Texans Will Pay for Decades as Crisis Tacks Billions Onto Bills
By Mark Chediak, Naureen S Malik & Josh Saul February 22, 2021
Now that the lights are back on in Texas, the state has to figure out who’s going to pay for the energy crisis that plunged millions into darkness last week. It will likely be ordinary Texans.
The price tag so far: $50.6 billion, the cost of electricity sold from early Monday, when the blackouts began, to Friday morning, according to BloombergNEF estimates. That compares with $4.2 billion for the prior week.
Some of those costs have already fallen onto consumers as electricity customers exposed to wholesale prices wracked up power bills as high as $8,000 last week. Other customers won’t know what they’re in for until they receive their gas and power bills at the end of the month. Ultimately, the financial pain will probably be shared by ratepayers and taxpayers alike, said Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and chief science officer for French power company Engie SA.
If prior U.S. power market failures are any guide, Texans could be on the hook for decades. Californians, for example, have spent about 20 years paying for the 2000-2001 Enron-era power crisis, via surcharges on utility bills.
But small retailers who tend to be more thinly capitalized and less robustly hedged have limited options. One such company, Griddy, said last week it would challenge the prices set by the grid operator during the crisis, in an apparent bid to recoup losses for itself and its customers. Another company, Octopus Energy, said Monday it would forgive any energy bill in excess of the average price of electricity for the week, and eat the resulting losses which could be millions of dollars.
The state’s utility regulator on Sunday blocked power sellers from disconnecting customers for non-payment, saying the governor and lawmakers need time to come up with a plan to address sky-high bills, first. Texas lawmakers will likely take up the discussion of consumer relief as part of their committee hearings on the crisis which will begin this week, a spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas said.
“The question is where is the money going to come from?” Shea said. “Will Texas go and bail out certain customers? That’s not their attitude toward how they manage their market or manage their economy.”