In the energy-rich state of Texas — where a huge percentage of people heat their homes with electricity — snow and freezing temperatures across the state led to massive power failures. With rolling blackouts and some complete shutoffs, 4.5 million people went without electricity for days on end — while the temperature fell to single digits. It may well be the biggest power failure in U.S. history.
At this writing, some people are still without electricity, and now many are without potable water, as much of the state’s water distribution relies on electric-powered pumping.
More than 58 people have already died from this avoidable catastrophe, including an 11-year-old boy who froze to death in his sleep. Like many in Texas who cannot afford a house or apartment, Cristian Pavon lived with his family in a trailer — and trailer parks were particularly hard hit by the outages. Another casualty was a 75-year-old man who died because his oxygen machine couldn’t be powered.
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We don’t yet know the full scale of what are essentially murders. Meanwhile, the lines at food banks are growing and people are being forced to use snow and rivers for water because of another infrastructure problem beyond the one with electricity: frozen water pipes have made any water that isn’t boiled potentially toxic to drink.
We do, however, know who is directly to blame. The Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is responsible for the deaths and the misery and suffering Texans have been experiencing. All this is the result of ERCOTS’s knowing and deliberate actions in the context of organizing power for profit rather than to serve human needs.
Indeed, there are profits being made — including the personal profit of the ERCOT CEO, who is paid a whopping $883,000 annual salary to run an electric system that has proven it just doesn’t work. That system designed to generate profits does not serve the hard-working people of Texas, whose median yearly income is roughly $30,600 a year — some $84 a day compared to the ERCOT CEO’s nearly $2,500 a day to oversee what is a planned disaster.
ERCOT is an independent system operator (ISO), essentially a pseudo-governmental agency that oversees a power grid in a competitive electricity market. Since 1999, some 90 percent of Texas has been the only part of the United States that isn’t linked within either the Eastern or Western Interconnects (grids) that serve the rest of the country. Texas power companies wanted to avoid federal regulation and try out all sorts of new and untested ideas for how to create “competition” in power markets aimed at driving up profits — like the fancy schemes around derivatives that led to the collapse of Enron in 2001. In most energy markets, pesky regulations get in the way of maximizing profits. But absent nearly all regulation, a grid made up of private generators, transmission companies, and energy retailers, all “regulated” almost exclusively by the invisible hand of the capitalist market, is a profit-making bonanza. That’s what ERCOT manages. What could possibly go wrong?
Despite having “reliability” as part of its name, ERCOT’s main interest has always been to keep the grid running just well enough to make sure electric companies can make the most profits. At its board meeting just before the winter disaster hit, less than 40 seconds were spent discussing preparedness. That board of 16 people, by the way, includes five who don’t even live in Texas, including the chairwoman and vice chair. Board members receive six-figure compensations even though the job is actually only between five and 15 hours a week.
Despite warnings over many years, ERCOT has consistently refused either to set regulations requiring electric companies to protect their instruments and power lines from cold snaps that are increasingly likely as a result of climate change, or even use market incentives to get them to do so. ERCOT has long known that weather would increasingly become an issue, and did nothing — because the expense of weatherization would eat into the profits of its market participants.
Simply put, whatever regulation ERCOT actually administers for the Texas power market is in the service of profits, not ensuring that Texans have power even in inclement weather. And the leaders of ERCOT get paid rivers of money themselves to make sure the “reliability” part of their jobs is about those profits.
The case of ERCOT in Texas highlights the neoliberal myth that competition and creating markets for what are public goods (like electricity and natural gas) serve the “people’s interests.” Right now, some people in Texas who continued to get even limited electric power to their homes during the outages are receiving stratospheric electricity bills — proof of the complete illogic of the market system. Wholesale prices, tied to a complicated formula of supply and demand aimed at generating profit, spiked more than 10,000 percent during the crisis, and automatically generated bills of up to $17,000 for some residential and small-business customers. People who’ve set up automatic payment have seen their bank accounts emptied by these 21st-century robber barons.
Texas reveals the big lie behind competition in power markets.
More deeply, the Texas case shows the complete failure of capitalism, of a system in which everything — even the most basic necessities — are commodified. A system in which the people charged with making sure we get our basic needs fulfilled, but are paid massive salaries instead to implement cost-cutting measures and ensure the profits of a few, has long outlived its usefulness. It costs people their lives.
Electricity is a public good, and to ensure people get it when it’s needed requires a national electric grid under the control of the public and the workers — the people who really have our interests, not profit, in mind. In other words, electricity ought to be controlled by folks who don’t get on airplanes to Cancun to avoid responsibility.