Senator Judith Zaffirini
Last Tuesday, having shivered their way through the first round of the winter blast, Leander residents braved the cold and flocked to their local HEB to purchase supplies for the week ahead.
Then the power went out.
Confronted suddenly with dozens of anxious shoppers and no way to collect a payment, store employees simply said, “Go ahead,” and let their patrons leave, baskets of food in hand.
Texans helping Texans.
Amidst our first truly statewide disaster in decades, press reports and social media feed immediately filled with stories reflecting Texans’ remarkable humanity and generosity.
Those fortunate enough to have power, heat, and water took in less-fortunate neighbors; community members organized mutual aid efforts and impromptu food and water distributions, and donations flowed to food banks and other critical nonprofits.
As proud as we should be of the goodness of individual Texans, however, many of us are equally enraged by the collapse of a system intended and expected to keep our citizens safe.
Make no mistake: This was a manmade disaster. As we mourn the senseless loss of dozens of lives and offer our heartfelt condolences to grieving families and loved ones, we also must seek accountability from the institutions that utterly failed all of us before and during the storm.
Let’s start with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the entity charged with the integrity of our independent electric grid—with a name that would be comical at this time, were it not for the magnitude of its failure.
The council’s sole focus is keeping the lights on, which includes ensuring our infrastructure is weatherized.
After our last major winter storm in 2011, federal officials and national industry representatives recommended ERCOT implement mandatory weatherization protocols for power generators. They failed to do so, with deadly consequences.
What’s more, as ERCOT mandated load sheds and supposedly rolling outages to stabilize the grid, it failed to communicate effectively about the situation.
Its demands resulted in blackouts that, in many cases, lasted for days and caused irreparable harm.
As frustration set in, ERCOT’s leaders removed information about its board members—one-third of whom are not Texan—from its website, confusing an anxious public desperate for information.
Their (in)actions failed to live up to the public trust placed in their positions, warranting due consideration about ERCOT’s structure, governance, and independence.
Of course, ERCOT doesn’t act alone. It is overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), an agency charged with regulating the state’s electric power generators, distributors, and providers.
Reports indicate it bears equal responsibility by allowing utility companies to ignore weatherization practices considered commonplace elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad.
The absence of those protocols left generators of all kinds unable to produce power and millions of Texans in the cold.
House and Senate investigatory committees will convene this week, and what the energy regulators and providers did, could have done, or failed to do will come to light.
Count me among the legislators who want to get to the bottom of this and ensure it does not happen again.
Ultimately, however, much of the responsibility lies with the Texas Legislature. For decades we have debated “big” versus “small” government.
No matter its size, Texans—the HEB employees in Leander, the Good Samaritans taking care of their neighbors—deserve a government that is responsive and responsible, and it is my hope we will act accordingly.
The Legislature undoubtedly will pass reforms, ask difficult questions and help resolve spiking energy bills in the coming weeks, but real change will take time, introspection, and bipartisan collaboration.
That must begin with reconsidering the orthodoxy that brought us to this point.
Regarding the energy market, that means questioning the merits of hands-off oversight and an independent grid, but this year’s cascading crises warrant a broader view: Is less government really the path to human flourishing, or can we find a middle ground between barebones minimalism and bloated bureaucracy?
I believe we can, and we must. Texans have demonstrated repeatedly their unmatched compassion, kindness, and resiliency this year. Our government must too.
Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is the second-highest-ranking member and highest-ranking female and Hispanic member of the Texas Senate. She represents the 21st Senatorial District, which spans 18 counties across Central and South Texas.