(Forbes, 18.Feb.2021) — In Houston, TX, the Energy Capital of the World, I have been without power and running water for three days. I and millions of other Texas residents are currently enduring the consequences of one of the worst instances of engineering malpractice, business mismanagement, and political irresponsibility in the electricity sector in the United States. Call it PTSD, but the events since last Sunday bring back memories from when I lived in my native Caracas, Venezuela, in the 2000s, where mismanagement, political corruption, and technical incompetence in Hugo Chávez’ birthing socialist dictatorship started to deteriorate the country’s world-famous utility infrastructure, causing power and water outages that lasted for hours, sometimes days. Today, the situation is far more dire.
The reason for these flashbacks is very simple: Incompetence and lack of foresight in business and public policy look the same everywhere, at least at face value. This is so whether they occur in a democracy or a dictatorship, in a right-wing or a left-wing government. The key difference lies in how long the shenanigans are allowed to go on, what is done to stop them, and whether those responsible are held accountable. Considering that, for the last 40 years (e.g. 1983 and 1987 freezes, 2011 Groundhog Day Blizzard, etc.), the Texas electricity sector has failed to handle extreme winter weather events with little to no signs of improvement during this period, we can ascertain that Texas has let the shenanigans go on for too long.
A Tough But Fully Relevant Comparison
Of course, Venezuela’s socialist regime is a bloody dictatorship in permanent violation of human rights. Conversely, The Great State of Texas is a staple of fortitude, freedom, and free enterprise worthy of respect and admiration by all Americans and people around the world. Any comparison with Venezuela has to be surgical in focus and backed up by evidence. Unfortunately, the focus is crystal clear, that is, the electricity sector. And the evidence is being reported by news outlets all over the world. Plus, when you hear former and current Texas government officials say to their constituents things like we “owe you NOTHING […] Only the strongest will survive,” (details on this ahead) or imply that Texans would be glad to endure more than “three days without power” as long as the electricity sector does not have to comply with federal regulations in order to ensure service reliability (more on this ahead as well), we all should worry about the underlying dynamic of the situation. In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro (and Hugo Chávez before him) resorts to similar rhetoric, asking Venezuelans to make outlandish sacrifices on behalf of the Socialist Revolution, whose only objective is to further enshrine and enrich those in power. Asking Texans to gladly endure freezing temperatures and stare death in the face in order to advance someone’s political agenda is no different.
It took Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Nicolás Maduro fifteen years to take down Venezuela’s utility infrastructure. Yes, it took teamwork by democracy’s worst foes around the world. Yet it took Winter Storm Uri two days to take down Texas’ (as stated earlier, it is not the first time). The thing is, Uri should have been a rare but non-concerning weather phenomenon, yet it became catastrophic only because of the unreliable Texas electrical system, focused primarily on squeezing the last cent out of every watt while almost blatantly ignoring long-term reliability, especially under extreme but predictable conditions. “Buy a generator and deal with the outage yourself,” seems to be their motto.
No Society Can Function On Sheer Individualism And Profiteering
When assessing the dependability of Texas’ electricity generation and transmission, we are not considering the devastation resulting from hurricanes like Harvey and Ike. That would be unfair. We are talking about the brazen refusal by state authorities and some industry players, for over twenty years, to make all-too-well known necessary investments to adapt power generation in Texas to freezing temperatures, which are rare in Houston, but happen every year in the central and northern regions of the state. As a result, 75% of Texas households have been without power for three days. To make matters worse, there are millions without running water, and those who have it, must follow a boil-water advisory. Beyond that, supermarkets and grocery stores ran out of supplies, including the now indispensable bottled water. The outlook? Bleak. Rolling power outages are scheduled to continue into the weekend and the future of the water service is a mystery.
Of course, Uri is just a proxy. The parties really responsible for this debacle are those who, despite knowing for the last twenty years what to do to correct Texas’ power generation and distribution, decided to ignore said measures, focus almost entirely on optimizing profits, advance a non-sensical “Texas don’t need help from nobody” type of chant, and play the odds with people’s lives and property.
In the words of Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, “Texas’ unwillingness to regulate [the electricity sector] turns out to be an unwillingness to buy insurance. Sure, it makes power cheap most of the time. But we wound up with a system designed for making a quick buck under optimal conditions. When something unusual happens, it’s a crisis.”
Ridiculing People And Asking Them To Make Outlandish Sacrifices Is Not Good Leadership
And if you are wondering where such shortsightedness and negligence come from, you only have to read former Colorado City, TX Mayor Tim Boyd’s statement, where the prevailing business and political philosophies ultimately reveal themselves. He wrote in a since-deleted Facebook post, “The City and Council, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING. […] Only the strong will survive and the weak will [perish].” He had to resign following these remarks; yet the underlying interests and practices that fueled his words have been more than visible since Sunday night.
But if you did not know who Boyd is and doubt the traction of his views in the current situation, then you should listen to former Texas Governor and former Trump Administration Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He was quoted saying, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business. Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.” In other words, for Perry, Texans are blind sheep willing to go to hell and back to support his political agenda.
If we are to take Boyd and Perry’s words seriously (and we should), we are to conclude that in their view, and that of those who support them, we are supposed to pay and trust utility providers, but have no right to expect anything in return. We are also supposed to stand at the gates of hell to support a business model, industry standard, and political agenda that have only caused misery for Texans every time the weather gets the hiccups. At the end of the day, they hope, Texans are so “self-reliant” that they should be willing to go back to the Middle Ages for no other reason than political fanaticism. Every man and woman for themselves. No social contract, no community, no reliable businesses. No one owes anyone anything. The Wild West.
True leadership requires to deliver your best to whomever you are sworn/contractually obliged to serve. For elected officials, their constituents. For businesses, their customers. Phrases and attitudes that convey messages like, “you deal with it yourself,” “we owe you nothing,” and “you should be willing to endure this hardship and much worse just to help me achieve my goals,” have no place in the exercise of moral and effective leadership. Yet we’ve seen plenty of that in the last week. Actually, it explains the Texas outages in their entirety.
Just as Hugo Chávez’ 21st Century Socialism (Socialismo del Siglo XXI) is a complete failure, so is this “Texas goes its own way-Texas don’t need nobody-When anyone rightfully criticizes what we do, we make them feel like dirt” attitude reflected in Boyd and Perry’s words, which has left over 3.7 million households without power, millions without water, and at least ten deaths related to carbon-monoxide poisoning and hypothermia. Not to mention the hundreds to thousands of dollars in additional expenses per household in wasted food, broken appliances, and burst pipes, among other losses.
The History Leading To This Year’s Texas Power Crisis Is Long
After the Groundhog Day Blizzard took down the Texas electrical system in 2011 right before the Super Bowl, a federal report prescribed the necessary weatherizing measures to update power generation and distribution in the state to cope with freezing temperatures. Yet ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and who knows what other parties involved, decided to sweep the report under the rug, continue to pocket the fees, dismiss the necessary investments, and hope for the best. But when the worst (actually, not so much the worst but just a predictable challenge) came to pass, that is, Winter Storm Uri, they thought they would get away with crime by telling people expired pre-cooked PR scripts like, “We apologize for the inconvenience”, “We appreciate your understanding”, and my favorite, “Texans are strong.” My answer, “Save your flattery. I know we are strong. The point is, we Texans pay our electricity service fees every month and property taxes every year, so you had better deliver; and you have not, for more than two decades. It’s not only about having power on a regular day. It’s also about having power when facing deadly freezing temperatures. This should be obvious.”
After decades of being the only U.S. state hosting its own independent (actually, isolated) electrical grid, Texas’ ERCOT and state government continue to defend their stubborn, arrogant refusal to join the federal grid, thus denying state residents all the obvious strategic, tactical, technical, and backup benefits. The premise? Texans do not need help and can fend for themselves. The reality? Texas do need help, and no, they cannot fend for themselves. As Uri and subsequent weather conditions wreck havoc across Texas and the local grid cannot purchase/borrow energy from the federal grid, Texas has had to ask for other forms of help from the Federal Government. Governor Abbot requested that the Biden White House issue a Federal Disaster Declaration (which has been granted) to gain access to FEMA funds and other resources, and activated a legislation that grants Texas licenses to out-of-state plumbers to address the thousands of broken pipes across the state due to frozen water, proving what everybody knows: Texans do need help; indeed, everyone needs help, especially during times of crisis. And the help would have been much cheaper and less traumatic if Texas had been able to obtain additional electricity from the national grid when it needed it most to avoid the power outages with all of their monumental human and economic costs.