Temperatures in the United States’ plains states finally returned to normal this week after a record-shattering cold wave. The weather front was notable both for the severity and duration of low temperatures, setting 6,000 new daily and weekly records between 25 to 45 degrees lower than average around the plains states. In the past decade, climate scientists have begun identifying events like these as the result of an abnormal southern dip in the jet stream that pulls the frigid “polar vortex” into the sun belt. Many argue that these polar vortex fronts are becoming more common as a result of climate change, as the Arctic ice caps are quickly vanishing and temperatures dozens of degrees higher than average in the north disrupt normal weather patterns.
And yet, the misery from this latest polar vortex event was not equally distributed. While the cold put tens of thousands of people out of power in several southern states, more than 4 million in Texas lost power. Certainly, the shock of the cold was most intense in the southeastern parts of the state, where the temperature only dips below freezing a handful of nights per year. Homes there are lightly insulated and many rely solely on electricity for heat. More than sixty Texans have been reported dead, while thousands face costly water damage from burst pipes.
Despite the “natural” aspects of the disaster, the scale and impact of the electrical grid collapse was exacerbated by leaders’ policy decisions of the past decades. Bluntly, generations of Texas oilmen and politicians have sought to keep both the federal and state governments out of the energy business. The state established the country’s only major separate power grid after FDR passed the Federal Power Act in 1935, which granted federal control over power rates and other standards on the interstate energy trade. In the 1990s, it pursued the most aggressive program of power deregulation in the country, ending local utilities monopolies with state-regulated prices and allowing companies to bid for individual household retail business.
In typical times, this has made electricity prices in Texas 15% cheaper than the US average. But it achieved this at the cost both of grid resilience and social security during disasters. Under local regulations, utilities are not required either to “harden” their infrastructure against the cold, or maintain any reserve generation capacity. Moreover, the “Uber”-ification of the retail market has allowed utilities to charge homes with “flexible” pricing that did not lose power more than 100 times the normal rates based on “peak demand”—with some bills topping $16,000!
This winter disaster complements a host of summer disasters, like massive wildfires and hurricanes, that are easier to identify as a result of a warming world. Climate scientists and sympathetic social scientists and economists are pushing politicians and business leaders to abandon decades of economic orthodoxy that the “market knows best” to better protect our infrastructure and societies from the unexpected impacts of climate change. But they face a daunting challenge—connecting the need for global scale de-carbonization and for widespread social protections against specific disasters in public opinion, all while maintaining urgency in the face of political news exhaustion.
The False Promises of Deregulation
Electric power has been one of the most contentious sites of the neoliberal transformation of the American economy in the past 40 years. Like so many other industries, corporate lobbyists and right wing politicians attacked the “inefficiencies” of the monopolies utilities demanded to recoup to the high sunk costs of their infrastructure investments. America’s state federalism had led to a patchwork of regulations that resulted in energy prices varying widely from state to state.
Starting in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1990s, the federal and state governments passed a series of laws aiming to end these monopolies by forcing grid infrastructure owners to allow any power generators to transmit electricity and non-discriminatory rates. States like Texas and California went further, aiming to give retail consumers direct choices over the electricity they purchase. Leading the charge in Texas was the notorious energy marketer Enron, which imploded in a fraud and tax avoidance scandal in 2001. But the Texas energy market Enron engineered has lived on.
Yet in the aftermath of repeated market and grid failures, the deregulation movement seriously begs the question of whether electricity should be treated as a commodity or a public service. Jess Kincaid argues that piecemeal market-based solutions have failed both because they encourage market manipulation and abandon prudent government oversight over the basic functioning of power infrastructure.
Prior to the Texas disaster, the biggest crisis from a state’s “free-market” power grid occurred in California in 2000. After changing rules to allow all available power utilities to bid to supply power to the California grid, prices did not fall as expected. They soared more than 200%, and the state suffered rolling blackouts for a year. The California attorney general ultimately discovered that generators conspired to intentionally withhold supply at times of peak power demand to spike prices.
This went undetected for so long because the state regulators had been pruned back to mere market facilitators, while the federal power regulator failed to require timely reports on wholesale rates and so did not determine fair market power. A resulting spate of lawsuits sought to recover the unfair fees charged in this period, effectively returning to state price regulations after the fact. The Texas regulator ERCOT is now facing a similar scandal, with Governor Greg Abbott demanding an investigation as to whether price manipulation compounded grid shutdowns due to the cold. Kincaid makes the case for stronger federal regulation that would fairly and effectively integrate America’s three power grids, allowing regions with power to provide it to those that need it during similar crises.
Greening the Grid
Price deregulation is only part of the conservative changes in America’s electrical grid that makes society’s weakest so vulnerable. Our continued reliance on fossil fuels and utter failure to invest in energy infrastructure ensures that weather disasters, occurring with increased frequency, will continue to put millions out of power.
Michelle Davis and Steve Clemmer comprehensively catalogued the growing climate threats in all seasons to the nation’s power supply in 2014. As power demand has grown, the number and damage of billion-dollar plus disasters has more than doubled since the 1980s—2012’s Hurricane Sandy cost the country between $25 and $50 billion alone. Nearly 100 power plants were within four feet of high tide around the country. The incidence and extent of wildfires more than doubled. Lack of access to water during droughts was another, less spectacular, cause of power shutdowns. As most conventional generation relies on creating steam or using water for cooling, dozens of plants have stopped operation when water supplies were not sufficient. And it’s no surprise that a warming world supercharges demand for electrical air conditioning on the hottest days.
Market solutions are not sufficient to solve these problems. Davis and Clemmer identify large scale works necessary to prevent future disasters, including building sea walls and enhancing natural wetlands, and widespread infrastructure “hardening” by burying or rebuilding transmission and distribution lines. In the current crisis, ERCOT officials repeatedly claimed it provided “financial incentives” to encourage power utilities to harden their generators, natural gas lines, and electricity networks against weather extremes. Yet these incentives did not seem to be equal to the cost private companies would face to do so, as natural gas feeder lines to power generation stations froze up across the state.
Better still would be mandating solutions that both reduce the use of fossil fuels as well as reducing energy demand overall. This includes innovative architecture and landscape design that better insulates buildings and switching to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power. Despite Republican politicians’ initial efforts to paint Texas’ investment in wind power as a reason for the energy shortage this February, wind turbines actually provided above average power to the grid for this time of year throughout the crisis.
Facing Our “Atmosfear”?
The Texas winter disaster comes at a time of extreme political polarization following the Trump administration. The educated public is widely aware of the extreme urgency of addressing the long-term causes and short-term ills of climate change, but there seems to be no real political movement aiming to fight for this goal. Vladimir Janković and David Schultz pose the compelling question of whether associating extreme weather events with climate change is the best way to persuade the public to support the most effective future policies.
The scale of climate change is much greater than prior environmental causes like littering, recycling, or local pollution. Janković and Schultz express concern that the oversimplification of its solution—just reduce carbon—is crowding out more pragmatic necessities of a future world that will never get back to “historic” levels of atmospheric carbon even if we stopped all new emissions immediately. Indeed, certain liberal ideas for preventing climate change, such as “cap and trade” don’t deviate from economic orthodoxy. Meanwhile, specific social justice-eworiented policies to protect poor communities in coastal areas, or living near power utilities have languished. “Fear-induced appeals to more extreme weather in a changed climate are unlikely to succeed because people view weather events (and hence climate) as less predictable than other risks and thus may lead to an inability to take action,” they write.
Luckily, programs like the Green New Deal can achieve both the mitigation of climate change and adaptation to a changed world at the same time. Decentralizing the power grid and providing green alternatives provides resiliency both every day and in infrequent weather disasters. Transitioning to electric vehicles and better still, to public transit and cycling, will reduce emissions and improve the reliability and pleasure of our daily commutes. New investments in local energy and weather infrastructure that go beyond the bare minimum will provide both employment to boost the economy and improve the lives of the working class. The biggest disconnect, it seems, remains between the public, which broadly supports these policies, and a professional political class that remains stuck in the orthodox economics of the past.