FORD: Why is Big Tech pushing for a Texas-style energy grid in North Carolina?

In this Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 file photo, customers use the light from a cell phone to look in the meat section of a grocery store that was without power, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

The recent electricity crisis in Texas was a national tragedy. It didn’t have to be.

It’s become clear since the power outages began nearly two weeks ago that the disaster was almost entirely man-made. A deregulated energy system left the power grid of Texas weak and dilapidated — and left Texans freezing and without water.

As sad as it is, this disaster should serve as a serious warning to North Carolina families and state lawmakers, because Big Tech giants such as Google and Facebook are working hard to take over North Carolina’s energy market and make it more like the system that failed in Texas.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was created as Texas deregulated its electricity grid. It provides the vast majority of power used in Texas but operates independently and without the regulation and oversight of a public utility. It has neither the ability nor incentive to reinvest and improve the grid. Hence the failure to winterize wind turbines, which account for nearly a quarter of the state’s power supply which froze and became the face of the Texas disaster.

If Big Tech companies, like Google, get their way, they will saddle North Carolina with a Texas-style system called a Regional Transmission Organization, or RTO. In the past two years, legislators have filed bills in the General Assembly to do just that. After witnessing the devastation that this sort of deregulated system can cause, why would we welcome that in the Tar Heel state?

Google, Facebook, and other out-of-state tech giants, own data centers throughout North Carolina. It takes a massive amount of electricity to power those data centers — so much that these global tech companies want us to help them pay for it. The Texas-style system they want to bring to this state will mean higher rates for the average North Carolinian. Their plan effectively forces North Carolina families and North Carolina-based businesses to subsidize their energy bills.

What would happen if a hurricane damaged the grid, leaving thousands without power, and our utility companies were not threatened with penalties for failing to restore service for an extended period?

In Texas, some customers have seen their electric bill skyrocket to as much as $17,000 during the current crisis. Under North Carolina’s current system, regulators safeguard against this and make sure that smaller customers are actually subsidized by larger customers, NOT the other way around.

A deregulated electric grid may sound attractive in theory, especially if you support free market principles, but the reality is much different. In the 1990s, Enron was among the major players that pushed for the type of deregulated system that exists today in Texas. Producers are not required to provide power to customers, and they face no penalties if they are unable to provide power to customers for an extended period or during an emergency. It’s a similar situation in California, where rolling blackouts have almost become a way of life.

Imagine that scenario in North Carolina. What would happen if our utility companies were not willing or able to upgrade their equipment to make it as prepared as possible for a hurricane? What would happen if a hurricane damaged the grid, leaving thousands without power, and our utility companies were not threatened with penalties for failing to restore service for an extended period? Are these massive potential problems worth North Carolinians subsidizing power for Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook?

The answer is no. We should be focused on ensuring that North Carolina’s electric grid is secure and would not fail under pressure. We should be focused on protecting customers and making sure that average North Carolinians maintain low electric bills. We should reject Big Tech’s attempt to bring a dangerous, Texas-style electric grid to North Carolina.

Larry J. Ford is an attorney in Hayesville and the vice chair of the Clay County Republican Party. He previously served as general counsel to Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation.