Texas Blackouts Highlight Energy Inequality

A historic and rare winter storm leaves the state’s most vulnerable without power while downtowns are lit up

Victor Zelaya tries to start a fire on a barbecue grill during power outage caused by the winter storm on February 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas
Victor Zelaya tries to start a fire on a barbecue grill during a power outage caused by the winter storm on February 16, 2021, in Houston, Texas. Photo: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Millions of Texas residents have been left without power after a rare and historic winter storm swept through and caused blackouts throughout the state. But poor and minority communities in the state have been hit especially hard by the blackouts, the New York Times reports.

The blackouts are making a bad situation worse — temperatures in Texas this week have dropped to as low as minus 19 degrees in some places, leaving people in the state scrambling for warmth.

The Times spoke with Ricardo Cruz, a 42-year-old father of five who lives in a San Antonio housing project, about how the blackouts are impacting his family. “I need to take my kids somewhere to keep them warm. I don’t know where,” he said on Monday, when the low temperature was 10 degrees in San Antonio.

On Tuesday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the corporation that manages 90% of the state’s electrical grid, said it doesn’t know when the blackouts will end.

And perhaps this is a glimpse into the future as the climate changes and the United States’ energy infrastructure ages. What’s happening in Texas right now — extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change causing the electrical grid to falter — is similar to what’s been happening in California for the past several years. During exceptionally dry and windy conditions, PG&E, the utility that manages electricity in California, cuts off power in order to avoid wildfires.

Bill Magness, the CEO of ERCOT, told Dallas TV station WFAA that the amount of demand on Texas’ energy grid “far exceeds any extreme forecast we’ve had in the past. We need to recalibrate based on what we’ve seen with the storm system.”

But as they recalibrate, some Texans are taking to Twitter to critique how electricity is being distributed in some of the state’s major cities.

“Over 4 million Texas residents (including children and the elderly) without power in freezing temps,” wrote Akilah Bacy, a Houston-based attorney and politician. “We’re told to be team players and cut down thermostats, but downtown is lit up like the Fourth of July? Nah, you’re going to have to tell me something different…”

Others posted photos of Houston’s and Austin’s downtown areas completely lit up and surrounded by darkness.

Situations like what’s happening in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and what happens on a yearly basis now in California, help make the case for more community control over energy grids. Organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America’s East Bay chapter and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network have called on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to create more community control and oversight of the state’s utilities. They argue that if utilities were controlled by communities instead of corporations, that the communities would make decisions that are in their best interest, instead of the interests of shareholders.

Considering how energy companies handle themselves when climate-related disaster strikes, perhaps it is time for more community control.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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