You Know What Went Wrong In Texas, Right?
I really look forward to Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo losing their political careers for their incompetent and venal mishandling of the pandemic. But how tragic would it be when they do and Texas Republicans Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don't? When you start digging into what went wrong in America's energy capital everything points in one direction-- and it is neither windmills nor solar panels; it's the ideologically deranged Texas Republican Party.
Yesterday, Robinson Meyer, writing for The Atlantic, trying getting to the bottom of what went wrong and came up with the issue of planning. There was no 5 year plan, 10 year plan or 20 year plan-- too socialistic-- just a plan for how to enrich stockholders and political hacks.
While Ted Cruz was sipping mixed drinks with umbrellas in them at the Cancun Ritz Carlton-- having used his position to demand a police escort for this trip to the Houston airport-- and AOC was using her position and star-power to raise over $5 million for stricken Texans, millions of Texans "shivered in the dark, unable to turn the lights on or run their heaters during some of the coldest days in decades. At least 30 Texans have died so far, including a 75-year-old man whose oxygen machine lost power and an 11-year-old boy who may have perished of hypothermia. Desperate families have tried to stay warm by running generators and grills indoors, leading to more than 450 carbon-monoxide poisonings, many of them in children. Severed from electricity and bare to the frigid weather, Texas’s infrastructure suffered a kind of multisystem failure. Pipes began to burst inside homes. Cell networks went down, preventing people from calling 911. In Austin and elsewhere, so many people ran their pipes at a drip (in order to prevent them from freezing) that the water system depressurized, contaminating the supply and forcing residents to boil their water before using it."
Meyer came up with 3 explanations, "many of the same issues that hampered the United States in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Too many crucial systems in this country are run on an ad hoc basis. A lack of planning, a reliance on just-in-time logistics, and a self-defeating trust in the profit motive are withering the American economy and way of life."
1. It’s simple: Nobody planned for this. “We are not known for our winters here,” Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute, told me. “We vastly underestimated how cold [it]-- and how widespread that cold-- could get in Texas.”
2. But this explanation begs the question: Why couldn’t Texas generate enough electricity? The Texas grid is named after the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the agency in charge of managing it. (Yes, reliability is in the name-- making ERCOT perhaps the sole instance of oxymoronic metonymy in English.) ERCOT can keep the lights on during sweltering summer days, when Texans demand more than 70,000 megawatts of power. During this week’s coldest days, Texans demanded about that much power again, Rhodes said. Yet this time, the grid could deliver only about 40,000 megawatts. What happened?
Texas politicians had an early explanation. “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid,” Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News’s Sean Hannity this week. “It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”
In fact, a senior director at ERCOT now says that renewable-energy outages were the least important factor in the blackouts. And although wind energy underperformed ERCOT’s estimates on Monday, solar power actually overshot them. More important, the Texas grid collapsed because some 28,000 megawatts of coal, nuclear, and gas power went offline-- about a third of ERCOT’s total capacity. ERCOT failed, because fossil fuels failed. And one fuel failed in particular: natural gas.
...What happened wasn’t so different from what struck FedEx, Charmin, and New York’s health-care system when the pandemic hit last year. There was enough toilet paper in America for everyone to buy it every few months, but not for everyone to buy it the same week. Just-in-time logistics, whether by pipeline or cargo ship, makes good economic sense; it’s cheaper than running a system with a little built-in slack. But it depends on tomorrow looking roughly like yesterday, and when something unusual happens-- such as Texas freezing over-- the system fails.
When a shortage like this hits Lululemon, it means you can’t buy spandex bike shorts. When it hits the power grid, it means children freeze to death in their beds.
3. Yet why didn’t someone plan for a natural-gas shortage? A wintertime run on supply was entirely foreseeable. Pipelines could have been ordered to winterize; power plants could have maintained on-site backup. The natural aspect of this disaster had precedent: Although Texas saw brutal temperatures this week, they were within the historical norm.
Some researchers, including Cohan at Rice, have started to call Texas’s failure an “energy-governance problem.” This is a shorthand way of saying that society’s plans didn’t make sense, because they assumed that natural gas could do an impossible number of things at the same time. And nobody noticed this beforehand, because it was nobody’s job to notice.
In 1999, Texas restructured its power sector, dumping its old utilities and adopting in their place a new and totalizing market system. But this market looks little like the markets we know from everyday life. Consumers cannot buy electricity like it’s breakfast cereal or sell it like a used car. Instead, Texas has a market only a lawyer could love: a legalistic, mechanistic auction between power plants and distribution companies, funded with consumers’ utility bills.
In this market, ERCOT is less an administrator than an auctioneer. Governor Abbott vowed this week that Texas would “investigate what lapse of judgment ERCOT had with regards to preparing for this situation”-- but as he likely knows, ERCOT judges in the same way that eBay judges who will take home this Walker, Texas Ranger varsity jacket. When Texas needs more power, the price of electricity on ERCOT’s market increases. For days this week, it approached $9,000 per megawatt-hour. (A megawatt-hour is enough to power several hundred homes. In Washington, D.C., where I’m writing this, electricity currently costs about $34 a megawatt-hour.)
Those high prices are supposed to drive power-generation capacity online. They didn’t-- because of the ice-locked equipment and natural-gas crunch. “The price could’ve been a million dollars a kilowatt-hour, but you can’t supply with gas you don’t have,” Cohan told me.
Yet as the market foundered, those generators that survived made a killing. By one measure, ERCOT power plants have made more already this year than they made in the past three years combined. Meanwhile, customers are suffering. In four days, the city of Denton paid $207 million for electricity-- which is more than it pays in a typical year, the Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Puko has found. When Texas’s power market does allow consumers to join as market participants, it does so through start-ups, such as Griddy, that give consumers unfettered access to wholesale ERCOT power prices. Most of the time, Griddy consumers pay alluringly low prices-- except, this week, some found themselves owing $2,500 a day.
At the core of ERCOT’s structure is a total trust in markets, says Leah Stokes, a political-science professor at UC Santa Barbara. To design a system such as ERCOT, “you have to believe that markets are better at coordinating than centralized planning,” she told me.
Whatever the virtues of that hope, they were not borne out this week. The city of El Paso has its own utility, separate from ERCOT’s market system. That utility maintained power while ERCOT drowned. Why? After a winter storm swept through Texas in 2011, El Paso planned for future cold-weather disruption by winterizing its natural-gas infrastructure. ERCOT did not. Nor did the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates power generation statewide, mandate such preparedness.
In short, the Texas government assumed that high prices alone could guarantee grid reliability and incentivize power plants to prepare for the worst. This didn’t happen. The market failed.
This failure reminds me of what I observed while reporting on America’s COVID-19 testing failure. For months last year, the federal government failed to adequately plan and pay for the industrial-scale production of COVID-19 tests. It assumed that high demand for tests would lure companies to join the market. But no individual private firm had an incentive to risk short-term stability for potential medium-term profit. So the country went months without sufficient tests.
Texas’s crisis reveals, too, how independence, a praiseworthy trait in postcolonial states and precocious children, is less laudable in the power sector. Rick Perry, the former secretary of energy and Texas governor, implied this week that his old constituents should prefer the blackouts over federal control. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he said. He is more correct than he may have realized. After that 2011 winter storm, the federal government actually did require Texas power plants to draw up plans for how they would avert a worse disaster, Rhodes, the UT researcher, said. But it had no ability to enforce those plans, and power plants seemingly put them aside.
...Perhaps ERCOT’s strangest and most un-American trait is that it strips citizens of their democratic authority; instead of being able to hold someone accountable when the power goes out, Texans are told that the market, like a rain god, has failed again. You might say that ERCOT, in its majestic equality, allows rich and poor alike to think like an economist. Frankly, Texans have better things to do. Moreover, if the freedom to survive a snowstorm is worth protecting, if it is a freedom we owe to one another, it is a freedom worth planning for. Markets are good tools; they aren’t our only tools. Government by auction is no way to live. Indeed, Texans are dying of it.
Politico's Florida editor, Marc Caputo predicted that the weather catastrophe in Texas will damage the political careers of 3 Republican politicians who are widely seen as having failed the people of Texas: Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott and Rick Perry. (Caputo may not be aware of the unique role the Lieutenant Governor-- in this case Dan Patrick-- plays in Texas' government. If he did he might have said 4 instead of 3 politicians are up shifts creek without a paddle.) "It’s more than just a public relations crisis for the three politicians," he wrote. "The storm has also battered the swaggering, Texas brand of free-market governance that’s central to the state’s political identity on the national stage. 'Texans are angry and they have every right to be. Failed power, water and communications surely took some lives,' JoAnn Fleming, a Texas conservative activist and executive director of a group called Grassroots America, said in a text message exchange with Politico. 'The Texas electric grid is not secure,' said Fleming, pointing out that lawmakers 'have been talking about shoring up/protecting the Texas electric grid for THREE legislative sessions (6 yrs),' but 'every session special energy interests kill the bills with Republicans in charge ... Our politicians spend too much time listening to monied lobbyists & political consultants. Not enough time actually listening to real people.' ... One Texas GOP official, who did not want to be on record criticizing three of the state’s top Republicans, deadpanned that 'this is not our party’s finest hour.'"
Caputo noted that Rick Perry wrote that "Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business. Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically." Caputo went on to further note that "Unmentioned by Perry: He was governor in 2011, when experts recommended winterizing the power grid. Perry went on to run for president in 2012, then was reelected governor two years later, ran unsuccessfully for president again in 2016 and served as then-President Donald Trump’s secretary of Energy from 2017 to 2019."
I have a feeling that the Texas GOP is going to be in a lot more trouble with voters than just having to cut Abbott, Cruz and Perry loose. That Republican mayor of Colorado City, Tim Boyd, who told his residents that "No one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local governments [sic] responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice! If you don’t have electricity you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal with out and think outside of the box to survive and supply water to your family… Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]... This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW work and others will become dependent for handouts." He resigned and-- having fully exposed the nature of conservatism-- will probably not be running for office any time soon. And there are Republicans at all levels of government stepping right into it, though few as tactlessly as Boyd and Cruz. Yesterday, it was super-rich Austin congressman Michael McCaul who went on CNN's State of the Union yesterday and told Dana Bash that The Texas power grid "was set up that way to be independent of federal oversight and regulations. That's very good with things like cybersecurity; not so good when it comes to an Arctic blast like this one."
Naomi Klein came up for the best answer to the question about what went wrong in Texas. Her Times OpEd, Why Texas Republicans Fear the Green New Deal, begins with Greg Abbott telling Fox News that the catastrophe in his state "shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal," an "outlandish"-- and false-- claim. "The Green New Deal," wrote Klein, "is, among other things, a plan to tightly regulate and upgrade the energy system so the United States gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables in a decade. Texas, of course, still gets the majority of its energy from gas and coal; much of that industry’s poorly insulated infrastructure froze up last week when it collided with wild weather that prompted a huge surge in demand. (Despite the claims of many conservatives, renewable energy was not to blame.) It was the very sort of freakish weather system now increasingly common, thanks to the unearthing and burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas. While the link between global warming and rare cold fronts like the one that just slammed Texas remains an area of active research, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, says the increasing frequency of such events should be 'a wake up call.' But weather alone did not cause this crisis. Texans are living through the collapse of a 40-year experiment in free-market fundamentalism, one that has also stood in the way of effective climate action. Fortunately, there’s a way out-- and that’s precisely what Republican politicians in the state most fear."
A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distribution of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisingly, these companies prioritized short-term profit over costly investments to maintain the grid and build in redundancies for extreme weather.
Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politicians who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastructure (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s Today show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: “We have a deregulated power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.”
This energy-market free-for-all means that as the snow finally melts, many Texans are discovering that they owe their private electricity providers thousands of dollars-- a consequence of leaving pricing to the whims of the market.
...Texas is about as far from having a Green New Deal as any place on earth. So why have Republicans seized it as their scapegoat of choice?
Blame right-wing panic. For decades, the Republicans have met every disaster with a credo I have described as “the shock doctrine.” When disaster strikes, people are frightened and dislocated. They focus on handling the emergencies of daily life, like boiling snow for drinking water. They have less time to engage in politics and a reduced capacity to protect their rights. They often regress, deferring to strong and decisive leaders-- think of New York’s ill-fated love affairs with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Large-scale shocks-- natural disasters, economic collapse, terrorist attacks-- become ideal moments to smuggle in unpopular free-market policies that tend to enrich elites at everyone else’s expense. Crucially, the shock doctrine is not about solving underlying drivers of crises: It’s about exploiting those crises to ram through your wish list even if it exacerbates the crisis.
...[Abbott] knows that the Green New Deal, which promises to create millions of union jobs building out shock-resilient green energy infrastructure, transit and affordable housing, is extremely appealing. This is especially true now, as so many Texans suffer under the overlapping crises of unemployment, houselessness, racial injustice, crumbling public services and extreme weather.
All that Texas’s Republicans have to offer, in contrast, is continued oil and gas dependence-- driving more climate disruption-- alongside more privatizations and cuts to public services to pay for their state’s mess, which we can expect them to push in the weeks and months ahead.
Will it work? Unlike when the Republican Party began deploying the shock doctrine, its free-market playbook is no longer novel. It has been tried and repeatedly tested: by the pandemic, by spiraling hunger and joblessness, by extreme weather. And it is failing all of those tests-- so much so that even the most ardent cheerleaders of deregulation now point to Texas’s energy grid as a cautionary tale. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, called the deregulation of Texas’s energy system “a fundamental flaw.”
In short, Republican ideas are no longer lying around-- they are lying in ruin. Small government is simply no match for this era of big, interlocking problems. Moreover, for the first time since Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, declared that “there is no alternative” to leaving our fates to the market, progressives are ready with a host of problem-solving plans. The big question is whether the Democrats who hold power in Washington will have the courage to implement them.
The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack. Because for the first time in a long time, Republicans face the very thing that they claim to revere but never actually wanted: competition-- in the battle of ideas.