In the past week, a couple of the environmental subplots in my book (Luz at Midnight) have leaped from page to real life here in South Texas. And I’ve been stuck inside, even more deeply inside than I have been for the past year’s pandemic–the four of us confined not just to the house but to one room of the house to maximize the power of three space heaters—with nothing else to do than to reflect on the weirdness of it all. It’s kinda freaky, until I remember that I crafted those subplots based on what I imagined to be the most plausible scenarios for climate disruption in this part of the planet, based on historical patterns to date. So it makes sense. But then it quickly goes back to being freaky.
The first and most obvious, of course, is the polar vortex that has dipped down into Texas to knock us flat on our unaccustomed asses for a week, tripping rolling blackouts across the state. Here’s a passage from one of the early chapters of the book, when I’m setting up the widest stakes of the climate change subplot:
And so the energy descent the movement people had fought for, even before Al Gore made his famous PowerPoint presentation of a film, had arrived. There was nothing left to try but the sun and the wind, sucked up into industrial scale battery storage, if possible—and if cities could make the shift quickly enough while also keeping the lights on. Time was running out, time was up: since 2010, each summer had seen more triple-digit dog days than the one before it. And the winter before Lali’s return to San Antonio was, bizarrely, the coldest on record—rolling blackouts blanketing the city during a winter storm that stalled over South Texas for several weeks, freezing the river hard enough to skate on for the first time in over 100 years. In what they called a polar vortex, the Arctic circle had been knocked off its perch at the top of the globe, a hat tipped by bullies off a kid’s head to slip over the eyes, farther south than ever before. Deep in the Rio Grande Valley, the oranges and grapefruit had frozen on the trees and dropped to the earth from glassified limbs.
Then, later, when the journalist character reports on the freeze and blackouts that follow, he opens with a description of the experience of one San Antonio resident whose power was initially cut during ERCOT’s planned outages and then didn’t come back on for days:
When the power cut off for 22 hours at José Hernandez’s house this past February in the middle of a record freeze, he didn’t know why. “I thought we had gotten disconnected,” he says. The summer before, they had gotten the dreaded pink disconnection notices in the mail from CPL due to a $425 bill they couldn’t pay. But Hernandez had arranged an installment plan and paid it off faithfully after seven months.
Regardless, he knew what to do. “With no power to run the space heaters, we had the kids sleep with all the dogs to keep warm,” he laughs, remembering. “Like they do in the Arctic.”
It’s an anecdote that feels less quaint now that the Arctic circle is melting during summer, then dipping down during winter to encircle South Texas, with flooding and hurricanes and drought in between—all of which portend further power outages.
But what Hernandez learned only later was that this particular outage was, in fact, intentionally orchestrated by the city’s public utility, in concert with a shadowy state regulatory body that oversees Texas’s sizable corner of the grid.
“On the news the next day, they said they had planned it to save power. They were supposed to shut off the electric in different neighborhoods around the city for just 30 minutes each, taking turns, kinda spreading it out. So I don’t know why, at our house, it took a whole day to come back on.”
Welcome to the wonky world of the rolling blackout.
Written in the style of a news report, this chapter is in fact completely speculative (read: made up)—but I made it up after reading about a freak February freeze in 2011 that was much like this one in terms of both causes (climate change-fueled polar vortex) and consequences. Writing this chapter also required me to read extensively about blackouts and heatwaves in historical context; about how ERCOT, the agency that operates Texas’s power grid, works; and about energy deregulation. And so now here we are, living out these speculations. As of Tuesday night, nine people in Texas have died during Winter Storm Uri, including one here in Bexar County, either directly from exposure or from desperate, hazardous efforts to keep warm. That also happens in the book, though there it’s from high heat and rolling blackouts. But there’s nothing particularly prescient about these parallels between fiction and real life. It’s just that we already know who suffers most when the power goes during a heatwave or cold snap: those who are homeless or housing insecure or living in older, energy inefficient housing, who are more likely to be poor, of color, elderly, ill or disabled.
The second parallel that had people who’d read the book emailing me incredulously—did you see this?—involves the news that an Australian mining company is about to open a rare earth processing facility outside San Antonio:
In the book, the rare earth subplot involves a shady local mining startup that discovers a huge cache of rare earth minerals beneath South Texas and embarks on a frenzy of extraction and backroom wheeling and dealing. True, the proposed Hondo plant has a different political context and thus resonance. Whereas in Luz rare earth mining holds the (ironic) key to a rapid transition off fossil fuels, Hondo’s proposed rare earth processing appears geared toward more 20th century kinds of concerns: production of defense technologies and consumer electronics, Trump-era obsessions with one-upping China. So that’s different.
What’s not is the naïveté (some might call it corruption) of the local government interests which salivate at the short-term benefits of boom economics, as well as the environmental manners of transnational mining companies that crap all over other countries before leaving for tiny Texas towns known (like SA) for the entrenched colorline between its majority-Mexican residents and its majority-Anglo decisionmakers.
Like, I’m not saying I told you so or anything like that. I’m more just saying…it’s weird. But it’s also not weird, given what we know about how climate change has unfurled in Texas thus far, who it has affected, and how. But still…it’s weird.