The Energy Right Project’s February Media brief covers two distinct themes: The Texas Grid Failure: Coverage and Impacts, and Impacts of COVID-19: Energy Usage, Utility Moratorium and Subsequent Energy Burdens. The artifacts relating to the Texas Grid Failure discuss the conditions that led to the crisis, the increasingly cyclical and compounded disasters of climate change and energy crises, and the ways in which energy markets have been impacted by the grid failure. Artifacts from February also continue to cover the impact COVID-19 has had on energy usage in the United States and elsewhere, the ending of utility moratoria in Pennsylvania and in other states, which provided protection for customers who had been struggling to afford their utility bills, and energy burdens that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. 


Texas Grid Failure: Coverage and Impacts

In February 2021, Texas suffered a major power crisis, resulting from winter storms sweeping across the United States on February 10–11, 13–17, and 15–20, leading to five million customers left without electricity during unprecedented cold weather. The overlapping slow disasters of climate change and COVID-19 revealed inadequacies with Texas’ power grid which was overwhelmed by energy demands in areas experiencing extreme weather induced by climate change. Utility companies in Texas asked customers to turn down their thermostats and reduce their energy usage to avoid overwhelming power grids and subsequent outages, which placed vulnerable households relying on comfortable home temperatures to maintain their health during the winter crisis in a precarious position, as these same households were unable to shelter elsewhere due to COVID-19. Additionally, individuals were relying on their home energy systems to school and work remotely amidst COVID-19, making it more difficult for households to reduce their home energy use. Even as households cut their energy use, mass power outages persisted, leaving thousands of households experiencing varying degrees of energy vulnerability left in the dark and cold (Sullivan & Malik 2021). 

Although causes of the Texas Grid Failure were still being uncovered during the month of February, it’s now known that improperly weatherized power systems and equipment led to power generation failures when the cold snaps hit. Some solar farms were coated in snow, and some wind turbines had ice on their blades, reducing renewable output to the grid. More critically, Texas lost over 30 gigawatts of thermal capacity because of frozen equipment and outages and freezes in the natural gas supply system. This not only impacted power generation for homes and businesses within Texas, but also the power generation arm of Exelon estimated $560 million to $710 million in losses from its three Texas-based power plants (Maykuth 2021). If climate science had been integrated into energy planning in Texas, this crisis could have been avoided, as similar cold weather events and subsequent outages occurred in Texas in the past. In 2011, freezing temperatures led to rolling blackouts in Texas as the cold led to large thermal plants tripping offline (McClaughlin & Kelly 2021). To avoid the same crises in the future, it’s clear that ERCOT needs to adequately winterize power plants and other energy infrastructure. Webber also recommends that there is a need to diversify energy sources in Texas in order to reduce interdependencies and over-reliance on gas that in part led to the grid failure (Webber 2021). The natural gas system in Texas depends heavily on electricity, and the electricity system depends heavily on gas, so power constraints inhibit the ability to supply gas and vice versa. They argue that by reducing the power sector’s needs for gas by adding more power sources such as geothermal, wind and solar, gas supply can then be prioritized for home heating (Webber 2021). 

Energy crises like the Texas grid failure highlight inadequacies with ERCOT’s isolated grid system, where importing energy from other grids is increasingly difficult, and also the necessity of updating energy infrastructure in warmer weather states so that they are able to handle extreme weather events, as threats from climate change persist. Although the Texas Grid failure exemplifies the consequences of fossil-fuel dependent energy systems, in Texas and other states we see legislation being introduced that prohibits local governments from banning natural gas, further locking increasingly vulnerable areas into fossil-fuel cultures (Holden et al. 2021). Not only are gas companies working with republican legislators to ensure the survival of their industry, they are also launching anti-electrification campaigns in cities that are attempting to electrify in order to combat climate change. In California, residents have received robotexts warning a gas ban would dramatically increase their bills. The Pacific Northwest group Partnership for Energy Progress, funded in part by Washington state’s largest natural gas utility, Puget Sound Energy, has spent at least $1 million opposing heating electrification in Bellingham and Seattle, including $91,000 on bus ads showing a happy family cooking with gas next to the slogan: “Reliable. Affordable. Natural Gas. Here for You.” In Oklahoma, Arizona, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where electrification campaigns have not yet taken off, the industry has worked aggressively with state legislatures to pass laws—up to a dozen are in the works—that would prevent cities from passing cleaner building codes (Leber 2021).  

Artifact List

Andrew Maykuth, "Peco parent Exelon plans to separate into two firms: ‘Our customers expect us to continuously innovate’", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 28 February 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.‘our-customers-expect-us-continuously-innovate’

Brian K Sullivan and Naureen S Malik, "U.S. Power Crisis Leaves Millions Cold, Dark as Blackouts Expand", contributed by Morgan Sarao, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 16 February 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

Emily Holden, Amal Ahmed and Brendan Gibbonns, "A Texas city had a bold new climate plan – until a gas company got involved", contributed by James Adams, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 5 April 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.–-until-gas-company-got-involved

Michael E. Webber, "Texas’ grid should diversify to reduce interdependencies", contributed by James Adams, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 5 April 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.’-grid-should-diversify-reduce-interdependencies

Rebecca Leber, "How the Fossil Fuel Industry Convinced Americans to Love Gas Stoves", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 19 February 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

Impacts of COVID-19: Energy Use, Utility Moratorium, and Subsequent Energy Burdens

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to fluctuating energy systems around the globe, as stay-at-home restrictions have been in flux leading to shifts in energy demand, usage, and energy sources used. The International Energy Agency (IEA) traced energy usage between the months of May 2020 and January 2021, and found that natural gas remained the leading source of electricity from March 2020 onwards in the United States, however renewable output outpaced that of coal when lockdown restrictions were first put in place due to decreased electricity demand. Softening of stay-at-home restrictions led to increased energy demand, and due to seasonal decline of renewable generation of hydropower and wind power, coal and nuclear outpaced renewable energy generation in the summer months in the United States. In China, renewable output similarly increased as energy demand decreased with lockdown restrictions, and coal output decreased during this time. Decreased energy demand in the total and partial lockdowns in Europe (particularly in countries like Italy, Spain, and Germany) saw also a drastic increase in these countries' use of renewable energy sources, which have remained fairly stable percentages to this day (Leone & Kenner 2021). The trend of increasing proportions of renewable energy into electricity mixes around the globe are again due to a number of factors such as weather conditions conducive to renewable energy generation, but namely dramatic decreases in energy usage.

Although on a national level there was a decrease in energy demand in the United States during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, the residential energy sector saw an increase in energy use according to Bloomberg City Lab: “One economist estimated that residential electricity use spiked 10% on average between April and July 2020, leading to households spending nearly $6 billion on extra usage. Another home energy monitoring company reported that April demand increased 22% from 2019.” (Cohen 2021) Utility arrears have amassed as COVID-19 related hardships such as loss of income persist, and it’s estimated that between 9 million and 12 million households in the United States have unpaid utility bills, with those households being on average $6,500 behind on rent and utilities (Cohen 2021). Unfortunately it is unlikely that we’ll be able to pinpoint a more approximate number of households in the United States that are behind on utility bills because utility companies have long fought against any sort of federal mandate that requires them to disclose how many customers are receiving services, behind on their bills, and shut-off due to nonpayment (Cohen 2021). In Pennsylvania specifically, as of February 2021, one million customers are late on their utility bills due to the pandemic, and their overdue bills are growing quickly. According to data filed with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), fewer customers are applying for help with utility bills despite growing utility debts. Statewide payments from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to electric and gas utilities are down 40% from a year ago, and the largest electric and gas utilities in the state alone are owed more than $743 million from customers (Maykuth 2021). Because of the amassing arrears, in February utilities were urging PUC to resume shut-offs and to end the COVID-19 moratorium on utilities on March 31st, which is when Pennsylavnia’s seasonal utility moratorium ends (Maykuth 2021). Utilities are arguing that the moratorium disincentivizes households from paying their bills, mirroring other anti-welfare narratives which accuse low-income households in crisis of abusing assistance programs because they continuously experience amplified burdens, largely due to the reality that assistance programs are siloed and fail to address the manifold dimensions of low-income vulnerabilities. 

Governor Tom Wolf and a coalition of democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania urged PUC to keep the moratorium in place to lessen the burdens for households facing hardships as a result of COVID-19. Governor Wolf suggested pushing back the moratorium end date as Pennsylvania was anticipating federal COVID-19 utility assistance to cover the arrears utilities have accumulated. Democratic lawmakers urged the PUC to not place repayment of utility arrears solely upon households who are behind on their bills, and suggested that the accumulated arrears should be shared across all sectors of society (Maykuth 2021). A new study coming out of Duke University validates the arguments for extended utility moratoria from a public health dimension, as utility moratoria ensure household access to water and electricity so that people can shelter at their own home rather than being forced to stay with relatives, which exacerbates crowding and disease transmission. According to this study, if Congress had mandated utility moratoria for all states from March 2020 to November 2020, Covid19 infections could have been reduced by 8.7%, and Covid-19 related-deaths by almost 15% (Cohen 2021). 

More locally in Philadelphia, there has been self-reported increases in energy usage due to COVID-19 in households (Rothenthal 2021), and more specifically households have reported heavier internet usage and dependency, as the internet has been required for many people to do work and for children to school during the pandemic. Comcast, an internet service provider (ISP) in the Philadelphia area, has taken steps to connect those previously facing barriers to internet access by creating the Internet Essentials Program, which connects qualified low-income households to broadband internet, and by creating Lift Zones, community centers with free internet access to help low-income students learn remotely. However, Comcast’s actions in the month of February have called into question whether Comcast’s true intent is to create equitable internet access or if these ad-hoc programs are superficial, as the programs themselves do the bare minimum for vulnerable customers. For example, Comcast announced that it is doubling download speeds for its Internet Essentials low-income broadband program from 25 megabits per second to 50 megabits per second, and although this is an improvement it only allows for one additional zoom group call per household.The previous download speed of 25mbps was the federal minimum requirement to be considered broadband and was introduced at the start of the pandemic (Caffrey 2021). This announcement makes us question why Comcast did not increase internet speeds for the Internet Essentials Package sooner, as February 2021 marks 11 months into the pandemic, and also why they only chose to double internet speeds if this only allows for one additional zoom call per household (Rosenthal 2021).

Artifact List

Andrew Maykuth, "Pa. utilities urge a resumption of shutoffs as pandemic subsides and unpaid bills soar ", contributed by Briana Leone, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 17 March 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

Anonymous, 18 February 2021, " Comcast Delaying Plan To Charge Heavy Internet Users More Money Following Complaints", contributed by Andrew Rosenthal, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 2 April 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

International Energy Agency (IEA), "IEA Report: COVID-19 Impacts on Electricity", contributed by Briana Leone and Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 22 February 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

Michelle Caffrey, 2 February 2021, "Comcast doubles Speeds for low-income Internet Essentials program in wake of criticism", contributed by Andrew Rosenthal, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 2 April 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

Rachel M. Cohen, "There Could Be an Energy Bill Debt Tsunami, Too", contributed by Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 9 February 2021, accessed 3 June 2022.

References Cited and Further Reading

McLaughlin, Tim, and Stephanie Kelly. “Why a Predictable Cold Snap Crippled the Texas Power Grid.” Reuters, February 21, 2021.

Rosenthal, Andrew. "Since COVID-19 began, have you or others in your household been aware of changes in daily energy consumption that cannot be attributed to seasonal change, for example? (Q39 S+W 2020)", contributed by Andrew Rosenthal and Alison Kenner, The Energy Rights Project, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography.