WCP: Outage Outrage: Class and the Power Grid

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A deep freeze in Texas brought widespread power outages, water shortages, damage to many homes, and plenty of outrage. While the cold snap might not have been expected, the problems reflect decisions about the state’s energy infrastructure without concern for the effects of climate change or the needs of poor and working-class people. As Ken Estey explains in this week’s Working-Class Perspectives (new window), those in power designed a system that prioritized cutting costs for energy providers but left many working people cold, hungry, and in the dark.

Last week’s Texas-sized climate emergency shows how energy policy decisions are not only about power but also about class. A power line is never just infrastructure. It is also a structure of class power – who counts and who doesn’t, who is denied electricity, and who has power.

The arctic blast left more than 3.4 million customers with power early last week, but poor and low-income households were especially hard hit. Electricity is coming back on, but the freeze has also caused a water crisis. Abilene temporarily cut off its water supply last Monday after losing power. Water pipes have burst causing major damage to many homes. For families who were already living paycheck to paycheck, this is a final blow. Now wonder many, like  Mayo Hernandez, expressed outrage at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT):  “you going to pay for my burst pipes and groceries that went bad i dont get food stamps and am on the verge of eviction @POTUS – HELP.”

Rather than rising to the occasion, Texas officials are stumbling badly. Gov. Greg Abbott reportedly blamed frozen wind turbines for the outage, suggesting that the Texas outage “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” Rick Perry, former governor and energy secretary in the Trump Administration, claimed that Texans would accept being “without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Before Senator Ted Cruz left for Cancun on Wednesday afternoon, he advised his constituents who were left in the cold to “Stay safe and please continue to follow the warnings and updates provided by state and local officials.”

What might seem like the most callous response came from now former mayor of Colorado City, Tim Boyd: “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” On a community-based Facebook page,  he wrote to residents, “If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your (sic) lazy is direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish (sic).”

Cold-blooded as this sounds, Boyd is right. It’s all about power. The strong will survive. In Texas, the wealthiest and most privileged residents will be fine (or escape to Cancun). Everyone else is at the mercy of a mercurial and dangerously deregulated energy system. In the wild west, you really are on your own!

The crisis in Texas isn’t just about the vulnerability of the working class, though. It also reflects the investment of those with political power in the idea of the free market. Their decisions about the state’s energy infrastructure, made well outside of public view, did not consider either the rising number of disasters related to climate change or the needs of Texans who live on the economic edge.

Twenty years ago, ERCOT created  a deregulated energy market that allowed it to skirt requirements to have reserve capacity to meet extraordinary grid demands during heat waves, which Texans would have expected, or the kind of unprecedented cold snap we saw last week. To avoid federal regulation, ERCOT has not expanded its capacity to bring in power from other states. In 2019, CPower, an energy management company declared the wisdom of these decisions: “In the two-plus decades since ERCOT’s formation, naysayers in and out of Texas have been watching the Lone Star State with skeptical eyes, waiting for the perfect storm when a lack of forward-procured capacity proves fatal to grid stability.” Well, that perfect storm just arrived.

When the freeze hit last week, ERCOT decided not to go to the energy spot market (suddenly very expensive) and opted for rolling blackouts instead. But for many, the blackouts didn’t roll. They stayed put, leaving people in the dark for days. ERCOT saved itself a lot of money. Texas residents are paying the in lives lost, injuries, and property damage.

In the last few years, ERCOT’s approach gained praise for passing the “stress test” posed by a 2018 record heat wave. That led the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, to tout the Texas plan as a national model for “electric reliability and resilience policy consistent with economic principles.” R Street explained that basing “price volatility”on   “real-time grid conditions” is not “inherently ‘bad.’” We should just “let markets show their stuff.”

But neither markets nor energy policies are class-neutral.  Substandard and poorly insulated homes in Texas proved to be especially vulnerable to the cold. Homeless shelters couldn’t help the homeless stay warm without electricity. ERCOT never factored the needs of the most vulnerable into their decisions about maintenance and resilience measures for their grid. ERCOT’s deregulated energy plan banked on taking chances with the lives of those who had the most to lose.

You might think that a widespread power outage would affect everyone. But of course, not everyone is equally empowered to respond. Residents of San Antonio’s oldest and largest public housing complex, built in 1940 as segregated housing for Mexican Americans, Alazán-Apache Courts, felt the cold acutely through the project’s antiquated cinder block construction, but rhey also had few options.  Ricardo Cruz, who lives there with his wife and five children between 5 and 13 years old, remarked that “I need to take my kids somewhere to keep warm. I don’t know where.” Meanwhile, his wealthy senator, Ted Cruz, took his family to Cancun. The senator later acknowledge that this was “obviously a mistake.” Actually, it was a clear demonstration of what power and privilege looks like when the lights go out. The real mistake was for someone of Cruz’s class and position to show that power so brazenly.

Texas is poised to lead a long overdue national conversation on energy, but not as its corporate supporters want it to occur. Electric grid reliability and resilience can’t be reduced “fair” market principles that favor the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. Reliability and resilience must instead be based on principles of justice and fairness, with the needs of the most vulnerable clearly at the core. To create a more just energy future, policies must be class-powered.  

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College