DALLAS—As a historic winter storm raged across Texas over the weekend, Akilah Scott-Amos received an alarming message from her power company: Please switch services because “prices are about to explode.”
The 43-year-old owner of an organic skincare and apothecary shop was initially confused by the message from Griddy, which sells wholesale power for a monthly membership, but she began to look for other providers.
Then she checked her bill.
“I paid $450 for one day. I was in shock,” Scott-Amos told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “It made no sense because we have a gas heater, a gas fireplace, and we have been keeping the temperature around the house at 65 degrees. With that amount of money, and the labeled amount of usage Griddy said was used—we would have to be lighting up the whole neighborhood.”
The nightmare only got worse on Monday, when she realized her bill had increased by another $2,500. In comparison, Scott-Amos paid $33.93 last year for the entire month of February.
“I don’t have that type of money,” she said. “I now owe Griddy $2,869.11. This is going to put me in debt, this is going to mess up my credit. Are they going to cut me off? In the middle of this ongoing crisis?”
Scott-Amos is not alone. Dozens of Griddy customers have blasted the wholesale power company for their outrageously high bills amid a winter disaster.
Despite the astronomical prices, Scott-Amos is considered one of the lucky ones, as millions of people across Texas are still without power while temperatures remain perilously low. The storm, which bulldozed through parts of the central and southern United States this week, has killed at least 30 people and hospitalized dozens more who have resorted to dangerous measures to stay warm.
“This is a double-edged sword,” Scott-Amos said. “Thankfully we have power, but at what price? We are using it minimally and getting charged thousands. Most people I know don’t even have power, and I’m getting these outrageous bills.”
While power outages have affected Americans across the country, from West Virginia to Oregon, Texas has been hit the hardest. On Tuesday, at least 4.3 million Texans were left in the dark. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, only 700,000 homes had their electricity restored overnight. More than 2.7 million customers still don’t have power.
“We know millions of people are suffering,” ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness said in a Wednesday statement. “We have no other priority than getting them electricity. No other priority.”
But data from ERCOT suggests the price of getting the lights back on might be too steep for some Texans. As first reported by Reuters, the market prices on the power grid spiked more than 10,000 percent on Monday in the aftermath of the deep freeze. Prices skyrocketed to more than $9,000 per megawatt-hour—compared to the pre-storm prices of less than $50 per hour.
The amped-up wattage costs have affected Griddy customers in particular because of the company’s distinctive business model. In Texas’ hypercharged market for electricity, Griddy makes money by debiting its subscribers a flat $9.99 monthly fee—and then selling them raw power at its going wholesale value, effectively stripping out any insulation between consumers and the oscillations in supply and demand.
Often this saves Griddy customers money. But the wild surge in costs due to failures across ERCOT’s grid has juiced bills up to astounding levels. Griddy initially urged its customers to switch to another power provider, but few companies are accepting new accounts.
Exacerbating and prolonging this sticker shock is a decision on Tuesday by the state’s Power Utility Commission, which regulates the nonprofit ERCOT’s operations. The order from the gubernatorially appointed PUC asserted that, even with a hike coinciding with cold weather and increased heating use, ERCOT had been undercharging consumers for the cost of energy and directed it to raise its rates.
“We made the unprecedented decision to tell our customers—whom we worked really hard to get—that they are better off in the near term with another provider,” Michael Fallquist, chief executive officer of Griddy, previously said in a statement. “We want what’s right by our consumers, so we are encouraging them to leave.”
Royce Pierce, a 38-year-old contractor, is one of those Griddy customers who received a notice from the power company to abandon his service—a message he admitted to The Daily Beast he thought was “overly precautionary” as the winter storm loomed.
Now, his bill has skyrocketed over $7,000 in the last two days, he said. As of Wednesday, Pierce owes Griddy $8,162.73 for the month of February—a shocking price considering the bill for his two-story house was $387.70 just last month. Last February, Pierce said he only paid $330.
“It’s mindblowing. I honestly didn’t believe the price at first,” Pierce said on Wednesday. “It’s not a great feeling knowing that there is a looming bill that we just can’t afford.”
Like Scott-Amos, Pierce said his family has been trying to use as little electricity as possible to keep down the insane costs, including turning down the thermostat to 50 degrees and not using the lights or oven.
“I am walking around in my bathrobe right now to keep warm,” he added with a laugh. Stressing that he is hoping for a relief package from the state to help with the bill, Pierce said he is just living under the assumption “this is a later problem.”
“I just told my wife to stop checking. There is nothing we can do now. This is already an insane thing and I don’t care about the money when it comes to people’s health,” he said, adding that if his work had not been affected by COVID-19 and he was working full-time “we could have taken care of this.”
Griddy and ERCOT did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Texas officials have declared a state of emergency and the Lone Star state was hit with another arctic blast on Wednesday in what the National Weather Service has called “the worst of all the winter events over the past week.”
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With the possibility that this winter disaster is far from over, Scott-Amos is worried that the price spikes might prompt some Texans to shut off their power—or take dangerous measures to keep warm.
“It’s like people who don’t go to the doctor or dentist because they don’t want to pay. People are desperate and you shouldn’t have to choose,” she said.
Dr. Sam Prater, a UTHealth emergency medicine physician with Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, told The Daily Beast his Houston hospital had already seen at least 100 patients come in over 48 hours with carbon monoxide poisoning.
“This increase in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning is a mass casualty event and part of the larger public health disaster that Houston is currently facing,” he said.
Some residents have attempted to use their BBQ pits, campfire grills, or stovetops inside their homes to stay warm. Several people have died, including a Sharpstown woman and an 8-year-old girl who suffered suspected carbon monoxide poisoning after running their car in the garage to generate heat.
“This is a public health emergency. We have seen both adults and children in our emergency rooms for carbon monoxide poisoning as people without power do anything they can to keep their families warm during this arctic blast that has plagued the Houston area,” Prater added, stressing that residents should bundle up in layers and only warm-up in their cars outside of the garage.
Scott-Amos is outraged this public health emergency has been exacerbated by the “greed” of electrical companies.
“I think people are greedy. It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I am dumbfounded. There is no compassion or grace for people.”