When a fiercely cold winter storm slammed into the Deep South last week, it left millions of Texans without power, in freezing temperatures, for dangerously long periods of time. An unknown but large number of residents, including children, the elderly, the medically vulnerable, and the homeless, died from carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia. Many others had to struggle to cope with broken pipes, spoiled food, and the misery of days without power, thanks in part to the state’s exclusively Texan approach to distributing power, and in part to the failure of public officials to prevent a disaster. . But even as the storm passed and temperatures rose above freezing, some Texans were in for another nasty surprise.
While the majority of Texans were financially protected from the shocks that the state’s energy market took, some got their power from companies offering rates that fluctuate with supply and demand. Some of these customers were faced with staggeringly high energy bills of $ 3,000, $ 5,000, $ 10,000, and more, for just a few days of electricity. Many of these cases come from a small business in Houston called Griddy, which offers wholesale pricing to customers (with a $ 10 monthly fee). That high-risk model typically allows customers to save money in low-use months, often including the winter. But as the New York Times noted, Griddy advised its 30,000 customers to switch to another provider before the winter storm hit. Many could not do it in time.
There is hope for some of these clients. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday the state is looking for solutions and the state Public Utilities Commission temporarily suspended disconnecting customers for not paying their bills. The commission also ordered companies to postpone sending invoices or invoice estimates to customers “until we resolve the issues of how we are going to financially handle the situation we find ourselves in,” according to the Texas Tribune.
To get an idea of what it was like to be stuck in this mess, Slate spoke with David Astrein, a 36-year-old Griddy customer and director of human resources for a manufacturing company in Houston. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: When did you first realize something was wrong?
Astrein: Griddy was kind enough to send us a notice at 2:47 pm on the 13th, which was Saturday, to say: Hey, call another provider today at 3pm because we expect high prices. Well, it was after the window that I finally saw the email. On Monday, when we tried to call to change providers, we discovered that there were waiting periods. We had several friends who tried to change and couldn’t. They were told that you will not be able to change for 48 hours, 72 hours, five days. So we said, “How bad could it really be?” It’s winter in Texas – it can’t be worse than our worst summer bill, which was $ 525 in 2019. It wasn’t until we were in the middle of the storm, when we couldn’t change, that we had some kind of suspicion of how bad it was. could be.
How was it for you during the storm?
We were lucky to stay in power for most of that period. We lost power once for about three hours. Then halfway through, we started to see the charges. It was like, “My God, what do we do?” We didn’t use washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, we didn’t have water to use them. It was basically just the heat to keep warm and [electricity to] run our computers to try and keep working from home. We were just trying to stay warm to prevent the pipes from bursting and to keep the house warm for our five month old. There is really nothing else we can do to save energy. And it’s crazy to think that $ 3,000 is on the lower end of what some people owe.
What ended up being your bill?
At one point, the bill was $ 1,700. And I said, “Okay, it can’t get worse than that.” And then I looked later and it was $ 2,000, and then $ 2,700. And I was like, “Where does this end?”
Where did it end?
Right now it is at $ 2,796.85. It is projected to rise to $ 3,002.08.
What does that mean, financially, for you?
It’s not going to be fun. I’d rather put that $ 3,000 into a college savings plan for my son and start with one of those. I think that as long as the bill does not exceed that, I am lucky to be able to pay that. There are many people who are not. And that should be of concern to anyone.
He chose to go with Griddy, a company tied to market rates. Did you know this could happen?
Yes, there is a risk you take in something like that, and you know it. [But] I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what that risk really entailed. No one knew that Griddy could go as high as $ 9 per kilowatt hour. I chose Griddy on the recommendation of friends who owned it. You did see higher summer bills, but that was generally offset by bills in the non-summer months. I just don’t think anyone could have imagined how astronomically high those prices could be. There was no consumer protection here.
What do you think is going to happen?
The coverage at the time in the news was about the failure of the Texas energy market as a whole. And then when I went to Twitter, I saw that there were other people posting their invoices. This began to receive more attention after the initial impact of the winter storm in Texas passed.
I think many of us are waiting, and I don’t know how optimistic we are now knowing that we are in a system that was totally deregulated, without these consumer protections. We heard Governor Abbott talk about how Texans shouldn’t be in a hurry about it. And I think Ted Cruz has tweeted similar statements. But what does that mean? Does that mean everything will be covered? Will it be partially covered? If there is help, how long will it take for people to forgive some of it? Or are they just going to say, well, can we set up a payment plan to pay for this over the course of time? We do not know.
Many people on social media say that it is the customers’ fault to choose a high-risk provider and that you must face the repercussions of that. What would you tell them?
I’m sure there are several thousand people who didn’t quite understand what they were getting into. I understood that it was variable, but I did not understand that rates in Texas could go up to the levels they were. So how could anyone allow a business to lead consumers to financial ruin?
It’s a bit frustrating all over the place. The state’s inability to plan and the power company’s inability to plan should not constitute a financial emergency for tens of thousands of Texans. That is simply unacceptable, and being against people like me, and defending public services that were not working properly, just amazes me.
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