Texas once again leads the nation in an energy category, just not one anyone wants to be first in. According to a report by HelpAdvisor.com that looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Survey, almost 28 percent of Texas households were unable to pay their energy bill at least once over the past year, the highest in the country. This is compared to a national average of 20 percent.
Texas also came in first place for the number of respondents that kept their home at an unsafe or unhealthy temperature due to energy costs, at 26 percent compared to the national average of 18 percent. It also comes in second for households that reduced or went without basic expenses such as food or medicine in the last year in order to pay an energy bill, behind just Mississippi at nearly 38 percent.
It’s ironic and unfortunate that an energy powerhouse like Texas has so many people struggling to meet their energy bills.
One likely culprit is Winter Storm Uri. Although the grid failed to do its job, many Texans were still slapped with massive electric bills. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how much it contributed; the Census Bureau doesn’t have the data to establish a pre-Uri baseline as the survey asks about the previous 12 months and these questions have only been added recently. “They started asking this question and collecting this data a few months after that storm happened so unfortunately there’s nothing to compare it to,” said Senior Writer at HelpAdvisor.com Christian Worstell, who authored the study. “You hate to just speculate, but I think it’s probably safe to assume that [the] storm contributed to it.”
However, there are endemic issues beyond a single severe weather event that cause high energy costs in Texas. The state is unique for its deregulated electric market, which was supposed to deliver lower costs but instead has done the opposite. One study found that deregulation cost Texans nearly $25 billion from 2002 to 2014. Another report from the Wall Street Journal found that Texans in deregulated areas have spent $28 billion more on their electric bills than those with traditional energy providers. All this extra money for a brittle grid that experts have compared to the Soviet Union.
The supply-and-demand nature of the Texas grid means that Texans can suddenly get hit with huge power bills that they struggle to pay. “If you have a sudden heat spell where demand for air conditioning goes up or a winter where demand for heating goes up, then your price will go up,” said Worstell. “If you have a market where the price is fluctuating a lot like that, and if you’re someone who’s living paycheck to paycheck, it’s pretty easy to understand how you could get pushed over that financial cliff and wind up in one of these situations.”
Texas Democrats have made fixing the grid one of their central planks in this year’s elections. Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke recently took to Twitter to outline his plan to fix the grid and lower electric bills, while Texas Railroad Commissioner candidate Luke Warford has made “Let’s Keep the Lights On!” his campaign slogan.
While grid fixes probably won’t come until after November, there are still things Texans who are facing high power costs can do. HelpAdvisor.com’s report lists a number of resources, including federal programs, that people struggling with their energy bills can use. “The other piece of advice I would give is, don’t be afraid to try to negotiate with your energy company, I think you’d be surprised at how often energy companies are willing to negotiate,” said Worstell. “Whether that is deferring a payment or utilizing some sort of financing plan, energy companies at the end of the day, really don’t want to have to turn out the lights on people.”