The great winter storm of 2021 has terrorized Texans, overwhelmed our energy grid, and made a mockery of our politicians and our much-vaunted independence.
Here in Dallas, my family and I have intermittently been without power for three days. On Monday night, the coldest night on record in three decades, we were without power for 12 long hours. I pitched a tent in my children’s bedroom, and all of us—Mom, Dad, three kids, Scout the dog—huddled together for warmth under sleeping bags and heavy blankets.
Most houses in Texas are poorly insulated, to put it mildly. Poor Scout’s water bowl in the kitchen froze solid overnight. Indeed, when power was restored for a few hours on Tuesday morning, my wife and I scrambled to unfreeze any pipes that had seized up in spite of the fact that we had left the faucets dripping. At one point, my wife—a tough woman, and a water and sanitation engineer by training—climbed under the house and thawed out a pipe with a blow-dryer.
We have been, we must admit, very lucky. Each night, as we have said our prayers, we have thanked God for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon us. As has been apparent since the start of this emergency, the worst effects of this storm have been visited upon the most vulnerable. I shudder to think about the ways in which the poor, the homeless, and the elderly have suffered in this crisis.
Major cities across the state have opened “warming centers,” and churches and schools have opened their doors, but when the roads are so treacherous, one wonders how the vulnerable are supposed to reach shelter. The entirety of North Texas has just 30 snowplows—or about as many as you would expect to see deployed in a single neighborhood in Chicago.
The biggest story for Texans, however, is the failure of our state’s electrical grid, managed by the inaccurately named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Texas, as part of its regular and continuing efforts to distance itself from federal oversight, maintains its own electrical grid—unique in the nation—which has been overwhelmed by the storm’s effects.
You might be surprised to learn that Texas is the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, and that wind turbines in the panhandle generate much of our power. Many of those turbines have failed in the low temperatures, and conservatives both in Texas and across the country have gleefully claimed as a result that renewables cannot be trusted to provide power in emergencies. There is, as ever, a very small grain of truth to that.
But the data—forever inconvenient to those looking to confirm their priors—suggest the failure goes well beyond renewables. If anything, wind and solar have overperformed in this crisis relative to fossil fuels, and to natural-gas-fired generation in particular. The irony of Texas—the natural-gas capital of the Western Hemisphere, where technological advances in hydraulic fracturing have remade the world’s energy map over the past decade—failing to generate enough natural-gas-fired power is lost on none of the state’s 29 million citizens.
Well, almost none of its 29 million citizens.
There is a certain kind of conservative politician here in Texas who spends a sizable part of his day obsessing about the state of California. Such politicians have spent much of the past few years mercilessly teasing the progressive leadership of California for the failures of the state’s power grid.
These politicians have been, for the most part, conspicuously quiet since the crisis began here. The state’s governor, Greg Abbott, has mostly popped up on reliably friendly media outlets—local news stations, the evening shows on Fox News—where he knows he will not face hard questions.
But hard questions will be asked, because the failures of ERCOT ultimately belong to the leaders of a state who insisted that, by design, the buck must stop with them and not with the federal government. “The ERCOT grid has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” one expert told the Houston Chronicle. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”
Fixing ERCOT will require actual governance, as opposed to performative governance, and that is something the state’s leadership has struggled with of late. Rather than address the challenges associated with rapid growth, the state’s elected leaders have preferred to focus on various lib-owning initiatives such as the menace of transgender athletes, whether or not NBA games feature the national anthem, and—in a triumph of a certain brand of contemporary “conservatism”—legislating how local municipalities can allocate their own funds.
I’m anxious to see how our governor, in particular, will respond to this crisis, because I have never witnessed a more cowardly politician. When Abbott faces a challenge—and he has faced several in the past year alone—you can always depend on him to take the shape of water, forever finding the path of least resistance. I have no idea why the man became a politician, as I can discern no animating motive behind his acts beyond just staying in office.
During the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken the lives of 41,000 Texans so far, the governor first delegated as much responsibility—and political risk—as possible to the state’s mayors and county judges. When those same local officials decided that things like mask mandates and restaurant closures might be good ideas, which became unpopular with the governor’s donors, he overruled them. But when deaths spiked, Abbot decided that—surprise!—local leaders had retained the power to enforce mask mandates all along and that it was their fault for not solving his coronavirus riddle.
I am anxious to see how the governor weasels his way out of responsibility for what happens next. I wouldn’t want to be Texas’s new speaker of the House, Dade Phelan, to whom the governor will likely attempt to shift all the blame.
In the meantime, Texans, being Texans, are not waiting for politicians to solve their most immediate problems. Neighbors who might have fallen out during the Great Yard Sign Wars of 2020 are shoveling one another’s driveways, sharing power from their generators, and opening their homes to those less fortunate. We have all had a good laugh at the gloriously unhinged Facebook post by the now-former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, who—writing as if he were one of the first Anglo-Texan frontiersmen—told Texans to fend for themselves. “Only the strong will survive,” he thundered, “and the weak will parish [sic].”
That’s the spirit.
Yesterday, in fact, my heavily pregnant co-worker—whose own home never lost power—offered to drive by my darkened house with food for my children. I told her to stay off the roads for her own safety, but as I write this, she is in labor at a local hospital. By the time you read this, her daughter may already have been born.
What a welcome to Texas she is receiving.