Texas' Grid Failure Is an Indictment of Capitalist Governance

Deregulation kills

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In 2011 and 2012, when I lived in Houston, Texas, almost everyone I met told me they were more proud to be from Texas than they were to be American. I thought that strange, given that patriotism has been drilled into us since we were all required to stand and put our hands over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day before school started. And of course, millennials will remember the Toby Keith-ing of America in the post-9/11 years when we were in high school, as dutiful patriotism morphed into rabid nationalism.

Of course, Texans love to remind you that they were an independent republic before they reluctantly joined the union (before seceding in 1861 and then being admitted once again in 1870). And, fittingly, Texas’ flag is basically the United States flag minus all the other states.

This willfully individualistic attitude defines Texas, and is perhaps the best explainer for why Texas has its own electrical grid independent of America’s other two power grids — one of which powers the Eastern states and the other powering the Western states (El Paso is not on the Texas grid, and neither are the more remote parts of the panhandle nor parts of East Texas).

Following the passage of the New Deal in the 1930s, the Lone Star State established the organization that is now known as the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). This was done to avoid federal regulation, which is required for all interstate electricity sales. To this day, ERCOT is not regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

That’s how it all started. So how is it going?

The images from Texas are akin to the Venezuelan poverty porn American corporate media has been churning out for the better part of the last decade (all of which are appropriately devoid of context about how brutal US sanctions are the key driver of those conditions). And like Venezuela, Texas is overly dependent on fossil fuels, which helps explain its unprecedented power grid failure during this latest storm.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, two-thirds of the 46,000 offline megawatts of power generation as of Wednesday came from coal and gas-powered facilities, while just one-third of megawatts came from solar and wind-powered facilities. This flies in the face of the narrative concocted by Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) and Fox News, which have both falsely blamed renewable energy sources for the grid failure.

Texas’ leaders have had a decade of lead time to winterize its electrical grid, but chose not to. In February of 2011, extreme cold also led to widespread power outages, again due to power plants fueled by coal and natural gas going offline. Even Mexico’s government had to step in and transmit 280 megawatts of electricity to Texas. Yet despite the grid failure in 2011, ERCOT still doesn’t require Texas power plants to winterize even to this day.

In the meantime, the lack of federal regulation means ERCOT gets to jack up electricity rates as high as they want during the crisis. Reuters reported earlier this week that ERCOT was charging as much as $9,000 per megawatt hour, whereas during normal weather prices are typically around $50 per megawatt hour. Texans are already warning their friends and neighbors to cancel their autopay utility arrangements to avoid being gouged.

In the absence of federal regulation, one would expect Texas politicians to be speaking up on behalf of their constituents. Instead, they’re giving struggling Texans a giant middle finger and telling them that if they die during the storm they probably had it coming.

“Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish[sic],” said now former Colorado City, Texas mayor Tim Boyd in a Facebook post. “Bottom line quit crying and looking for a handout! Get off your ass and take care of your own family!”

"Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” former Texas Governor Rick Perry recently said, most likely from a warm room with electricity.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for his part, booked a vacation to Cancun, Mexico. Cruz’s departure to the sandy beaches and warm temperatures of Cancun comes just days after a Houston woman and her eight-year-old daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to stay warm in their car (as of this writing, records suggest Cruz booked a return trip back to Houston after news of his vacation went viral).

Rick Perry may very well be right: Texans — especially the kind who voted for Tim Boyd to be their mayor and for Ted Cruz to be their senator — may be willing to put up with a few days of brutal cold in order to keep their electrical grid independent of federal regulation. But when people in America’s fourth-largest city are lining up at a public park to fill water bottles from a spigot because they don’t have running water at home, maybe it’s time for rugged individualism to take the L and accept that people need other people.