Bob Neal

At first, it was tempting to look down one’s nose and sniff at those Texans who just don’t know how to deal with winter.

Then came news stories about individuals. In Conroe, an 11-year-old boy apparently froze to death in his bed; in Abilene, a man died for lack of electricity to run his dialysis; near San Antonio, a 69-year-old man died in his apartment, where the temperature was 35 degrees. And in San Antonio, a 32-unit apartment house burned to the ground because firefighters had only frozen water to pour on the fire.

It became clear soon that Texans weren’t dealing with just another snowstorm. Texans were dealing with a private-power system that failed them, a state government that failed them, a congressional delegation that failed them. Thank God, they had one another.

Forty-seven states have linked power grids to share electricity when needed. Like, you know, when hell freezes over. Guess which state chose to go it alone. Yeah, Texas.

Rick Perry, ex-governor and U.S. ex-energy secretary, said, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” Texas calls its self-contained system ERCOT, which stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Really. You can’t make up stuff like that.

In the zeal to avoid regulation, Texas has set up a wide-open free market. Texans may buy the cheapest electricity available. So, price varies as demand varies, hour to hour, minute to minute. ERCOT projected the peak demand at 67 gigiwatts. So it built a system capable, when everything works perfectly, of generating 46 gigiwatts. It’s cheap, but it creates an automatic shortage of supply when demand is at its highest.

Result. David Astrein of Houston looked at his bill from Griddy, his provider. It was $2,796 since Feb. 1. Another customer’s bill for 15 days was more than $17,000.

Ten years ago, a similar storm hit Texas. ERCOT and state officials were warned then that the system needed upgrading, specifically insulating pipelines and hardening electricity wires. State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, said, “The Public Utilities Commission identified the incapacity to deal with extreme (weather) and did nothing.”

But Gov. Greg Abbott identified the real villain. Renewable energy. Some 7% of Texas’s electricity comes from wind and solar, but Abbott said the disaster was caused by wind turbines freezing. Some did, because they weren’t insulated, but no solar panels froze. Natural gas froze in the pipelines. Natural gas and oil wells froze.

It was all the fault of the Green New Deal, Abbott said. That’s the new laugh line. Blame U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for everything. When the governor isn’t busy taking on AOC, what does he do? Conor Kenny, ex-planning board chairman in Austin, said, “All he has done is call for an investigation into his own administration.”

You might have expected that even elected officials, given the importance of natural gas to Texas, would have known that gas can begin to freeze at 32 degrees. The temperature on Feb. 15 was 4 degrees in Dallas, colder than in Bangor, where it bottomed out at 10.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, decided to help his daughters, ages 10 and 12, weather the storm (pun intended). So he booked the family for four days in Cancun, about 800 miles south of Houston. Cruz was recorded pulling his wheelie through the Houston airport.

His defenders jumped to his side. Sean Hannity, a Fox “News” host, said Cruz was only taking his daughters to Cancun and would fly right back to Texas to help in relief efforts.

Not so, said Cruz. “The plan had been to stay through the weekend with the family,” which had had a “tough week.” And the hotel was priced at a bargain rate, $309 a night.

“What’s happening in Texas is unacceptable,” Cruz told a reporter in Cancun. Was he referring to the storm disaster or to politicians who can’t talk straight? Or think straight?

Fortunately, Texans responded when their “leaders” didn’t. In Austin, a grocery driver got stuck in a dooryard. The homeowners put her up for five days in a spare bedroom until she could get her SUV towed out of their flower bed. In Houston, homeowners stop plumbers on the street and asked to hire them. Plumbers are hailed as heroes.

Economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that the storm “showed that the entire philosophy behind the state’s energy policy is wrong. And it also showed that the state is run by people who will resort to blatant lies rather than admit their mistakes.”

Here’s the idea of another elected official. U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he hopes that people’s losses will be covered by federal assistance provided by President Biden’s emergency disaster declaration. So much for planning.

Bob Neal is a long-time Texas skeptic. After all, he was married for nearly 52 years to an Oklahoman, and the rivalry goes way beyond football. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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