When a ferociously cold winter storm barreled into the Deep South last week, it left millions of Texans without power, in sub-freezing temperatures, for dangerously long stretches of time. An unknown but large number of residents—including children, the elderly, the medically vulnerable, and those experiencing homelessness—died from carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia. Countless others had to scramble to deal with burst pipes, spoiled food, and misery from days without power, thanks in part to the state’s uniquely Texan approach to distributing power, and in part to the failure of public officials to head off a disaster. But even when the storm passed through and the temperatures rose above freezing, some Texans were in for another unpleasant surprise.
While most individual Texans were shielded financially from the wild swings the state’s energy market took, some got their power from companies that offered rates that fluctuate with the supply and demand. Some of these customers found themselves with eye-poppingly high power bills of $3,000, $5,000, $10,000 and higher, for just a few days of electricity. Many of these cases came from a small company in Houston called Griddy, which offers wholesale prices to customers (with a $10 monthly fee). That high-risk model generally allows customers to save money in low-use months, often including the winter. But as the New York Times noted, Griddy advised all of its 30,000 customers to switch to another provider before the winter storm arrived. Many couldn’t do so in time.
There is hope for some of these customers. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday that the state is looking into solutions, and the state’s Public Utility Commission temporarily put a hold on disconnecting customers for a failure to pay their bills. The commission also ordered companies to hold off on sending invoices or bill estimates to customers “until we work through issues of how we are going to financially manage the situation we are in,” according to the Texas Tribune.
To get a sense of what it was like to be caught up in this mess, Slate spoke with David Astrein, a Griddy customer and a 36-year-old human resources director for a manufacturing company in Houston. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: When did you first realize that something was wrong?
Astrein: Griddy was kind enough to send us a notice at 2:47 p.m. on the 13th, which was Saturday, to say, Hey, call another provider by 3 p.m. today because we’re expecting high prices. Well, it was after the window when I finally saw the email. On Monday, when we tried calling to change providers, we found out that there were wait periods. We had several friends that tried to switch and weren’t able to. They were telling them you won’t be able to switch for 48 hours, 72 hours, five days. So we said, “How bad could it actually be?” It’s winter in Texas: it can’t be worse than our worst summer bill, which was $525 in 2019. It wasn’t until we were in the middle of the storm, when we couldn’t switch, that we had any sort of inkling as to how bad it could be.
What was it like for you during the storm?
We were lucky enough to keep power during most of that period. We lost power once for maybe three hours. Then midway through, we started seeing the charges come through. It was like, “Oh, my God, what do we do?” We weren’t using washers, dryers, dishwashers—we didn’t have water to use them. It was basically just the heat to stay warm and [electricity to] run our computers to try to keep working from home. We were just trying to stay warm to prevent pipes from bursting and to keep our house warm for our five-month-old son. There’s really nothing else we could do energy-wise to save. And it’s crazy to think that $3,000 is actually on the lower end of what some people owe.
What did your bill end up being?
At one point, the bill was $1,700. And I said, “OK, well it can’t get worse than that.” And then I looked later and it was $2,000, and then $2,700. And I was like, “Where does this end?”
Where did it end?
Right now it’s sitting at $2,796.85. It’s projected to go to $3,002.08.
What does that mean, financially, for you?
It’s not going to be fun. I would much rather put that $3,000 in a college savings plan for my kid, and get one of those started. I think as long as the bill doesn’t climb above that, I’m fortunate enough to have the ability to pay that. There are many people that aren’t. And that should be a concern to anyone.
You elected to go with Griddy, a company tied to market rates. Did you know this was something that could happen?
Yes, there’s risk that you assume in something like that, and you know that. [But] I don’t think anyone could have foreseen what that risk actually entailed. Nobody knew that Griddy could go to $9 a kilowatt hour. I chose Griddy at the recommendation of friends that had it. You did see higher summer bills, but that typically was offset by bills in the non-summer months. I just don’t think that anyone could have fathomed how astronomically high those prices could be. There was no consumer protection here.
What do you think is going to happen?
The coverage at that time in the news was about the failure of the Texas energy market as a whole. And then when I went to Twitter, I saw that there are other people posting their bills. This started getting more attention after the initial shock of the winter storm in Texas wore off.
I think a lot of us are waiting, and I don’t know how optimistic we are now knowing that we’re in a system that was totally deregulated, without these consumer protections. We hear Gov. Abbott talking about how Texans shouldn’t be on the hook for it. And I think Ted Cruz has tweeted similar statements. But what does that mean? Does that mean that it’s all going to be covered? It’s partially going to be covered? If there is assistance, how long is it going to take for people to have any portion of that forgiven? Or are they just going to say, well, we can set you up on a payment plan to pay this back over the course of however long? We don’t know.
A lot of people on social media are saying that it’s customers’ fault for going with a high-risk provider and that you should face the repercussions of that. What would you say to them?
There are several thousands of people, I’m sure, who didn’t quite understand what they were getting into. I understood that it was variable, but I didn’t understand that rates in Texas could jump to the levels that they were. So how could somebody allow a company to drive consumers to financial ruin?
It’s a little frustrating, all around. The state’s inability to plan and the power company’s inability to plan should not constitute the financial emergency of tens of thousands of Texans. That’s just unacceptable, and to be standing against people like me, and to be standing up for utilities that were inadequately run, just kind of blows my mind.