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Texas power grid disaster shows Lone Star state's bravado is responsible for its mess

The state’s famously independent attitude and secessionist tendency have created a human-made disaster on top of a natural one.
Image: Texas Struggles With Unprecedented Cold And Power Outages
Icicles hang off the state highway 195 sign on Thursday in Killeen, Texas.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

DALLAS — Over days of extreme frigid temperatures and cascading power outages that left over 4 million Texans in the dark, without heat and water and a shrinking food supply, no one was able to offer the state’s 29 million people a timeline on when exactly power, water and heat would be restored and the deep-freeze disaster end.

The decision for the main electric grid to be separate from other grids — unlike that of other states — was born of Texas’ famous go-it-solo attitude.

“Every source of power the state of Texas has access to has been compromised,” Gov. Greg Abbott said, blaming the unaptly named Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the disaster and demanding an investigation, which is the least that should be done.

Outraged Texans haven’t been silent. Many are faulting him and his Republican government for failing to warn them that power would be out for days just as the state faced historic low temperatures — not for some 70 years has anything like this been visited on the state. Buildings and homes aren’t insulated against cold weather. Salted streets and plows that are ordinary sights in northern climates are rare in Texas.

“It was clarifying,” a former Ohio resident told the Texas Tribune, “because now we know when things hit the fan, we’re in it alone.”

That reality explains how this could this happen here; how the nation’s No. 1 energy-producing state couldn’t produce enough power to keep its people safe and warm. There are lots of details and contributing factors, but the bottom line is that the state’s famously independent attitude and secessionist tendency have created a human-made disaster on top of a natural one.

Experts say that the state’s power grid was unprepared for the surge in demand brought about by the storm’s below-freezing temperatures. Extreme cold knocked down many of the gas-fired power plants just as demand was climbing and wind turbines stopped working due to the weather conditions. Government decisions not to require equipment upgrades to withstand extreme low temperatures and its longtime policy of largely operating independently from other grids in the country left the system unprepared for the winter storm.

The decision for the main electric grid to be separate from other grids — unlike that of other states — was born of Texas’ famous go-it-solo attitude. “Texas Secede!” bumper stickers are quite popular, and the commonly used state moniker is the Lone Star State, a name that, unlike the power agency’s, is apt.

The grid was created during World War II when several Texas utilities banded together to form one large operation called the Texas Interconnected System with a goal to stay out of the reach of federal regulators. Operating as a separate entity and not crossing state lines, the Texan power grid keeps federal overseers away and is under no obligation to help other states. When Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan region in October 2012, Texas representatives in Congress opposed giving the states aid.

But that means that now, Texans can’t turn to others to bail them out. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden put Texas on an emergency footing and activated federal officials to help with supplies, coordinate disaster efforts and provide equipment and resources for recovery measures. But in terms of the most important item — electricity, which most homes rely on for heat and for keeping water pipes working and water safe to drink the state can’t be hooked up to outside systems for help, as frequently happens elsewhere in natural disasters.

The state’s fiercely independent spirit is grounded deep in its origin story. At first a part of Mexico, Texas colonists felt the central government was too restrictive and launched a war of independence in the 1830s. The Mexican army’s siege of the Alamo, in present-day San Antonio, cost the lives of nearly all its defenders, among them the frontiersmen James Bowie and Davy Crockett, but gave rise to the rallying cry to “Remember the Alamo!” That imperative motivated Sam Houston to soon secure victory, delivering Texas its independence. It was annexed 10 years later by the United States with the support of most — but not all — of the state’s residents.

As much as Texans love to boast of their independent spirit and long history of standing up to adversity, even as part of the United States, the Lone Star State has been oddly helpless this week. “Don’t Mess with Texas,’’ a slogan originally designed for an anti-litter campaign but perfectly molded to a place renowned and mocked for boisterous bragging, has been messed with.

One of the legacies of this past is a conservative, gun-toting culture in which state leaders cling to climate denial and Republicans try to turn this disaster into an uncivil climate culture war even though their actions were the main contributors to what we’ve been experiencing.Experts blame the system’s initial collapse on legislators and state agencies who ignored or played down warnings from climate scientists and previous storms, as well as those concerning its deregulated power system.

After the 2011 snowstorm that ruined Texas’ Super Bowl week and created havoc in the Dallas metroplex, officials and regulators were warned that more “winterizing” of power infrastructure was necessary, according to the Texas Tribune, citing a federal report. But there was no major follow-up, Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston, says. “They limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”

Yet, this past week, Abbott, fellow Republicans and right-wing media pointed fingers at the proposed solar power policies of the Green New Deal and on the wind turbines that dot the Texas landscape. While frozen wind turbines did contribute to the crisis, a drastic drop in natural gas production, the state’s dominant energy source, was by far the larger contributor. Wind turbines operated as well as expected, Sam Newell, head of the electricity group at The Brattle Group, an energy consulting company that has advised Texas on its power grid, told NBC News. "It's an order of magnitude smaller" than problems with natural gas, coal and nuclear production.

Beyond blaming the wrong bogeyman, several Republican leaders have failed to rise to the occasion by employing a strategy evoking the state’s independent mindset.

“No one owes you or your family anything,” Tim Boyd, mayor of Colorado City, a small West Texas town, told residents complaining about the cold weather. In a post on his Facebook page, he declared, “Nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice!”

Several Republican leaders have failed to rise to the occasion by employing a strategy evoking the state’s independent mindset.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the loudest gung-ho Texas voices, literally left his constituents alone. He flew to Cancun, Mexico, with his family just as Texas was battered by the Arctic storm. This did not go unnoticed, provoking an outcry on social media and calls for him to step down.

He first blamed the decision on “wanting to be a good dad” for his daughters, who wanted to take a trip with school canceled, before admitting the trip was a mistake and quickly coming back to Texas to face both storms.

Boyd’s example doesn’t bode well for Cruz. Even for frontier go-it-alone West Texans, the mayor’s callous comments were too much, and Boyd resigned Tuesday. Is that a sign that Texans have decided there are limits to Texas Tough?