As Texas plunged into a four-day blackout, Austin residents left their faucets dripping, hoping to keep their pipes from freezing over. But with so many people letting their faucets drip, the whole city water system depressurized, forcing residents to boil water for fear of contamination.
This is just one example of the myriad natural and unnatural hardships Texans faced these past few weeks. Across the Lone Star State, pipes burst, cell networks went down, and electric stoves were unusable.
The shutdown was a predictable disaster yet there was no plan for it. California needs to heed this as a warning for its own looming infrastructure crisis with for-profit utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) controlling the power grid.
Not only was the for-profit energy grid in Texas ill-equipped to handle this disaster, it was unwilling to. As private utility companies lined their pockets with money, Texans lined their walls and door frames with blankets to keep out the frigid weather.
Energy grids in Texas run separately from the rest of the continental U.S., covered by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which serves 26 million people. After years of successfully gunning for deregulation, ERCOT is not required to produce enough electricity to get the state through a crisis. State regulations actually incentivize private companies to jack up production only when power outages drive up prices.
Since private companies can operate without a shred of accountability, people were left searching for food and running grills indoors in an attempt to keep warm.
As could be expected, the winter storm and shutdowns hit Black and Latinx communities the hardest. Structural economic inequality ensures that marginalized communities are more likely to live in older homes with vulnerable piping and electricity and in neighborhoods with fewer food options.
Both California and Texas operate on a wholesale competitive electricity market controlled by independent system operators (ISOs). ERCOT in Texas and the California ISO oversee private, investor-owned utility companies, like PG&E that serves 16 million people in northern and central California.
The name PG&E has a visceral connection to wildfire season. Rolling blackouts have become an annual event for most people in northern and central California.
The Camp Fire was ignited by one of PG&E’s broken transmission lines in November 2018. PG&E later plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, admitting its aging and faulty equipment started the fire.
Rolling blackouts swept the region in October 2019 as PG&E attempted to prevent more fires. These safety shutdowns are now a fall staple, leaving over 25,000 Bay Area residents without power in 2020. Even with the precautionary blackouts, the 2020 California fire season caused the most damage in recorded history with 4.2 million acres burned. Climate scientists are predicting the 2021 season will be just as bad, if not worse.
The situation we find ourselves in is complex, featuring the climate crisis, disaster profiteering by private utility companies, the inability of the state or federal government to hold for-profit industries accountable, and structural inequalities impacting marginalized communities.
Tackling this mesh of intersecting problems will not be easy and will require simultaneous efforts on all fronts. The state and federal governments need to break up the utility monopolies that control our access to basic needs, replacing them with a public ownership model, ensuring that no private company profits from the victims of a disaster they engineered.
Even with most of the state’s power restored, Texas is still struggling to recover from food shortages. You can support the Houston Food Bank or the South East Texas Food Bank through donations. Click here for a more complete list of Texan food banks, mutual aid funds, and more.