responsibility. When it turned out that Texas gas and coal plants failed, he was roundly criticized at home and in various colder locations that enjoy winterized wind and solar facilities. Abbott’s lies would have gotten more attention, but Senator Ted Cruz stole the media spotlight when he took his family to Cancun and left the family dog in a cold house. While his constituents were freezing, Cruz was photographed on an airplane skipping town. Cancun Cruz blamed his daughters for his fight to the beach and lied about his expected return.

Texas’ unmitigated energy disaster should be a warning to us all to purge corrupt fossil fuel politicians in the next elections. We must make clean energy investments, revitalize the national grid with DC interconnections, and enact sane, job creating, clean energy policies for the 21st century. President Biden will announce his energy policies soon. Let’s hope they are bold enough to transform our energy economy into a clean, efficient and reliable system.

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