Don't blame ERCOT for last week's power outages

A Letter from Williamson County, Texas: Winter, 2021

Dearest Cousin, 

The experience washing dishes in a gallon of tepid snowmelt was less than satisfactory. I fear we may perish of some vile illness induced by the crusted and rotted scraps of food we were unable to remove from the silverware. 

We returned to the back 40 to fetch more snow. We were required to chop through a thick rind of ice before we could harvest the snow underneath. It was cold and wretched labor. Two gallons of snow renders barely two quarts of water. I dread the effort but Poo Pourri can do only so much. We must flush the toilets today! 

Alas! The good whisky will not outlast the freeze but I discovered a partial bottle of cheap Irish in the recesses of the cupboard. We will persevere. 

Please inform me of your situation, and assure us of the health and safety of you and yours. 

Your Cousin

I took a shower this morning. It was the second day in a row that I did so and I felt a bit guilty, but only a bit.

Like a lot of you, we didn’t have running water for much of last week. We still can’t drink it but we can bathe, and wash dishes and clothes. This is important because it means that none of the water pipes in this 100-year old house burst during the freeze. It also means that we had power to heat the water — another luxury we were denied for much of last week.

Let’s not even talk about the trauma inflicted by the lack of internet service.

I must admit that standing under a stream of hot water was delicious and more than a little indulgent.

It almost let me forget about last week. Almost.

But, I didn’t forget about it, nor my white-hot anger that citizens of the most energy rich state in the most advanced country in the world had to endure a killing freeze without electricity and, for all too many of us, water.

Friends, you’ve already heard our elected leaders, along with legions of keyboard commandos,  try to pin this debacle on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). That’s the private non-profit group in Taylor that manages our electric grid.

It’s a red herring. Our elected leaders are, once again, trying to avoid accountability. Many ERCOT heads will roll, for sure, and some probably deserve it, but the system is flawed … and ERCOT is toothless. It has no authority to regulate energy providers. None. All ERCOT can do is “suggest” measures.

The problem we faced last week is a structural issue. It’s not just a matter of winterizing natural gas lines or resurrecting a few coal-fired plants, or putting anti-freeze equipment on some wind turbines, though all of this will help. 

Our energy system was built by the Texas Legislature in the late 1990s, fueled by oil lobby money, around an Enron pipe dream designed to maximize profits, disincentivize reinvestment, and avoid regulation and consumer protections.

Yes. That Enron. Even after Enron went down, our legislators deregulated in 2002. Because, oil company profits and, I suppose, freedom.

If you don’t remember Enron, Google it. It’s horrifying, one of the worst examples of capitalistic excess you’ll ever run across. The Wolf of Wall Street was a piker compared to those pirates.

Another good source of information is the autopsy of the 2011 storm. You know, the storm that showed our lawmakers — the only people who can regulate our energy market — that what we faced last week was not that far fetched.

That report is dry but the bare handful of providers who took that it to heart run the some of power plants who carried the load Monday and Tuesday. They just couldn’t produce enough juice to carry the entire load. The recommendations begin on page 195 and run about 100 pages.

Yeah, blame game won’t help because the very people who put this into motion are the only ones who can fix it, if they will. Sadly, the Texas Legislature has a poor track record of investigating itself.

In many ways, what we saw this week is a feature of our energy market, not a bug.

And, let’s just put this out there … because of our deregulated market, many people in Texas will face electric bills in the thousands, even though they had no electricity for much of the week.

This is ALSO a feature, not a bug.

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