Not only are people freezing in the dark in Texas and Oklahoma, it was all avoidable.
When it gets really cold, it can be hard to produce electricity, as customers in Texas and neighboring states are finding out. But it’s not impossible. Operators in Alaska, Canada, Maine, Norway and Siberia do it all the time.
What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.
It’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices,” said Matt Breidert, a portfolio manager at a firm called TortoiseEcofin.
And yet the temporary train wreck of that market Monday and Tuesday has seen the wholesale price of electricity in Houston go from $22 a megawatt-hour to about $9,000. Meanwhile, 4 million Texas households have been without power.
As I said before, I’ve lived in places where below-zero temperatures in winter are the norm, and the utility companies were ready for it. I’ve also lived in places where they get hurricanes, and to some degree the utilities were ready for it was well, acknowledging the fact that when the storm hits, power is going to be disrupted.
Of course there was an attempt by the nutsery to blame it all on wind turbines — not only do they kill all the birds and cause cancer, they don’t work in the cold. That’s news to Denmark, where they work just fine, and Copenhagen isn’t exactly a beach town in February.
But wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.
I suspect that there are more than a few politicians and government office holders in Texas who either directly or indirectly have a hand or got a hand-out from the energy companies, working to deregulate and let the free market ring. But it’s really rather cold — pun intended — to give customers cheap energy but do it on the cheap.