The Great Texas Freeze: Lessons One Year Later

On the anniversary of the ruthless energy blackout in Texas, Movement Generation offers up a path towards avoiding repeated collapses of the energy grid.

By Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, Gopal Dayaneni, and Mateo Nube

Artwork: Jackie Fawn ig@jackiefawn

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The visibility of ecological crisis is increasing every day. Last year’s cold snap in Texas, and the corollary collapse of its energy infrastructure, was but one example of this fact. Humanity is up against the limits of nature’s ability to tolerate globalized industrial production.

What actions would better position Texans to navigate the next superstorm in a favorable manner? Furthermore, how can we reimagine and reconstruct energy systems around the country, so that these dance in a regenerative rhythm with our planet’s life support systems?

The clock is ticking, and we need to make new meaning out of this pivotal moment in planetary history. We can no longer tinker around the edges of an ever-expanding crisis: Tackling this reality with clarity may be the biggest and boldest challenge our species has ever faced.

Here are some important strategic frameworks, formulated by Movement Generation, that we think will help us meet the challenge:

Harnessing Shocks & Directing Slides

Instability has become a defining feature of our times. In many ways, this instability is the new landscape of social struggle. It is useful to classify the economic and ecological disruptions that make up this “new normal” of instability into two groups: shocks and slides.

Shocks present themselves as acute moments of disruption. These are, for example, market crashes, huge disasters, and uprisings. Hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Katrina were shocks. The Fukushima nuclear disaster was a shock. 9/11 was a shock. Covid-19 was a shock.

Slides, on the other hand, are incremental by nature. They can be catastrophic, but they are not experienced as acute. Sea level rise is a slide. Rising unemployment is a slide. The disappearing snowpack and groundwater supply in California, which props up industrial agriculture in the state, is a slide.

While they share a set of root causes, the scale, pace, and implications of shocks and slides differ and, therefore require different responses by social movements. One of our key roles, as organizers and social actors, must be to harness the shocks and direct the slides — all towards achieving the systemic, cultural, and psychic shifts we need to navigate the changes with the greatest equity, resilience, and ecological restoration possible.

Texas interpreted through a Shocks, Slides, & Shifts lens

In this context it helps to unpack the debacle in Texas by naming the Shocks and Slides that set the stage for it:

The Shock, clearly, was an extreme weather event that brought sustained Montana-like snow, freezing temperatures, and severe winter weather to a state ordinarily associated with mild and hot weather, year-round.

Two Slides were in play: Melting of the Arctic, also known as the collapse of the polar vortex in the Arctic and massive privatization and deregulation over the last 25 years.

This second slide, in particular, played a key role in creating cruel and unusually harsh conditions for millions of people in Texas:

· A complete collapse of energy and water supplies in communities of color and working-class communities;

· People resorting to burning their own furniture & drinking melted snow to survive;

· $10,000 electricity bills.

This dystopic, deregulated Mad-Max reality, which literally murdered many, was not pre-destined. It was a deliberate political choice. Driven by greed, extraction, and the myth of white supremacy.

Which gets us to the Shift we truly need, one that will help us all elegantly navigate this ‘new normal’ of recurring climate instability: Energy Democracy.

Democratizing Risk. Democratizing Decisions. Democratizing Governance.

What is there to learn from this crisis? How can we quickly course correct? Or more specifically: How would this situation have been different, in a world where Texans were already governed by Energy Democracy?

Here are some key observations:

Reduced reliance on vulnerable fossil energy. Under energy democracy, Texas would not have relied substantially on natural/fossil gas for power — and reliance on natural gas power was the primary cause of all the outages. Freezing natural gas pipes, uninsulated natural gas power plants, electricity outages, and other equipment malfunctions at natural gas drilling/extraction sites were the most significant source of power outages.

Increased awareness and attention to climate risk in energy planning. Under energy democracy, Texas communities would have been aware of and engaged in planning for the long-term consequences of our energy actions. The increased risk of infrastructure damage from climate risks, from hurricanes to severe winter weather brought on by the collapse of the polar vortex in the Arctic would be very much on the radar of communities planning and managing their own energy system, and communities would have prioritized preparing for and investing in resilience to these threats, rather than leaving the job to big energy companies that act primarily in a state of climate denial.

Investments in the resilience of clean energy. Under energy democracy, resilience and community safety would have been a priority, rather than the goal of cutting every corner in the pursuit of profit maximization. A Texas energy system rooted in energy democracy would have invested in the infrastructure protections to allow clean energy to keep the lights on. For example, outages of wind power due to turbines freezing up (a minor cause of issues in comparison to the gas industry) could easily be prevented with low-cost technologies to prevent ice-build-up (heating elements, etc). These technologies are regularly employed in more northern states that regularly encounter deep winter freezes to prevent clean energy production from dropping. (While it was hitting 10 degrees in Texas, it was -20 in Minnesota. Wind turbines there kept working just fine). While these investments would mean just a tiny bit more cost day-to-day, they would prevent catastrophic costs in dollars, human health, and lives during a crisis.

Technological grid resilience. Under energy democracy, more communities have local grids with local storage and clean energy generation that are able to keep the power on in local areas when the larger grid goes down. While sudden climate stress like last year’s deep freeze in Texas might pose a challenge to keeping power on in all places in a community, at minimum, local grids could provide power for emergency services like community warming centers, medical facilities, communications/cell phone charging. If robust enough, they could result in entire communities being able to retain power when the broader grid goes down.

Social and human grid resilience: Under energy democracy, people are equipped with the tools to work together to create energy solutions for their own communities. People are in touch with the energy supply, management, and use, and know how to manage their communities’ energy use during crisis to prioritize key needs (heat/shelter, preventing pipes from freezing, food preservation/cooking, medical services, communications). This makes it easier to maintain power for a community when the system is under stress and some of the production sources are cut off and creates less challenge to restoring power to a wide range of areas after a crisis.

The path forward is clear. Frontline communities, across many localities, are already organizing towards reclaiming their energy grids, so as to both 1) remove the profiteers from the centers of control and 2) root energy systems in ecologically regenerative practices and democratic governance. We need this energy revolution everywhere. Let’s get to work.

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