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Texas Residents Face Steep Electric Bills After Storm

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Joe Biden has declared a major disaster in Texas. That will make federal funds available for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans as the state recovers from days of extreme winter weather. Warmer temperatures are bringing some relief, but now some Texans who didn't lose power are feeling the pain from their energy bills. The state has a deregulated electrical market, and without fixed-rate plans, these folks are being charged several thousand dollars from last week alone.

Joining us to explain is Maria Halkias of the Dallas Morning News. Good morning.

MARIA HALKIAS: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How high are some of these electricity bills? I've seen some astonishing numbers.

HALKIAS: Yeah. Five thousand, 7,000, almost 17,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

HALKIAS: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a lot just for a week.

HALKIAS: (Laughter) Just for five days, yeah. It's - the temperatures started dropping over the weekend, Valentine's Day, and people were scrambling, trying to figure out - people on these variable rates, figuring out what to do. They - so the deregulation allows you to switch plans here in Texas. So they were trying to switch quickly, but there was so much going on that that didn't work. It was a perfect storm. Lots of things just went wrong. The severity of the temperatures, the length of time that we - you know, we are used to having snowstorms, but they might last a day. And it melts the next day, and it's over with, right? So here, we had it for five or six days and power outages. So many things happened - water problems - all at once. But...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All at once. And we should say most Texans do pay fixed rates for their electricity.

HALKIAS: That's right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the sticker shock we're talking about is permitted under the state's deregulated electricity market, as you mentioned. Now, lawmakers have been talking about how to address these electricity prices that have suddenly landed in people's laps. Any idea what they might do?

HALKIAS: Well, they're helping. One thing they're doing first is helping people switch. That - there were some problems there, and the PUC is trying to - there are - these companies are called retail providers. And they - some of them volunteer to take customers on quickly, like a provider of last result (ph) so they're...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you can just switch quickly so you can maybe get out of this.

HALKIAS: To try to facilitate that because that wasn't happening, too. As far as the governor and the legislature started talking, they haven't said what they may come up with. But I can tell you, you know, this is one of the - the reason we have a deregulated market is because people here are, you know, very free market-oriented. And I can tell you I'm already getting a lot of emails from folks saying, why should taxpayers pay their bill? They took on that risk. But I - the people I talked to did not think the risk was going to be like this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Just briefly - we only have a few seconds left - for the people who have already paid their bills, who set up automatic payments, what are they going to do?

HALKIAS: That automatic payment, they can - some of them have asked their credit card companies to stop until they can figure this out. If it comes out of your checking account, it's - you know, it's gone. But supposedly these solutions will address that, too. But...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That - we're going to leave it there. That's Maria Halkias of the Dallas Morning News. Thank you so much for being with us.

HALKIAS: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.