Spare a thought this week for the people of Texas, who not only had to endure cold and snow at a level they’re absolutely not accustomed to, but who also found themselves reaping the fruits of the Republican-controlled state government’s electric deregulation policies. Millions were left in the dark for days, unable to heat their homes in freezing temperatures while power generators got rich.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the massive failure of the Texas electric grid, and plenty of lessons for the rest of the country, even wintry New England, to learn.
Two big causes of this disaster stick out for me as massive warning signs for the next decade, and both are inextricably intertwined with one another: the increase in extreme weather and the shortcomings of private, for-profit utility companies.
First, let’s talk about the weather. Texas and nearby states got slammed with a freak winter storm that brought snow, ice and far lower temperatures than usual to the region. The infrastructure of the electric grid in Texas wasn’t winterized, despite warnings that this exact problem could happen someday, and so when the snow and ice hit, the grid failed.
It’s easy to see why Texas utilities never bothered to winterize. It’s hot there, and it would cost money! They took a gamble that this sort of storm wouldn’t happen, and they lost.
It’s foolish to gamble with the weather, though, especially now. We’ve had lots of these once-in-a-lifetime weather events all around the world lately. The climate is changing as the world heats up and that’s made extreme weather events more likely. Power grids have to be ready for the unexpected.
I’m sure you remember the failures of Eversource, then Connecticut Light and Power, in 2011. Two big storms, a hurricane in the summer and a snowstorm in the fall, caused lengthy blackouts throughout the state. CL&P was caught completely unprepared, and, to make things worse, it turned out that they hadn’t bothered doing maintenance such as removing tree branches that grew above power lines.
They didn’t prepare for high winds and ice – in Connecticut. That’s not just looking for trouble, it’s walking right up to trouble’s house and leaving a bag of flaming poop on the front step.
The weather doesn’t care about economics, and climate change doesn’t care about shareholder profits. Weather disasters are a fact of life, and we need to harden our critical infrastructure to survive them.
But are our utilities, so many of which are private, for-profit companies, actually able to do this?
The second big lesson from Texas is that their experiment in total deregulation, which supposedly gives Texans great electricity rates, had absolutely zero capacity to stand up to disaster. Why? Because disaster-proofing costs money, and all of the private utilities that make up Texas’ power grid didn’t want to spend it.
Those low bills for electric customers in Texas had a dark side, too, as utilities passed on the sudden costs to their customers. Some people are getting monthly electric bills in excess of $5,000.
Is it fair to saddle ordinary Texans, who have been freezing in the dark all week, with the cost of their power companies’ failures? Former governor and energy secretary Rick Perry thinks so, but the vast majority of others will likely disagree.
Maybe, then, electric deregulation was a lousy idea. It never did deliver on the promise of lower electric rates, and this and other disasters should put the lie to the idea that private companies are somehow better run than public ones.
Electricity isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s essential for pretty much every aspect of our society. Without it, we can’t heat our homes, do our work, or in many cases stay alive. The generation and distribution of power can’t be left up to executives who are more concerned with shareholder dividends than they are with the public welfare.
Power companies have no reason to be private and for-profit, and in many other parts of the world they aren’t. Hydro-Quebec, the giant that supplies power to not just the Canadian province but parts of New England, is publicly owned. Some of the most reliable power suppliers are either rural collectives or nonprofit municipal companies.
When the power goes out, the power suppliers must answer not to shareholders, but to the people. Anything else is just asking for disaster. As we brace for more extreme weather due to accelerating climate change, we can’t let private, for-profit companies keep their monopolies on electricity. It’s just too important for that.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.