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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

No Power For The People In Texas

Air Date: Week of

The sudden deep freeze in Texas burst many pipes, putting safe drinking water in short supply. This map shows water quality complaints made to Houston's Public Works department on February 23 and 24, 2021. (Photo: Houston Public Works)

The most frigid days in Texas since 2011 killed dozens as it crippled the state’s power grid , led to acute water shortages and underscored the risks of extreme deregulation. Gretchen Bakke, a cultural anthropologist and author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the recent catastrophic outages in Texas and how America’s electric power system has grown more unstable in recent decades.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Ice was late to form last October in the Arctic Ocean, and the unusually warm air helped magnify dips of the polar jet stream, ultimately blasting the region that includes Texas with the coldest air in a decade. With a low of 2 degrees Fahrenheit, electric power plants in Texas froze up, leaving millions without electricity to heat their homes. Dozens died, some freezing to death and others killed by carbon monoxide as they tried to use vehicles and barbeques to keep warm. Frozen pipes also burst, making water scarce and ruining homes. Climate disruption is one factor for this deep freeze disaster, but the power grid of the Lone Star state was the most direct killer. Texas has its own electrical grid, independent of the rest of the country and federal regulations, so it couldn’t import much power from nearby states, and Texas doesn’t require its power plants to be prepared for extreme cold. The state is now recovering and to explain more I’m joined by Gretchen Bakke. She is an anthropologist and author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. Welcome back to Living on Earth.

BAKKE: Thank you for having me back.

CURWOOD: To what extent is the disaster in Texas linked to the level of privatization we have for electricity in the United States?

BAKKE: So the disaster in Texas, I think you could say there's several reasons. One is that it was too cold for a system which was not designed for cold. And they had a big freeze in 2011 and there's a lot of critique against them for not having taken really basic steps to make their infrastructure, what we call hardened the infrastructure to protect it a little bit more against cold weather, but it is the third hottest state in the country. So a second reason in Texas is that there is a lot of energy trading that is happening there. So it's not necessarily that it's for profit companies, we have a lot of for profit companies in the US, you know, if you live in Chicago and Boston and DC and LA, you're paying into a for profit company. So in Texas it's not necessarily that the for profit company is there it's that you have a radically deregulated electricity market upon which it's easy to make money through quick trades and you have a much more ferocious trading market in Texas than you have in other parts of the country. This is not a cause for the grid going down. This is a place where we can really say that Texas is deeply committed to a certain kind of American freedom that allows for a lot of risk and a lot of profit, especially related to energy endeavors. But at the same time, because this trade is happening at such a rapid rate and with so many players there is more risk for owners of infrastructure to invest even small amounts of money into that infrastructure. Because pennies here and pennies there can mean big losses and big profits in various ways as the money is transacted across the grid.

CURWOOD: Let's talk for a moment about the very nature of electricity. I mean, to me, it's kind of amazing. It's only an instantaneous phenomenon if I understand that correctly.

BAKKE: Yeah, so we use it fresh, you can't really store it. And the minute I say that people are like no, but batteries. And it's like, yeah, batteries aren't storing electricity, right? Batteries are using electricity to create a process that when you reverse it you get roughly the same amount of electricity back. And it's the same thing if you use electricity to pump some extra water up a hill, and then you let that water roll down later through gravity and it makes electricity on the way back down again. But we aren't ever storing electricity. Electricity isn't something even though we trade it, we can't treat it like an object, it's a force. And it would be like if somebody said to you like could you put some gravity in this box and keep it for me and I'll use it later, right? And we say, well, that doesn't make any sense. But somehow with electricity we don't think that or we don't realize that. So we make it and we use it within about a minute. And that means that every time you open up your refrigerator and the little tiny light in your fridge comes on somewhere more electricity is being made. And so you always have to balance the system, what is being asked for, and what is being produced have to be in balance to about the minute. And one of the things that that happened in Texas is that it got really cold and everybody turned up their heat. And so it's this very simple relationship between more electricity is being asked for and there's nothing to turn up.

CURWOOD: So the Biden Harris administration has announced that it's going to push the United States towards carbon pollution free electricity by the year 2035. And right now, on the order of 30% of us CO2 emissions come from electricity generation. So what are the kinds of steps that the administration would need to take to achieve that goal and, and also, at the same time, increase climate resilience throughout the electric infrastructure in the US?

BAKKE: I think the looming problem in this proclamation is what we're going to do about cars, right? Because 30% of our CO2 emissions are coming from electricity that's down from what it was. And it's falling steadily, because you can't make electricity more cheaply than you can with wind or solar power.

CURWOOD: Yeah, let's talk about the numbers. I think the Zero Carbon Action Plan looked that if you wanted to get net zero emissions by the year 2050, we would have to increase renewable generation capacity from the one terawatt, I think to about three terawatts. So that means increasing renewable energy generation capacity by, you know 100 gigawatts every year, obviously, mostly from wind, and solar. And, you know, good sized nuclear plant or a coal fired power plant might generate a gigawatt. So that's a lot of generation capacity that we need to get from the renewable sector.

BAKKE: It's a lot of generation capacity. And when you see it that way it's actually opening up Pandora's box of reforming how it is that we relate to electricity and to the electricity system, because the logic of fossil fuels was people in America, and companies in America can use as much electricity as they want, whenever they want and the price will be fair. And we will produce that electricity as they wish at whatever quantity. And one of the things that begins happening when you can't turn up production because if you have a bunch of wind power, the wind is blowing that's what you got, right, you can't turn it up. So if you can't turn up production, then you have to say okay, what can we do? Turn down consumption. And as soon as you start talking about turning down consumption, you have to say, okay, how do we do that? Well, if you have solar panels on your roof and you're in a little miniature grid, which can connect and unconnect, from the bigger grid with maybe three or four of your neighbors, you could say, for price, because this is America, right? For price, we will remove our demand from your electricity grid right now. And we will just use our battery backup power, we'll use the sun because it's shining, you know, we'll turn our free refrigerators off at night, we don't really need them, we'll go to bed, we'll just turn the whole thing down. It's a radically new idea about how you would balance the system, not always by turning up power generation, but by actually turning down demand. And that asks us to be different kinds of electric citizens. And nobody's quite doing that yet but you could see the worry on the horizon. Because we can't just build out the generation, all this solar, all this wind as if we were replacing fossil fuels. They're just different entities. The wind is not a lump of coal, it works differently and it has makes different infrastructural demands upon the system, and upon us as users of the system and designers of the system.

CURWOOD: How can you sell that it sounds like a step backwards for people?

BAKKE: Well, you could sell it by saying, hey in Texas if you'd had a solar panel that you'd been able to use not to sell electricity onto the grid, but just use for yourself or for your neighbors, who would have had power for the last week. I think you could sell it like that.

CURWOOD: Stability, consistency...

BAKKE: Freedom, independence...

CURWOOD: And not being vulnerable to predatory trading practices.

BAKKE: Yeah. And early on, one of the big selling points of home solar systems was that rather than having this very random electric bill that never makes sense to anybody, like literally never makes sense to anybody. There’s no one I know, that looks at their electric bill and says, I get it, like, I know what I being charged for. Right? Doesn't make sense. So rather than getting this thing that changes every month, for reasons that don't quite make sense, you're paying essentially a mortgage on the solar panel. And then you have a stable 20 year set of payments that you're making. And you don't feel this kind of panic about what is my bill this week? What is my bill this week? What is my bill this week? And a lot of people opted inn just for that just for the security, not nothing to do with being green or saving money or any of that just like I know what my bill is going to be.

CURWOOD: Yeah, like the folks in Texas who woke up latter parts of the catastrophe with many thousands of dollars, charges for household used turning on the lights literally, because of the deregulated variable price structure.

BAKKE: Yeah, absolutely. And those people they opted into paying the real time rate for electricity as opposed to a standardized rate averaged over the year. And that's also something that is to my knowledge only allowed in Texas. So there's all kinds of market volatility happening and other places but we don't pay it, right? It gets averaged into our bill, we pay our whatever the same amount every month, you know, and it changes from year to year little by little. But in Texas, a consumer can opt into that. And then suddenly is charged $9,000 a kilowatt hour right. And they're happy their lights were on but that's not a refrigerator. You'd be like unplugging in the fridge in that situation like you do not want it on, you do not want it on.

CURWOOD: So years ago in America, before the 60s really almost all electric power generation was done as, quote, a public service, it was either a municipal power supply or if it was a private company, they were highly regulated as to how much they could charge and what they would build and they would get, you know, a flat fee on top of their expenses. We've gone away from that, what if anything, did we lose in the process of taking the electric grid out of the realm of being a public utility, like the road and making it into a private service.

BAKKE: So what one of the things we got from that process was dynamism. Because the utilities were so highly regulated. And because the cost of making a kilowatt hour was completely unlinked from their point of view, from the amount of money they made on a kilowatt hour, they were really outside the market economy for almost 50 years. So they didn't know about customer service, they didn't really know how exactly you might make power, the best way, they just sort of thought you just grow and build and grow and build and grow and build this is how we've always done it. And what happened under Carter was this move to say maybe bigger power plants further and further away from the city is not actually the smartest way, maybe we can undercut the utilities. And Carter opened up the possibility for small power producers to sell their electricity into the grid that was run by these larger utility companies. And from that, we got the renewables revolution. That's where it came from. The other thing that happened almost simultaneous to that was this radical deregulation under Reagan. And that then allowed the trade in electricity to begin to try to mimic the trade in other goods. Even though electricity doesn't work in the way that other goods work, the trade and electricity sort of formally became something that looked like the trade and anything. And one of the things we got from that is a chatier system.

Gretchen Bakke is a cultural anthropologist and author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. Gretchen Bakke is a visiting professor of anthropology at the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems at Humboldt University in Berlin. She is also a member of the Anthropocene Working Group at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. (Photo: Courtesy of Gretchen Bakke)

CURWOOD: Gretchen Bakke how likely is it that we would have pretty much universal electricity access in the US without what happened during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the bid to electrify America?

BAKKE: There is no way that we would have universal electricity in the US without the government having decided that people were you could not make a profit off of them, rural people and poor people should have the same technological advantage. And the government decided that and the utilities have to abide by it at their own expense, they have to serve rural people, and they have to serve poor people. We tend to think in America of electricity as a human right. I've seen this more and more, especially among the young, you have potable water, you have clean air, you have electricity. But electricity is not a natural right. Electricity is something that we all have access to, because the government at one point in time decided that this was an American value linked to equal opportunity and not actually driven by profit motive. In fact counter to profit motive. Here are people which must be served from whom one can not earn anything.

CURWOOD: Gretchen Bakke you're an anthropologist, you're not an engineer or finance person. And yet, in many respects you're a go to expert on the issues of the grid. What does your discipline tell us about other things we might need to know going forward in this new world where we're trying to wrestle with the climate emergency and how we handle things like energy?

BAKKE: I think anthropology tells us that ideas that we have about the world create the world that we live in. And so if you take something like an electrical grid, this is not the product of physics. This is the product of a bunch of ideas about what it is to make money, what it is to run a business, what it is to have a social good, what it is to be modern. And we put those ideas into this thing, and that's happening over and over and over and every element of our lives.

CURWOOD: Gretchen Bakke is a cultural anthropologist. Her book is called The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future. Thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

BAKKE: My pleasure. Absolutely.



Learn more about cultural anthropologist and author Gretchen Bakke

Listen to Living on Earth’s interview with Gretchen Bakke on her book The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future

The Washington Post | “The Grid Leaves Us Powerless”

Yale Environment 360 | “How Biden Can Put the US on a Path to Carbon-Free Electricity”

Bloomberg Green | “Biden’s Plea to Remake Grid Gets a Boost on Texas Power Crisis”


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