Power Grids Are Failing All Over America

We can no longer trust our nation’s infrastructure to keep our families safe, happy, and healthy

Photo: Apexphotos/Getty Images

Last Wednesday, the snow started to fall thick and fast in Denver, Colorado. My kids went to bed hoping for a snow day. They’ve spent most of their childhood in California, and sometimes we had smoke days there. These days were ominous and choking, ash fell from the sky and got stuck in our eyelashes. But snow days? Snow days are sleds and snowmen. My daughter heard that if she wore her pajamas to bed inside out on a snowy night, she’d wake up to a snow day. That night, we all went to bed wearing our pajamas inside out.

We woke to 10 inches of fresh snow. It was a big snowstorm for Denver, our seventh largest February storm since 1874. Breakfast had a festive air. The kids chanted “Snow day! Snow day! Snow day!” as they bundled downstairs to watch Phineas and Ferb. I listened to them chant and thought of the children in Texas who had recently died because of a few snow days. Lights went out, heaters went cold, and frozen pipes burst because the Texas power grid had failed.

The power grid may be abstract to the common houseperson. If we’ve paid our bills, we expect to be able to turn on a light, warm an oven, heat the rooms that house ourselves and our children. After the Texas power grid went down I thought, Should a family be able to pay an electrical bill to have light or water or heat? Are those things that must be earned, or are they a right?

We know that pipes run from a gas facility for miles and miles. They snake under the ground and then spread throughout our community. We know electrical wires hang above us, and run under the ground too. If wind powers some of our electricity, we expect the wind to blow and the turbines to turn and send that power to us. But most people do not know where the pipes run under us, or how the wires connect to our homes. They are a given, like breath. Until they’re not.

In the summer, Texas can produce 86,000 megawatts of power. In the winter, the state’s power plants shut down for maintenance, and production falls to 67,000 megawatts. This winter’s shutdowns were scheduled in advance. What wasn’t planned was a storm cold enough to stop wind turbines from turning and freeze natural gas supply lines. As the temperature in Texas plummeted, 46,000 megawatts of power went down with it. And when the power grid goes down, children die.

If we’ve paid our bills, we expect to be able to turn on a light, warm an oven, heat the rooms that house ourselves and our children.

An 11-year-old in Conroe, Texas saw snow for the first time during the deep freeze. He played in it for a half hour before being called inside; his mom was worried he’d get too cold. Then the power went out in their mobile home for days. Temperatures hit 12 degrees at night. The little boy died of hypothermia in the bed he shared with his toddler brother, trying to keep him warm. His mother started a GoFundMe to return her son’s body to Honduras. He always promised he’d grow up and take his mom home to see her parents. Now she must send him home alone.

A mother and her 7-year-old daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The mother went into an attached garage and turned on her car, trying to charge her phone and generate heat. She died in the car. Her little girl died a few feet away, in their home. Her father and brother were rushed to the hospital. When they woke up from the carbon monoxide poisoning, half of their world was gone. Family members are raising money for their care and for a funeral.

Three children — Olivia, Edison, and Colette — died in a house fire after their family tried to use a fireplace to heat their home during the power outage. Their grandmother died alongside them. Their parents survived. Olivia, Edison, and Colette’s mother had to be restrained from running into the burning house to try to save her children. Instead of being able to raise her children, their mother is now raising funds for scholarships in their names.

Children on ventilators were left breathless as the power went out and generators ran out of gasoline. Frozen pipes burst, water poured from ceilings, ruining couches, family photos, and medical equipment. People stumbled through suburban neighborhoods, searching for firewood in well-kept, useless yards. Women’s shelters lost light and warmth. Forced out of their homes by cracked and spewing pipes, single mothers took shelter in buses with their children. Laptops used for remote school were lost in the deluge. Hispanic and Black neighborhoods were the first to lose power and the last to have it restored.

None of this was a surprise. State politicians and industry executives knew the power grid was composed of pipes that could crack and systems that could fail. They’d been told the power grid could not bear a storm of this size. They’d been told storms like this were coming. Regulators proposed changes, including winterization of power plants and pipes. Power companies exercised their right to refuse them. They refused to protect their energy infrastructure because of profit, power, and preconceived notions.

Texas politicians didn’t want to join the federal power grid. If they did, they’d be admitting the state was not always self-sustaining. If they winterized their pipes, they’d be admitting the climate is changing when they were certain it was not. Power companies were not just worried about the cost of winterizing their systems. They were also eager to take advantage of the occasional freeze.

We focus so much on the nuclear family that we think the home is a self-sustaining power source.

A 2014 polar vortex in Texas nearly knocked the grid offline. Many experts said it was a warning of worse to come. Some in the Texas energy sector hoped this was true. Power prices aren’t regulated in Texas, they’re subject to the free market. Power companies compete for customers; they also make huge profits off of them. Increased demand because of a freeze means higher prices for customers and higher profits for power companies. During the deep freeze, the free market delivered $5,000 electric bills to customers in Texas.

ProPublica reports that after the 2014 polar vortex, at least one power executive was nearly giddy from the increased usage:

“This business benefited significantly from increased basis and storage spreads during the polar vortex earlier this year,” Joe McGoldrick, an executive with Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, said in a November 2014 earnings call. “To the extent that we get another polar vortex or whatever, absolutely, we’ll be opportunistic and take advantage of those conditions.”

It’s easy for those of us who do not live in Texas to judge this outcome. Other states have regulated power industries, our grids don’t fail in extreme weather. We shouldn’t be so smug. Texas is defined by energy, yet it couldn’t provide enough power to keep all of its children alive during a few snow days. America is defined by opportunity and can’t keep it’s children from becoming hungry and homeless. Opportunity is only as good as the grid that powers it.

We focus so much on the nuclear family that we think the home is a self-sustaining power source No matter what the home unit looks like — children, roommates, single living — we are not capable of self-power. There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of invisible grids that connect our homes to one another: health care, education, childcare, food access, and mental health. When there is a failure in any one of those systems, the light goes out. Can you see the lights flickering on and off across our country?

Schools in underserved neighborhoods cannot afford teachers, textbooks, or counselors. Parents cannot afford to work because childcare is too expensive and wages are too low. Women cannot afford to not work because their unpaid labor is exploited by our country. We only think children deserve to be cared for properly if their parents have figured out how to pay for their care. Food deserts are real and so is the bureaucracy that keeps the hungry off food stamps. Children who are neurodiverse are handcuffed and pressed to the ground by police officers. When a little girl is diagnosed with a brain malformation, she must sell lemonade to fund their own medical treatment. Over the past 50 years, an estimated 600,000 children have died because of inequality. Why do we allow this to happen?

We say the cost of universal health care would be too high, as if the lives that a lack of health care claims isn’t a price too many pay. We raise money in our PTAs for our neighborhood schools, but not the ones across town; those houses should find a way to make more money and donate it to their schools. When children do not have enough to eat we blame their parents, as if a child could have chosen better, more profitable creators. We let the free market decide who gets help and who does not because we believe in the market — or rather, we believe in taking advantage of it.

I am not a social scientist or economist. I do not know how to regulate society. I can tell you this pandemic is the warning of worse to come, the places where the pipes have already cracked. The power grids we depend on, and often exploit, can no longer exist in our minds as abstract. They are physical, and they are failing.

On Tuesday, as Texans were still coming to grips with the damage done, Governor Abbott issued an executive order ending the state’s mask mandate and increasing all business and facility capacity to 100%. Leaders recoiled at the order; it was too soon, they said. There are new strains of the virus, Covid-19 infections are up, and only 7.19% of Texans have been vaccinated. Small businesses have suffered terribly, but easing mask restrictions does not protect them. Health experts say it’s not time to ease restrictions. Without support of a government mandate, businesses like the Texas grocery chain H-E-B will continue to require their employees to mask, but can only urge their customers to do so. Gov. Abbott told reporters, “People and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

President Biden recently announced there will be enough vaccine supply for the adult population of the U.S. by the end of May. Why can’t Governor Abbott wait to declare a return to normal until it’s safe for Texans to make the return? Texas children died in a snowstorm because of a lack of government intervention. In response to his executive order, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement, “At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Profit, power, preconceived notions. For these things we let dreaming children die.

✒️Women’s work, economic justice and the home. Work in Slate, GEN, Medium + my newsletter, homeculture. Subscribe at megconley.com

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