As of Tuesday evening, more than 4.5 million Texans have experienced power outages amid one of the coldest, snowiest winter storms to hit the state in generations. We are huddled in frigid houses, cuddled up with our families and pets, and tucked under layers of blankets and whatever camping gear we might have handy. We have our phones on airplane mode to conserve batteries, and are warming up canned soup on propane grills in the dark, waiting for the lights—and, more importantly, the heat—to come back on.
On Sunday, authorities announced that many parts of the state, including Austin and Houston, would be subjected to “rolling blackouts,” in which different parts of the grid would take turns temporarily shutting down. The “rolling” part quickly became a sad joke. Unable to get enough supply back into the grid, the governor and authorities with ERCOT, the grid operator, urged Texans with power to reduce their energy consumption to the bare minimum: Many of us are doing so eagerly. We have our thermostats set to 68 or below, we’re not running our dishwashers and washing machines, and we have unplugged nonessential devices. We’re officially hunkered down, huddling in our houses like Soviet citizens weathering a long winter in USSR-era Moscow.
Throughout the crisis, individual Texans have found ways to help out their neighbors. Alongside all of the widespread frustration on social media, folks are mobilizing through apps such as Nextdoor, community email lists, and neighborhood Facebook groups to take care of one another as best as anyone is able to during the unprecedented double whammy of a pandemic and this days-long winter storm and blackout. Opening up guest rooms to strangers carries risks that wouldn’t have existed in pre-COVID times—but those with power are offering to prep hot meals for their neighbors, running extension cords down their driveways so those without power can charge their phones and other devices, and providing water to the waterless. (Mattress Mack, of course, opened his furniture store to those in need.) We are all the Cajun Navy now.
As night fell over the state on Tuesday, local leaders urged residents to do their part to reduce strain on the grid, describing a dire situation that was only getting worse. Texans whose lights and heat were still on were asked to live as if they weren’t, and to set their thermostats even lower. That’s sound advice. We all need to do our part—those who’ve been collecting the water dripping out of their faucets to prevent a freeze may have noted how quickly drops accumulate in a bucket—but individual effort didn’t get us into this crisis, and it’s not enough to get us out.
That brings us to the crux of the problem: While many Texans are suffering, it seems like the sacrifices are unevenly distributed. Indeed, Texans on social media have kept warm by burning the fuel of white-hot rage as photos circulated on Sunday and Monday nights of brightly lit city skylines. The illuminated parking garages and glowing, empty high-rises towering over cities were taken as a slap in the face by residents shivering in dark homes or dropping the thermostat another degree in order to save a marginal amount of energy.
— NBC DFW (@NBCDFW) February 15, 2021
Here’s a look at the city skyline tonight, with many of the surrounding homes and businesses in the dark. pic.twitter.com/W5N2hfH02v
— ABC13 Houston (@abc13houston) February 16, 2021
— Terri Gruca (@TerriG_KVUE) February 16, 2021
Simply cutting off power to downtown areas isn’t an option for most cities, even during a crisis. That’s where you’ll find hospitals, emergency shelters, and other vital buildings where even a short-term blackout would cost people their lives. But that doesn’t explain why unoccupied office buildings are lit up. Amid public outcry, city leaders in Houston and Austin asked building managers to turn off the lights. (After receiving blowback for its Valentine’s display on Sunday night, Dallas and other North Texas skylines went dark on Monday.) Other institutions attracted similar attention for their energy use: the Dallas Stars hockey team (which canceled its Monday-night home game ninety minutes before the puck was set to drop); the University of Texas (whose intramural field, which is connected to the university’s own power grid, was empty, snow-covered, and, for a few hours, brightly lit); Houston’s Galleria (where closed shops kept the lights on); much of the downtown San Antonio skyline (even as the Alamodome and Convention Center went dark); and the soon-to-launch Austin FC Major League Soccer team (whose under-construction stadium was lit up all night).
This is a pic from the live stream of the Q2 Stadium construction in North Austin, trying to figure out why the lights have stayed on while surrounding neighborhoods have had no power. Any insight @austintexasgov @austinenergy @MayorAdler @AustinFC @Q2Stadium? pic.twitter.com/ibyuSjpGeP
— Alex Stockwell (@alexrstockwell) February 16, 2021
In some circumstances, the situation is a little more complicated than social media allows for. A spokesperson for Austin FC pointed out that the team’s stadium is still under construction—and turning off the lights requires a licensed electrician to disconnect the power supply, something the organization couldn’t make happen on short notice on Monday night, with roads largely impassable. (The site’s lighting was largely disconnected on Tuesday afternoon, though the organization says some lights will remain on for security reasons.) On Tuesday evening, meanwhile, a group of Austin Energy’s largest customers, including manufacturers Samsung, NXP, and Infineon, were reportedly ordered by the utility company to shut down production at their factories to conserve power.
The very nature of an electric grid is connectedness. Electrons travel great distances almost instantaneously, and a downed power line here can result in a loss of power way over there. When the grid is stressed, the expectation is that everyone will shoulder their fair share of the burden until the problem is resolved. Blackouts, though annoying and sometimes preventable, are easier to stomach when there’s a sense that everyone is taking their lumps and that those in power (and those with power) are doing everything they can to get back to normal. The sparkling high-rises with their windows aglow have confirmed for many that authorities, in their management of the current crisis, are calling for disproportionate sacrifices from the individuals who possess—and consume—the least power. Given the size of the challenge Texans face, both this week and beyond, it’s clear that asking each household to unplug its toaster isn’t going to be enough.