In north-central Plano, near Dallas, Elisa Klein heard the grid go out Monday around 2 a.m. It popped back on at 3, as she was readying for bed, but then it was out again when she woke up at 8 a.m. The temperature outside was in the single digits. Inside, her children and three dogs were under multiple blankets. When the indoor temperature dipped into the 50s, they evacuated to her parents’ home, where they helped to blow-dry freezing pipes. After nightfall, Klein and her husband, who together own an IT consulting business, returned to check on their house, in an idyllic cul-de-sac that represented the dream of her immigrant family from El Salvador.
The night was black. The roads were trouble. The houses were dark. Backyard pools had frozen over. The only sign of life was their car’s headlights, sweeping the chilling scene.
“It was,” says Klein, “like driving through the apocalypse.”
The grid is responsible for modern civilization, yet its failure can imperil life itself. It’s a 20th-century antique that, when foiled by 21st-century factors, can send us back to the 19th century, when Thomas Edison’s company built coal-fired dynamos on Pearl Street to illuminate Lower Manhattan.
“The grid is not just something we built, but something that grew with America, changed as our values changed, and gained its form as we developed as a nation,” writes anthropologist Gretchen Bakke in “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future.” The grid is “a peculiarly invasive infrastructure that touches every life, pierces every wall, bifurcates every landscape, and runs every battery.”
Grid glitches are part of modern life in the United States, but they are typically brief; every day about half a million Americans lose power for an hour or two. Sometimes the grid can’t handle demand. Sometimes it can’t handle foliage or squirrels. The grid is “highly inventive in places, totally stodgy in some, fantastically Rube Goldberg in yet others,” writes Bakke. “As implausible as it must sound, the machine that holds the whole of our modern life in place ‘works in practice, but not in theory.’ No one can see, grasp or plan for the whole of it.”
The grid is devices charged by cords plugged into sockets connected by wires linked to transformers, substations and static compensators, which transmit and sort and balance electricity that is generated by wind turbines, solar panels, flowing water, pressurized gas, burning coal and nuclear reaction, across almost 3,000 electric distribution systems.
When you zoom out, to a point where cul-de-sacs fade into patterns of power lines and jagged sprawl, the grid becomes maddeningly complex, a symbol of our overlapping ailments: poverty and inequality, ramshackle infrastructure, inconsistent regulation, partisan hackery, severe weather juiced by climate change, a sense that everything is gerrymandered and jury-rigged.
This week the Arctic came to Texas. It was a climatic surge that short-circuited a man-made system. Nearly 4 million Texans were powerless Tuesday (as were over 150,000 Oregonians, and over 50,000 West Virginians).
Pipes burst. People froze. As the Texas power grid labored, its human power structure flickered.
“Not good,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) about the debacle in his state, before flying to Cancun for a family trip. “Stay safe!”
“The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” wrote the mayor of Colorado City, Tex., on Facebook. He added: “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had time to go on Sean Hannity’s show Tuesday night to blame renewable resources like wind and solar, even though the bulk of Texas power — and current power outages — comes from natural gas.
Meanwhile, freezing Texans warmed themselves by burning their belongings and stoking a sense of red-hot fury about the grid. Why, after a 2011 ice storm, hadn’t the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) begun to winterize the grid, as recommended? What good is a system that spikes the wholesale price of electricity in shivering Houston from $22 per megawatt-hour to about $9,000?
Would this be happening if Texas, a secessionist state craving freedom from federal oversight, had not insisted on its own grid? When the government began regulating interstate utilities in 1935, Texas kept its power to itself. Now most of the United States is powered by two mega-grids, the Eastern and Western interconnections, while Texas cultivates its own island of electricity.
“Texas is the way it is, infrastructurally, because of these cultural biases: stereotypically American values like freedom and independence and the ability to make a quick buck,” says Bakke, by phone. “And so the whole reason this is happening now is because there’s a certain culture that has existed in Texas for the last 100 years.”
The grid is culture: stodgy in spots, inventive in others. It is everything that binds us and separates us. It propels us forward until it stops us cold. It allows a 28-year-old journalist, outside her 44-degree Houston apartment, to send an email with numb fingers — through working cell towers, while charging her phone via car engine — that describes the experience of moving on and off the grid.
“If my apartment hits 35 degrees, I think I’m going to have to go to a shelter,” wrote Julia Martinez, a reporter covering emissions, in an email Wednesday morning. “I don’t see how I can ride out the night. I don’t have any family around and even if I did the roads are too dangerous. I have enough blankets to keep me warm, but it’s miserable. My head hurts from the cold and it’s hard to sleep for more than an hour at a time. The candle flicker wakes me up sometimes because I think the lights are back on. It’s just so numbingly cold. I’ll have to figure out later tonight if the risk of driving on icy roads is worth it to stay warm.”
The grid is fragile, and not at all inevitable, but you tend to assume otherwise until it fails. Same with other systems in our lives. Hospitals work, until they run out of protective gear and nurses start cutting up trash bags to tend to covid-19 patients. Elections work, until officials run out of ways to debunk false claims about fraud and a mob violently storms the U.S. Capitol. The power’s on, until it’s not. When it comes back, you are free, once again, to not think about the grid.
Unless you decide you can’t afford to not think about it.
Last summer, Elisa Klein, the woman in Plano, watched her city council vote down a mask mandate. On a group text labeled “The Cool Moms,” where friends vented about the decision, Klein wrote, “I would support any one of y’all running for city council.” The group instead encouraged her to run.
She had been working on her campaign early Monday morning when she heard the power switch off in her cul-de-sac. As the thermostat ticked down, Klein saw a link between crises that formed a grid of its own. A grid of culpability, and of responsibility.
“Everything that we’ve learned from covid is that we have to prepare, and ultimately what ERCOT has done is failed to prepare,” Klein says. “It’s time for us to stop assuming that what we have is okay. I think it’s time for us to question the way we run things.”