Even as Clark County was covered in snow and ice last week, lessons could be found far to the south. The continuing disaster in Texas should be a wake-up call for public officials and for voters.
The warnings: Deregulation has consequences; government plays an important role in protecting the public good; investment in infrastructure is essential; and there are limits to what can be accomplished by fierce individualism. In Texas, ignoring those lessons has resulted in dozens of deaths (officials say a full accounting will take months) and millions going weeks without power in the wake of a generational cold snap.
A week ago, more than 4.5 million Texans were without power, and millions more had no fresh water or were under boil-water orders. One of the nation’s wealthiest and proudest states has been reduced to Third World conditions.
To some extent, all of this is the result of nature. An outbreak of Arctic air swept through the middle of the United States, bringing historic freezing temperatures to the South and delivering unprecedented conditions. But it also has revealed the consequences of failing to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Dating to the 1930s, Texas developed an independent power grid as a buffer against federal interference. The result was an electrical island; a fine idea in theory, but one that has prevented other power grids from coming to Texas’ assistance by sending power when it is most needed.
The state’s power grid failed under the extreme cold, leaving Texans helpless. As a story from Axios details: “Texas has never been prepared for extreme winter — or, really, any winter — but now the consequences of its decisions, especially its independent power grid, have become inescapable.”
Meanwhile, state officials have disingenuously blamed frozen wind turbines for the lack of power. According to Reuters news service, 20 percent of Texas’ electricity comes from wind; 47.4 percent comes from natural gas, and 20.3 percent from coal.
For customers who have retained power throughout the crisis, there have been multiple media reports detailing utility bills of thousands of dollars — including one electricity bill for $16,752. The CEO of a shale drilling company told investors on a conference call, “Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot.”
While the mayor of one small Texas town posted a screed on Facebook saying, “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!,” and while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz escaped to a resort in Mexico with his family, many Texans have actively worked to help and protect their neighbors. Crises bring out the best in Americans, reminding us that we need one another.
But the role of government is to prepare a community for worst-case scenarios, to invest in sturdy infrastructure that will limit damages and allow relief efforts to quickly mobilize when disaster strikes. In 2019, that year’s defense authorization included provisions designed to protect the nation’s electrical grid from cyberattacks, but experts say more is needed.
In the Northwest, the Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is home to a research facility under the Department of Energy, working to make the nation’s grid more resilient, secure and reliable. In addition to attacks from foreign entities, weather and natural disasters such as earthquakes can threaten electricity throughout the region.
Ideally, such a threat will never arrive. But if it does, it is imperative that our governments be prepared.