The Texas Snow Storm: Another Deadly Wake Up Call

An entire state’s electrical grid failed overnight during last month’s deadly winter storm, leaving at least 4.5 million Texans without electricity, unable to meet basic needs, and unprepared for freezing temperatures in the single digits — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Texas lawmakers have spent the last decade ignoring federal recommendations, prioritizing electric company profits, and repeatedly choosing corporations over consumers, leaving Texans to pay the price. Documentation of Snowmageddon 2021 showed the harrowing survival situations Texans navigated: from burning furniture to boil snow to snowboarding down roads to understocked grocery stores. My experience in Texan “winters” has shown me how the entire city shuts down when there’s less than a half-inch of snow, so as much as nine inches of snow in some towns was bound to wreck the unprepared state.

People often talk about climate change as if it is a distant threat on the horizon, but the polar vortex that devastated Texas and killed at least 40 people is the latest example that this global crisis needed to be addressed yesterday. State officials and energy company corporate monkeys flounder before every Texan’s question: Why wasn’t the state prepared for this natural disaster?

Unhelpful responses from Republican leaders in the state varied from avoidance — like Ted Cruz taking a tropical vacation to Cancun and returning refreshed and ready to blame socialists — to blame shifting — which is the route Texan mayor Tim Boyd took on Facebook, telling his constituents only the “strong will survive.” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick even criticized the Texans who are facing energy bills of up to $16 thousand for “gambling on a very, very low rate” or as most people would call it, trying to save money on astronomical energy bills in a deregulated market that Patrick is still defending. Former Governor Rick Perry even went so far as to say Texans would be willing to suffer through blackouts to “keep the government out of their business” in a tone-deaf and ill-willed move to weaponize the deaths of Texans for political gain.

What Republicans failed to adequately address in their public responses, and what the state Senate and House hearings that began Thursday will focus on, is how the Electric Reliability Council of Texas thrived in an increasingly deregulated industry that allows Texas’s energy grid to operate independently of the nation’s power supply. ERCOT board members, including three who have given Governor Greg Abbott more than $18 thousand in the last 12 years and several that live out of state, are resigning left and right under rightful criticism for the deadly, corrupt failure of an energy system that ERCOT CEO said he wouldn’t do differently if given the chance.

Power companies claim they haven’t invested in winter preparedness because Texas seldom sees snowy weather or temperatures low enough to warrant a winter coat, which is likely to change as extreme weather events become more and more frequent with the worsening climate crisis. The kicker is a similarly disruptive winter storm happened exactly a decade ago, and Abbott received a federal warning that the grid needed to be weather-proofed. Instead of heeding that advice, ERCOT fired the independent nonprofit which was intended to hold it accountable and allowed plants to postpone weatherization. The dysfunctional management of the power grid in the biggest energy-producing state in the country resulted in rippling consequences for citizens, but because Republicans control all levels of the state’s government, it is unlikely they will face anything more serious than a slap on the wrist. The Texas legislature is so backwards that if our energy grid were shaped like a uterus, Republicans would be doing more to regulate it. 

If the Texas strom wasn’t already bad enough, the reality that every other state is facing similar impending crises should put people to action across the country. The U.S. energy grid was built in the ’50s and ’60s with a 50-year life expectancy, which expired 10 or 20 years ago. However, since 68 percent of our power is controlled by investor-owned utilities that aren’t motivated to cut into their profits to update outdated and vulnerable lines, many of the high-voltage lines that stretch across the country are powering exponentially more than they are designed to handle. The U.S. already has more power outages than any other developed country, and the failure of only nine high-voltage transformers could result in a coast-to-coast blackout lasting 18 months or more, which could result in a death of 90 percent of the American population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse. 

It is crucial that lawmakers both in Texas and across the country prioritize updating our electrical grid immediately to prevent more deaths and promote just energy systems. If the largest forced blackout in Texas history was not enough of a wake-up call to Americans about the urgency of this issue, things will only get darker from here.