This week’s winter storms have taken a toll on Mississippians. At its worst, tens of thousands of residents suffered from power outages at some point between Sunday and Thursday evening.
While we don’t want to appear insensitive to those who lost their power, we can point out unapologetically that it could be worse: We could be Texas.
The same winter storms that knocked out power to tens of thousands in Mississippi is counted by the hundreds of thousands in Texas.
Same storms. Different results. And perhaps of most importance, different reasons.
In Mississippi, the outages were a delivery problem. In Texas, it was a supply issue.
Here, our outages were caused by fallen power lines caused mainly by accumulation of ice on the lines themselves or tree limbs, which gave way and crashed onto the power lines.
But in Texas, the issue was more complex.
In Texas, the power grid reached a breaking point early Monday as conditions worsened and knocked power plants offline. Some wind turbine generators were iced, but nearly twice as much power was wiped out at natural gas and coal plants. Forcing controlled outages was the only way to avert an even more dire blackout in Texas, which it narrowly averted. Even so, at one point almost 4.5 million Texans were without power at some point during the week.
Critics pointed out that Ercot, the state agency that regulates energy in Texas, failed to demand that power companies winterize the power grid infrastructure, which while shrinking profits for the power companies would have protected the millions of customers who rely on Ercot to protect the public’s interest. That proved to be a spectacular failure.
Power companies were allowed to gamble with public safety to protect their profit margins.
But perhaps the biggest risk Texas has taken was to establish its own independent power grid which allowed the state to avoid federal regulations that might have protected its citizens at the cost of profits. In doing that, Texas became an energy island, not allowed to transmit power in or out of the state.
That chicken came home to roost this week. With its power supply shut down, Texas could not purchase surplus power from other states.
The state was on its own. We know how that turned out.
What happened in Texas should be a warning to us here in Mississippi, where one of the most popular political pastimes is railing against federal regulation and encroachment on state sovereignty.
Texas protected the profits of private companies while allowing those companies to gamble with an essential service. In the end, it was the public who paid the price when the gamble failed.
When services the public relies on are privatized, there must be oversight, some entity that will put the people ahead of profits if a choice has to be made.
After all, a private company’s primary responsibility is to its stockholders. Government regulations ensure that profits do not put the public at risk.
Federal regulations may sometimes go too far, but an equal threat is they often do not go far enough in protecting the public’s interest.
So the next time a politician complains over “federal over-regulation,” it’s worth taking a closer look. Whose interest is that politician really looking out for?
We know what that answer was in Texas this week.