The Morning Call (Sunday)
Texas, burned by blackouts, mulls dirty word: Regulation
AUSTIN, Texas — All the groceries spoiled and the water was out for days. Then Melissa Rogers, a believer in the Texas gospel that government should know its place, woke up to a $6,000 energy bill before the snow and ice even melted.
“The roads were awful, but we were running around town trying to get money from every single bank we could possibly think of,” said Rogers, 36, whose Fort Worth family of four was left with $80 after the charges drained her accounts and took her husband’s paycheck.
Now, the emerging response to a winter catastrophe that caused one of the worst power outages in U.S. history is not the usual one in Texas: demands for more regulation.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wants to force power plants to winterize after nearly half of the state’s generation capacity was knocked offline by subfreezing temperatures. There’s also new support for guardrails on Texas’ deregulated electric market to prevent astronomical energy bills that financially devastated homeowners like Rogers, who frantically emptied her savings after wholesale prices, which are typically as low as a couple of cents per kilowatt-hour, spiked to $9 per kilowatt-hour.
At $9 a kilowatt-hour, the average U.S. home would have
a monthly electric bill of about $8,000.
“In a lot of respects, we’re victims of our own attempt to let free market forces work,” said Republican state Rep. Drew Darby, who sits on the House Energy Resources Committee that is digging into the outages.
His rural district includes two or three homes in the Texas oil patch that burned down as the power lurched off and on, and he heard of plants that couldn’t burn piles of frozen coal outside. Even before the storm dropped 6 inches of snow as far south as San Antonio, generators in Texas were required to submit safeguard plans for cold weather. Darby suspects enforcement was scant.
“Typically, you know, the
Texas Legislature pushes back on overregulation,” Darby said. “However, my view on something as basic to human survival and need is we need to have reliable power and water.”
At least six board members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, resigned this week. Officials in Houston have opened their own investigations into the outages, and prosecutors in Austin say they will investigate potential criminal wrongdoing.
Just weeks before the outages, Abbott had ordered state agencies to look for ways to sue the new Biden administration over energy regulations that he said would hamper the state’s biggest industry.