The climate crisis doesn’t just mean an increase in average temperatures; it means the increased likelihood of extreme weather events – both hot and cold – ripping through communities and causing massive damage as a result of destabilized weather systems.
The recent blackouts in Texas show how these extreme weather events lay bare the economic injustice caused by for-profit utilities.
Texas had 10 years to prepare for this after a cold snap in Texas caused similar power outages in 2011. The federal government warned the state that investments in resilience needed to be made or the grid would fail again in the event of a second cold snap. But most energy providers chose not to weatherize their facilities, deciding that the crucial upgrades weren’t profitable.
Lo and behold, there was a second cold snap and a second power outage, one that devastated the residents of Texas. Those who were lucky enough to have electricity, even intermittently, were bombarded with utility bills costing multiple thousands of dollars. Even though the energy providers left millions of people without power in the freezing cold, including an 11-year-old boy who died of suspected hypothermia, they still get to make massive profits off the backs of their consumers.
While Texas’ catastrophic power outages are an extreme example caused by an utter absence of regulation, the theme of profits over people runs deep throughout the country, including right here in New Mexico. PNM in particular has constantly jockeyed for increased utility rates over the years, while simultaneously resisting the shift to renewable energy.
Even after the passage of the Energy Transition Act, the utility attempted to replace the San Juan coal plant with new natural gas plants and only failed because the PRC stepped in.
As the climate crisis induces extreme weather events that leave people vulnerable and without power, utilities are still fighting to hold on to the fossil fuels that will make those events even more catastrophic, only to shake their customers down for their last dollar, regardless of circumstance, if they bother to offer them power at all. It doesn’t matter that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and economic depression. All that these utility companies care about is making a quick buck. Fortunately, there’s a bill in the New Mexico Legislature that aims to fix this.
The Local Choice Energy Act (SB 83) is a bill that would allow municipalities, counties, tribal governments and pueblos to effectively create their own nonprofit utilities. Rather than a company board, it will be the citizens of local governments who decide how their electricity is produced and who produces it, which will empower local residents to lead the charge on renewable energy. By cutting out the for-profit middleman, costs would be lowered and the savings put into the pockets of consumers and the budgets of local governments, which can use that money to make investments in the community. If, for whatever reason, residents decide they don’t want to participate, they will be able to opt out of their local utility.
If there is anything to learn from the Texas blackouts, it is that electricity is just as fundamental to our modern world as sewer systems and roads. While sewers and roads are handled by local governments, electricity is the domain of for-profit companies, such as PNM, whose CEO made $5 million in 2019.
We’ve seen what happens when this fundamental infrastructure is privatized. It’s time to see what happens when it’s democratized.
Noah Tamas-Parris lives in Santa Fe.