Utilities should be a public good

Summer Merkle | Cartoonist

Last week in Texas was an unequivocal nightmare. And it was mostly preventable.

As millions of Texans went without power, heat, water or access to food, many people started to look for who was at fault. Some pointed to reports of wind turbines freezing over as the problem, though that has been thoroughly debunked. Others pointed to ERCOT — a nonprofit (led by a board of directors with 13 members, five of whom don’t even live in Texas) charged by the state government to manage Texas’ power grid — having not prepared well enough for the weather, and there seems to quite clearly be some blame to share on their end.

Obviously, the winter weather wasn’t preventable (though maybe Texans, especially conservative Texans, will start taking climate change seriously), but according to Karin Gleason, a climate scientist at the National Centers for Environmental Information at NOAA, meteorologists could see this cold snap coming for weeks. So why didn’t the power companies and ERCOT adequately prepare if they had been told that this was going to happen?

Simple. The privatization of the Texas electric grid does not incentivize power companies to adequately prepare for extreme weather, especially in the winter months in Texas. In fact, ERCOT says that their four primary objectives are to maintain system reliability, facilitate a competitive wholesale market, facilitate a competitive retail market and ensure open access to transmission. When two out of the four responsibilities of this organization who manages Texas’ power grid are to cater to the market as opposed to fully focusing on providing reliable service to citizens, it’s no wonder that electric companies’ bottom line would drive operations and preparation for extreme weather.

As Texans have seen with our electric bills this month, when there is more demand for electricity than the power grid can provide, the price of power shoots through the roof. All over the state of Texas last week, electricity prices peaked over $9,000 per megawatt per hour. On average, the normal price per megawatt per hour is about $26. Now that people are being hit with astronomical electricity bills, this begs the question: why is electricity (and all basic utilities for that matter) not a public good provided adequately to all?

The Texas energy grid that we use today was formed to operate separately from the other two major U.S. energy grids in response to the 1935 Federal Power Act. This was an attempt to sidestep federal regulations. ERCOT was formed in 1970 to make sure the Texas power grid maintained reliability, and about a decade ago, the organization was tasked with more responsibilities as the Texas energy system became more deregulated.

However, that deregulation is simply not serving the public well, as was evidenced dramatically in the last week. Instead, Texas should move toward integrating itself onto the major U.S. electric grids to ensure greater reliability. And most of all, the state and the United States as a whole should move toward making electricity, water and other utilities available to all as a public service as opposed to setting up the electric grids to serve individual corporations.

In the wealthiest nation on the planet, all of our citizens should have access to basic necessities. When people flip their light switches, the bulb should come on regardless of their ability to pay an electric bill, and when people turn on their faucets, clean, drinkable water should come out regardless of their ability to pay a water bill. Not only will this provide necessities to those who don’t have access, but with every person (poor, rich, politicians and constituents) on the same system, reliability of service will naturally come with it.