Texas dodged a bullet last week when the state’s power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), held up during a blast of winter weather.
But not because its leaders learned anything from last year’s horrific storm, which knocked out power for nearly 5 million and caused the deaths of 246 people. In fact, they’ve been making things worse—more on that in a minute.
“Last year we had a heavyweight come into the ring and just knock the crap out of us,” Beth Garza, former director of ERCOT’s independent watchdog, told the Texas Tribune. “And this year, we got just a middleweight. It punched us, we survived, and it was fine.”
Last year’s storm blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures and snow for several days, causing record energy demand. This forced ERCOT to tell energy providers to cut power as they tried to avoid a total collapse of the energy system. Nearly 5 million people lost power and 246 died.
This time around was a more typical Texas cold front.
Still, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is claiming that the system is more reliable and resilient than it’s ever been.
Yet, experts disagree. “Just because I have a student pass an easy test doesn’t mean that I’m confident they can pass the toughest test that I give them,” Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, told the Tribune.
Untangling and understanding the various public and private actors that make decisions about Texas’s power is too complicated for a blog post. But what’s clear is that the system is one of the country’s most marketized, as Johanna Bozuwa, director of The Climate and Community Project, told us in a Q&A last year.
ERCOT is a non-profit. But the system is heavily deregulated, designed to allow for intense competition in the retail sale of electricity. As one portfolio manager put it, it’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices.”
Bozuwa wrote in the aftermath of last year’s storm, “There is no requirement for [energy] companies to make long-term investments into the health and safety of Texas’s grid or build in energy redundancies in case one source of energy fails.”
And therein lies the problem. Texans are at risk every winter because they don’t really control their state’s energy system. It’s as simple as that.
As I explain in “The Privatization of Everything,” a new book I co-authored with Allen Mikaelian, privatization is more than just outsourcing public services like trash collection to private contractors (though that in itself often leads to poor outcomes for everyone but the contractor). Privatization is ultimately a transfer of power over our own destiny, as individuals and as a nation, to unelected, unaccountable, and inscrutable corporations and their executives.
Until Texas takes public control of its power system, the risk of being knocked out by another heavyweight punch is all but guaranteed to remain.
Unfortunately, Texas’s leaders seem to be headed in the opposite direction. Abbott has been aggressively luring cryptocurrency-mining companies to the state, arguing that they will encourage energy providers to build more capacity.
Yet, crypto mining is an extremely energy intensive industry. As the New Yorker reported this week, “Crypto-mining facilities in Texas already consume enough electricity to power several cities. By 2023, it is estimated that ERCOT will account for twenty per cent of the global bitcoin network, and, by the end of that year, the state’s crypto-mining facilities’ power demands may have increased by as much as fivefold.”
It turns out that it wasn’t Einstein who said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Whoever said it would most definitely apply it to Texas’s “free market”-obsessed leaders.
Photo by Box is typing…