With millions of Texans still without power in the wake of a winter storm and frigid temperatures, everyone is looking for someone to blame.
Many Democrats are blaming Gov. Greg Abbott (R) for failing to adequately prepare for the storm. Many conservatives are blaming the environmental movement – insisting that frozen wind turbines show the limits of alternative energy sources. (This is a gross exaggeration.)
But the primary fall guy is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), an independent organization that operates Texas’ power grid.
“This was a total failure by ERCOT,” said Abbott on Tuesday. “These are the experts. These are engineers in the power industry. These aren’t bureaucrats or whatever the case may be. These are specialists, and government has to rely upon on these specialists to be able to deliver in these types of situations.”
The story, as you might guess, is actually slightly more complicated than that. It’s rooted in Texans’ views of their state as a quasi-independent country – and a desire to have as little federal interference in their lives as possible. Yes, there are politics at the root of this.
“Texas’ secessionist inclinations have at least one modern outlet: the electric grid,” wrote the Texas Tribune back in 2011.
To understand what is happening right now in Texas – and who’s to blame – you have to go back to 1935, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which governed electricity sharing and sales between the states. Basically, it allowed the federal government to regulate states who brought power in from outside their state lines.
Texas, never a fan of federal intrusion, set up its own power grid system – split between northern and southern Texas – to avoid any federal involvement. That led eventually to the formation of ERCOT in 1970 and this strange fact: There are three power grids in the United States – the eastern power grid, the western power grid and, well, Texas.
Yes, you read that right. Texas has its own power grid. Because it is Texas.
And while being independent from the yoke of federal regulation has always been a point of pride for Texas, the limits of that strategy are being realized now. See, because Texas – or at least 90% of the state – is controlled by ERCOT, they can’t simply borrow power from either the eastern or western power grids. That’s never been a problem before because Texas has always been able to generate more power than its citizens need. But the reality is that Texas is an electricity island, which isn’t a problem until the lights go out, and you don’t have enough power in the state to turn them back on.
Now, there’s no question that ERCOT bears some blame here, too. When your only job is to manage a power grid and that power grid fails miserably, that’s a big problem. And as the Houston Chronicle noted on Tuesday, the chair of ERCOT lives in Michigan and the vice chair lives in California – so they are not exactly feeling the brunt of their bad strategy.
While ERCOT is a nonprofit, it is overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the Texas state legislature. The head of the PUC is DeAnn T. Walker, who was appointed to that role by Abbott in 2017. Prior to that post, she was a senior adviser to Abbott on regulatory issues.
The state legislature is already agitating about addressing the ERCOT situation, with Abbott calling it an emergency issue for the 2021 legislative session – meaning that a bill can be passed within the first 60 days of the legislative session, which began last month. Texas state House Speaker Dade Phelan is calling for committee hearings to investigate ERCOT by the end of the month.
Here’s the reality: In a situation as catastrophic as the one Texas finds itself in right now, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But the roots of Texas’ current electricity crisis can be traced all the way back to the cries of “Remember the Alamo” – and the double-edged sword of the state’s fiercely protected independence.