Publicly funded state agencies needing to keep the lights and heat on during the freeze racked up huge bills. In February 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prisons, paid about $1.2 million for natural gas. This February the cost soared to nearly $8.5 million.
The University of Texas-Austin paid $940,000 for gas in February 2020. In 2021: $3.65 million.
Last month, state legislators passed laws to help companies borrow billions of dollars to pay for storm-inflated power costs and bill ratepayers over time to pay it back. Yet well before that, many Texas cities that own public utility companies already had been forced to scrounge up additional millions to cover gas and electric bills hugely inflated by the storm-caused shortages.
Outside of Dallas, Denton borrowed $140 million. Georgetown, just north of Austin, borrowed $48 million to cover the cost of providing electricity to its residents during the storm. Ratepayers will have to cover that, as well as a projected $5 million in interest and costs over the term of the loan.
Other cities dipped into their savings accounts to pay the storm-inflated power costs, depleting reserve funds. Garland siphoned millions from its rainy-day account. Weatherford, a small city outside of Fort Worth, drew down $13.7 million.
Wherever the money came from, eventually it will be repaid by local citizens, said Steve Moffitt, vice president of Schneider Engineering, a Boerne-based company working with municipal utility companies across the state to find the extra money. “At the end of the day, it has to come from customers somewhere,” he said.
The small city of Hearne borrowed $1.9 million to cover costs incurred by its publicly owned electric utility company. Ratepayers will pay off the debt over the next 10 years, said City Manager John Naron.
“Usually if we get a $2 million loan, we’re fixing streets, the sewage system, street lights,” he said. “Now we’re borrowing $2 million and getting nothing for it.”
When the dust cleared on the biennial legislative session that ended June 1, one thing was clear. Although it was ordinary Texans who suffered when the freeze hit four months ago — millions were left shivering in the dark for days; hundreds died — it is also ordinary Texans who would foot much of the bill, said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas.
“Consumers are being forced to prop up the system that failed us,” he said.
The magnitude of the financial fallout is difficult to digest. Experts estimate that based on the sky-high prices, nearly $50 billion-worth of electricity was consumed in Texas during the one-week storm — 250 times the normal cost, said Beth Garza, an energy analyst for R Street who from 2014 to 2019 was ERCOT’s independent market monitor, which watchdogs the electricity market.
For those forced to buy gas and electricity during the height of the freeze it was expensive at best, catastrophic at worst. Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s largest and oldest member-owned electric company, declared bankruptcy after racking up about $2 billion in charges when its generators failed.
To spare ratepayers the financial pain of getting hit with giant utility bills all at once, last month state lawmakers passed several laws to help the biggest losers borrow money and pay it back over time. The laws are complex, and analysts and companies said they are still deciphering how they will be used.
Pending high-stakes legal battles over the storm’s giant bills add more uncertainty to the final tab. “There are a zillion contractual disputes underway right now,” said Garza, pointing out that those, too, will end up costing companies – and their customers — giant legal fees.
Still, analysts projected the taxpayer tab would come to roughly between $7 and $9 billion. Yet that doesn’t include numerous other hidden costs.
The primary advantage to our market for power and electricity has always been low prices. Lots of firms offer a variety of plans, both fixed and flexible rates, and for the most part it has worked pretty well, as long as you do a bunch of research and remember to switch plans again before your low-rate plan ends and you get dumped into a default higher-rate plan. (Some people do lots of research.) All of this is predicated on the Texas energy market being geared towards low prices, and the way it does that is by not mandating capacity. There’s no backup power, no plants generating extra power that isn’t used, and that means we’re not paying for anything we’re not using. It’s efficient, and that efficiency keeps prices down.
The down side is what we saw in February. Because there was no extra capacity, when a number of plants went down, there wasn’t any power to spare. The only way to get more juice was to pay for it, and when prices are allowed to be unconstrained, you can be sure someone is going to make a buck off of it. We also learned that another key ingredient to our everyday low prices for electricity was that the power plants could be and were run as super low-cost operations, which in this context meant no money spent on weatherization. I think we all know how that turned out.
The argument in favor of our system is that we have paid a lot less for our electricity over a long period of time, so that even with the price shocks of February and the borrowing that various municipalities and utilities and co-ops have had to do, we’re still coming out ahead. But that isn’t of much help right now, and as we did nothing to change the fundamentals of our power market, we could face the same situation again at any time. People will be paying more now for what happened his past winter, and they have no insurance against a repeat. Even more, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I don’t think we’re any more prepared mentally and emotionally for the next time this happens than we were this February. Maybe if we go another ten years before it happens again it won’t much matter. Do you want to make that bet? Like it or not, you already have.