The Return of the Grid

Like most sequels, this summer's spin-off exploits lingering interest in the original, but hasn’t quite lived up to the hype –  so far.

Another week of 100+ degree highs throughout the state producing record-setting electricity demand and ERCOT conservation alerts is also recharging the politics surrounding the reliability of the state’s electric grid. While a lot of other problems have troubled Texans since the power failures that crippled the state in February 2021, public opinion polling consistently shows that Texans have little faith that the state’s political leadership has improved the reliability of the grid in the interim – leaving Texas voters easily triggered by any hint of a repeat. 

Texans' doubts and anxieties about the reliability of the grid make the return of the grid as an issue in the 2022 gubernatorial election inevitable amidst wall-to-wall coverage of the scorching weather and calls to conserve. Democrats have renewed their efforts to channel anxiety about the grid into a political liability for Gov. Abbott and other Republican candidates; Republicans seem for the most part to continue to cross their fingers and hope ERCOT and the energy sector will keep the lights on as they hope for another opportunity to dismiss Democrats as politically-motivated doomsayers. As long as the grid holds without widespread outages, the bet is that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke can be portrayed as the boy who cried wolf – and, judging from recent precedents, the Abbott campaign can try to shift back to raising the alarm about the U.S.-Mexico border and the various ills inflicted on Texas by President Joe Biden.

(For evidence of the Abbott campaign's strategy when it comes to public conversation, see the governor’s official Twitter account: an quick survey of the first 33 Tweets from the account in July (through the morning of the 14th) finds 10 dedicated to some aspect of the border between Texas and Mexico, and one Tweet related to the heat wave - a retweet of a DPS graphic of “Tips for staying safe in the summer heat” this past Monday (July 11), a day for which ERCOT issued a conservation alert.)

The breadth of the collapse of Texas’ electric grid in February 2021,the dire impact of that failure amidst historic cold weather in the state, and its occurrence after the presidential election and in the run up to statewide elections with the governor at the top of the ticket, guaranteed that the politics of the grid would have an extended half-life. However short the contemporary news cycle, and however long the list of newly urgent problems that have ensued, most Texans reported being directly impacted by the mass outage, which officially resulted in 246 deaths (and probably more that haven't been included in the official tally) and an estimated $80-$130 billion in economic losses. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, two-thirds of Texas registered voters in a March 2021 Texas Politics Project/UT Energy Institute Poll reported having lost power, and more than half reported interruption in water service. 

Loading chart...
Electricity interruption66%
Water service interruption54%
Damage to your home21%
Natural gas service interruption13%
Damage to your vehicle8%

With the legislature in session and holding high visibility hearings on the subject, and resignations (forced and otherwise) from the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT taking place amidst a search for scapegoats, public confidence that the the Texas Legislature would “pass effective laws to prevent future disruptions in utility services like those that resulted from the winter storm" was low in the same March 2021 poll: only 9% were extremely confident, and 16%, very confident.

Loading chart...
Extremely confident9%
Very confident16%
Somewhat confident31%
Not very confident29%
Not at all confident16%

Even after the personnel changes and legislative action that took place during the long 2021 legislative session, only 18% approved of how state leaders and the legislature had handled the reliability of the grid in October 2021. By February 2022, around the one-year anniversary of winter storm Uri, the share who were extremely or very confident that that “new laws enacted by the Texas Legislature will be effective in preventing future disruptions in utility services like those that resulted from the February 2021 winter storm" remained at 18%.

Loading chart...
Approve strongly6%
Approve somewhat12%
Neither approve nor disapprove16%
Disapprove somewhat18%
Disapprove strongly42%
Don’t know/No opinion6%

Loading chart...
Extremely confident6%
Very confident12%
Somewhat confident28%
Not very confident22%
Not at all confident21%
Don't know/No opinion13%

And now, with the gubernatorial campaign in full swing, Texans still appear skeptical. In our most recent UT/Texas Politics Project Poll, fielded around the time of the first heatwave of the summer, only 31% approved of how Gov. Greg Abbott had handled the issue - an improvement over the dismal expectations of the previous year, but the third lowest rating among the 10 issues in which Texans assessed the governor’s performance. Partisanship accounted for some of the low rating - only 8% of Democrats approved, while a more substantial 56% of Republicans approved. Independents were nearly as critical as Democrats - only 13% approved. But even Republican approval is comparatively faint - 75% of Republicans approved of Abbott’s handling of immigration and border security, and 69% of his handling of COVID-19. 

Loading chart...
Immigration & border security43%
Crime & public safety40%
The economy39%
Gun violence36%
Abortion access36%
Public education35%
The electric grid31%
Climate change28%
Inflation & prices27%

Loading chart...
Immigration & border security10%31%75%
Crime & public safety7%26%71%
The economy9%26%65%
Gun violence7%19%64%
Abortion access7%26%63%
Public education9%21%59%
The electric grid8%13%56%
Climate change6%15%47%
Inflation & prices7%11%49%

The failure of the state’s elected leadership to renwew Texans' confidence in the power grid has been a presence in the gubernatorial campaign since the first 30 seconds of the video in which Beto O’Rourke declared his candidacy, in which he opened his announcement with the charge that Texans who lost service “were abandoned by those who were elected to serve and look out for them.”  While the issue receded after an uneventful winter, it took O’Rourke no time to taunt Abbott when ERCOT issued a conservation request for Monday of this week because, as the former congressman Tweeted, the governor “can’t guarantee the power will stay on tomorrow.”

Yet however much Texans’ skepticism about the reliability of the grid provides grist for O’Rourke’s larger effort to draw attention to Republican incumbents’ total ownership of policy and governance for the last 20 years, Democrats face a difficult dilemma as they try to exploit the politics of the situation. There are clearly widespread concerns to be tapped into during the election, but there is also a risk of overreach. The 100+ degree temperatures across a wide swath of the state would likely test even a demonstrably new-and-improved grid still being retrofitted (in both physical and regulatory terms) for a more populous and hotter Texas. Democrats have already opened themselves to the criticism that they are hoping for failure – a criticism that wasn’t entirely unwarranted during a cold snap in the winter that activated the same anxieties about the post-Uri grid among Texans we’ve seen this week, but which didn’t result in widespread outages. And while it’s not a convenient line of rebuttal for Republicans (among whom skepticism and denial of climate change are still common, as our last poll found), it does seem a bit discordant to hear Democratic leaders criticize calls for energy conservation as a sign of failure. The argument is clear, but it’s nonetheless a less than optimal message given climate politics.

Loading chart...
Climate change is happening90%68%42%
Climate change is not happening3%14%36%
Not sure if climate change is happening7%18%22%

This GOP critique of O’Rourke and Democrats’ rhetoric on the grid contains a grain of political truth (such as it is): any repeat of the 2021 failures of any significant scale will be a liability for the Abbott campaign and Republicans, and even the possibility of a summer sequel reminds many voters that they have lost faith that the lights and AC will stay on. This background anxiety makes the politics of the grid a politically irresesistable element of the general argument posed by the O’Rourke campaign that Gov. Abbott has been a poor steward of state government. But as long as the power stays on, Republicans remain ready and able to dismiss Democratic critics and their concerns, repeat the party line that the problem has been fixed, and return to their regular programming. It is still only mid-July, leaving many hot days and calls for conservation to come. But in political terms, Democrats remain in the politically difficult position of standing to gain most on the issue in the low-probability event of another calamity. In its absence, overplaying voters’ concerns leaves them with yet another political liability, seeming to wish for a disaster that hasn’t happened at a time when Republicans are prepared to direct their attention to other immediately urgent subjects that bloster their political advantage in the 2022 election.


Subscribe to the Texas Politics Project Email List

* indicates required