Tales of the Grid


A collage of blue and white colors with the title "THE STORM"

By Annie Lowe, Department of English, Rice University

When winter storm Uri wrought havoc across Texas’s deregulated electricity grid February 13-17, 2021, all of a sudden Texans became intimately acquainted with, and alternately alienated from, the “one big machine” that makes, mediates, and mystifies our collective power: The Grid. The Enron story had long fascinated me as a local case study in my research and writing about hoaxes, confidence games, and the arts of artifice, but sheltering in the cold dark, utterly powerless, sparked new insights into  how Enron’s arcane financial fictions misdirect from the layered circuits which connect fraudulent accounting, deregulated energy markets, and generator capacities to my light switch. This series tails the itinerant layers of the grid, the critical matrices which that crisis exposed. It starts with a story.

Friday, 12 Feb 2021: chilly. Will get colder. Grandma texts from Missouri, where it’s “-0” F.

Saturday: Hurricane supplies out of closet, weather forecast on, charger banks plugged in. Space heater plugged in. News - risk of ice downing power lines and shutting down roads. Nail blankets up to insulate windows. Grandma texts she got her second COVID vaccine shot today!; in 1 F, snow off and on! Tell family not to worry, we’ve got enough food, water, and newly-acquired heating appliances stockpiled to outlast the cold for days. Grandma says it’s blowing snow sideways at the farm. 

Sunday: Second space heater set up. Fire up the new heating pad. Refresh weather site. Go for a brisk walk, a Houston rarity. Tarps, trash bags, old sheets, pool noodles, makeshift protection against risk of plants and pipes freezing. Prioritize the 4 P’s: people, pets, plants, pipes. Blanket the floor with old jackets, sweaters, bedsheets, magazines? Duct tape trash bags around towels (or an old dress) around outdoor spigots. News - conserve energy to or else rolling blackouts to manage the load on the energy grid. We make jokes about Enron. We turn off lights and use candles instead. Keep only the new space heater on.  Our Enron quips keep rolling. Bake biscuits to heat the house (gas oven, so still conserving!). Refresh weather refresh news - no one knows anything more? The vase of Valentine’s Day flowers will surely last longer in the cold, but will they still bloom? Search Enron email database: “freeze,” “ass,” “Galveston,” “snow,” “future.” “Future” yields some real gems. 

1:09p Tuesday: Power goes out. It’s dark inside with the nailed-up blankets insulating our windows from cold and light. We decide to let down the top corners on one in the bedroom because it’s too freaky in the dark. Our phones’ internet connectivity goes with the power. Meatball the cat is looking skinnier and obviously stressed, so give him treats and play for a bit but it doesn’t make us less anxious and uncomfortable. I bring a spare blanket and a phone-charger bank to the neighbor who says she’s running low on cat food, so Meatball shares some of his. In the evening we start boiling water on the gas stove for the heat. When the boil order comes, we’ll do the same for both heat and water to drink, wash up, brush teeth. The house is quieter than it’s ever been; the normally noisy freeway is deserted and the lights on the bridge, like those on the streets and in the houses, are dark. The generator at the house across the street is so astonishingly loud we had to go take a look. Back inside we listen for the bathtub faucet dripping its metallic clicks over the generator’s hum. Each perceived pause in the clicking sends us rushing into the bathroom, terrified the pipes froze. 

Wednesday night: Footsteps outside the bathroom window sound like a stampede. A first peek out the window confirms two police are walking around the side of our neighbor’s apartment, looking into the pitch-black bedroom window. She doesn’t get around very well and may be working her way to the door, so I pull on boots and another coat and run next door, hoping she’ll answer and I can recharge and redeliver what my still-safe and alive neighbor would need to power her phone back on. The police asked if I called in the welfare check? No, but I came to help recharge her phone when they make contact; a friend on the other side of the bridge over the freeway had power I could use. Shining their flashlights in, the police spy movement and we crowd around the door as she pokes her head out. An hour later, I drop the charging bank back off with a bottle of wine and some snacks from the corner store across the bridge, where people had lined up to buy supplies, paying through a money transfer app with what spotty cell service they could get. Just as the ’bank batteries were full, Eliot called saying our power was back on! By the time I packed up to walk back, our friend’s power was back off, the corner store was dark and deserted, the bridge unilluminated. But at home: lights, internet, space heaters! We all needed to conserve energy to curb the rolling blackouts, but even so, one lightbulb felt like sunshine at high noon. My neighbor and I grinned when I passed her the chardonnay bottle. We had power. We were electrified. Blissed to be back on the grid.

The power would go out again, more briefly. In that silence the bathtub faucet’s dripping was drowned out by the growing, menacing tinkling of water falling from the shower ceiling onto the metal knobs. We held our breath but the water stayed on, the ceiling didn’t cave, the pipes didn’t freeze, and we listened for news from others who weren’t making it through while we did. 

Next week: My neighbor calls because she needs provisions, but doesn’t have a car and her on-foot mobility is limited, so could I either give her a ride to HEB or run the errand for her. Her voice wavers telling me she just found out her energy provider, a “wholesale electricity” retailer called Griddy, has emptied out and overdrawn her account by $750. She had called her bank but they told her there was nothing they could do, it was between her and Griddy. There was no way out.