Who Messed with Texas?

Image Source: NOAA – Public Domain

Texans like to brag endlessly about how great their state is, its “independence,” and warn, “don’t mess with Texas.” But as millions of Texans now huddle freezing in the dark of this self-proclaimed “energy capital of the world,” it might be worth thinking about how this tragedy happened, who and what caused it, and why Republican politicians are trying to blame renewable energy for a problem caused by poorly built and maintained fossil fuel generation facilities and the predatory capitalism of its deregulated energy system.

The news has been flooded with heartbreaking pictures and stories of Texas families suddenly caught in a deep freeze caused by a climate-change induced outbreak of the polar vortex. But it would be disingenuous to think that somehow Texans had no idea what it means to get hit by ice and snow — and the problems it can cause for unprepared utilities, businesses and citizens.

The simple truth is that a similar cold-weather incident wracked Texas in 2011. It was so bad the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission researched the fallout from the event and prepared a detailed report concerning the many problems it caused.

In a nutshell, the problems in Texas are primarily caused by utility deregulation and a lack of insulation in the industrial, energy and domestic sectors. So why wouldn’t Texas’ coal and natural gas power plants — which produce by far the majority of the state’s electricity — take the simple measure of insulating the pipes that carry their process water? According to an article in the Texas Tribune, they don’t want to spend the money because in the deregulated Texas utility market, the cheapest power available is what gets pumped into the wires by the obviously misnamed “Electric Reliability Council of Texas.” In the deregulated energy market where “cheapest is best” there’s actually a financial disincentive to invest in prudent measures to ensure actual reliability for utility customers.

Likewise, because energy conservation seems to be disparaged in the poorly governed Lone Star State, homes, schools and businesses also avoided the added costs of insulation thinking they’d never need it because it doesn’t get cold in Texas — everybody knows that, right?

Insulation certainly would have kept their homes significantly warmer during the electricity blackouts — but an insulated home is also much easier to keep cool in very hot weather, something which Texans and their decision-makers seem unaware. Insulation would have kept their water treatment plants running, too — so millions wouldn’t be under “boil” advisories for whatever water they might get.

Here in Montana people are justifiably mystified why Texans are so unprepared. Thanks to prudent investments, our wind turbines don’t freeze up and the pipes at our water treatment plants, generation facilities, homes, schools and businesses are insulated.

Having decided to be independent of federal regulation and the regional electricity grid that serves most of the West, Texas decided to go it alone. Unfortunately, now their people are paying a horrific price for foolish, ideologically-driven policies. And while Texas’ Republican politicians take no responsibility for their lack of preparation, they’re more than willing to ask for and take FEMA disaster relief from the federal government.

Montana has its own experience with Texas-style deregulation brought to us by the Republican legislative majorities and then-governor Marc Racicot about 25 years ago. And we’re still paying the price for that policy disaster, having gone from the cheapest power in the northwest region to the most expensive, even though we re-regulated our utility sector. Mess with Texas? No thanks — their Republican politicians are doing a bang-up job of that already.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.