As Texas reels from a winter storm that caused power outages that devastated the state last week, some residents are suddenly facing enormous electricity bills for thousands of dollars.
Reports of people getting slammed with bills of over $2,000, $5,000 and $7,000 have begun cropping up. One man, a retired army veteran in a Dallas suburb, told The New York Times that he nearly emptied his savings to pay a $16,752 electric bill that was charged to his credit card. “My savings is gone,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.”
Many of these reports have come from people who get their power from a company called Griddy, which sells energy wholesale to consumers, with a variable rate plan. It’s marketed as a way to save money, and customers can use electricity during non-peak hours — running the dishwasher overnight, for instance — to pay less for power.
But variable rate plans also mean that customers can get surprised with huge bills when there is inclement weather. When Texas experienced an unusually frigid winter storm, a weather event likely stemming from the climate crisis, that’s exactly what happened. As natural gas was in short supply last week, prices skyrocketed, and in some cases, customers have paid the price.
This is a situation that’s relatively unique to Texas. The state is on its own power grid — experts say that the grid deregulation is part of why the outages were so bad — and is the only state that allows customers to choose the company they get their power from.
Griddy had warned customers ahead of the storm to change to a different company to avoid these prices, but a change like that can take days and many companies weren’t accepting new accounts. One Dallas resident said he tried to change companies, but the new company kept pushing the start date back. He got a bill from Griddy for $7,000, he told CNN.
Other customers have been scrambling to remove themselves from their energy company’s autopay in order to avoid having the bill be paid automatically out of their accounts, hoping for relief in the meantime.
Ben Inskeep, an energy policy analyst, said on Twitter that allowing the customers a choice in energy companies ultimately hurt the customers. “Real time pricing plans like those offered by Griddy and allowed by regulators that fully pass through wholesale power prices did a major disservice to many consumers who don’t fully understand what these plans entail,” Inskeep wrote.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held an emergency meeting over the weekend to convene state lawmakers so that they could discuss solutions for customers facing high bills. The state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) also met over the weekend to sign an order stopping companies from sending bills to customers until they can “work through issues of how we are going to financially manage the situation we are in,” said the PUC commissioner, according to the Texas Tribune.
The Texas attorney general has also launched an investigation into the energy crisis that will include looking into the high bills.
“The Texas energy market is the market that gave us Enron,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) on MSNBC. “I don’t believe the people of Texas should have to pay these outrageous bills,” he said, and added in a tweet, “Exorbitant costs should not be passed on to consumers who are not responsible for poor planning by state officials.”
As customers wait to see what legislators will do about the bills, some have begun calling for bill forgiveness. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Sunday that the state of Texas should pay for the abnormally high bills as well as costs to repair any damage that may have occurred because of things like frozen pipes. “For people getting these exorbitant electricity bills and having to pay to repair their homes, they should not have to bear the responsibility,” Turner said on CBS.