The Midnight Connection
From NPR’s Planet Money:
ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:
February of 2021 was brutal for the state of Texas. There were ice storms, single-digit temperatures, power lines got knocked down all over the place. And, Mose Buchele, you are KUT’s energy and climate correspondent based in Austin, which is where you were when the first snowflakes started falling. What was it like on the ground?
MCGLINCHY: And this is Beth Garza, an energy consultant.
BETH GARZA: So the mid-’70s – you have to remember, there was no state regulation of electricity in Texas.
BUCHELE: It was basically the Wild West. But there was a federal law that required utility companies to have their own individual power systems physically connected.
JONES: So when they ordered these companies to interconnect in Texas, the Texans at that time realized, if we interconnect across state lines, we’re going to become federal jurisdictional. We’d rather not. And so they all agreed together not to connect across state lines.
MCGLINCHY: But there was a problem. One company called Central and South West Corporation owned utilities outside of Texas.
JONES: One of their facilities was in Oklahoma.
BUCHELE: Another was in Louisiana.
MCGLINCHY: So you can see the problem. In order to follow federal law, they have to connect across state lines. But by doing that, they would be in violation of this Texas agreement not to cross the border. And to be clear, this wasn’t an official agreement. This was, like, a gentlemen’s agreement, like a handshake deal.
BUCHELE: So they had these two utilities on either side of the border. And nobody really noticed for decades that they were breaking federal law. Then one day, somebody did.
GARZA: And so the federal Department of Justice said, hey, this is a problem. Why shouldn’t we force you to divest?
JONES: They realized they had to do something.
BUCHELE: By not being connected across state lines, they were breaking one federal law. But if they connect, they break the Texas handshake agreement and put the whole state under federal jurisdiction.
JONES: And their answer was to connect across the Red River into Oklahoma.
BUCHELE: They called it the Midnight Connection.
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GARZA: Basically, the Midnight Connection was, they threw a line over the Red River to connect their companies.
JONES: They just kind of threw a line across the Red River.
GARZA: I mean, literally overnight, they connected two substations – one substation on the Texas side to another substation on the Oklahoma side.
MCGLINCHY: Yeah, so you can imagine these guys – you know, maybe they’re wearing ski masks or they’re dressed in all black. They’re hunched over as to not be seen. They’re – I don’t know – holding flashlights and whispering, and they’re sneaking around under the darkness of night to secretly throw this huge switch to make the connection.
BUCHELE: Yeah, I’m, like, picturing super stealthy James Bond types.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GARZA: Certainly, transmission line crews are not small, quiet men. I’m sure there was profanity involved.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BUCHELE: So they connect these two substations. And suddenly, the Texas power grid is connected to the power grid in another state.
JONES: But the problem was all the other companies realized what had happened because there was a – basically a blip in the frequency. So everyone else knew something had happened, but they didn’t know what.
MCGLINCHY: And remember…
JONES: They all agreed together not to connect across state lines.
BUCHELE: Because they didn’t want the feds to regulate. So now the other companies knew something was up.
JONES: And they began to send out crews to try to figure out where this had happened, where somebody had made this change.
MCGLINCHY: And of course, they figure it out. And…
JONES: Well, everyone threw lawyers at each other. Lots of paper went around up in D.C. Lots of paper went around.
GARZA: You had court cases with the other utilities in Texas saying, hey, I don’t want to be subject to federal jurisdiction.
BUCHELE: Because the Midnight Connection didn’t just mean that Central and South West Corporation was connected across state lines. Technically, it meant everyone in Texas connected to Central and South West was now also connected to Oklahoma.
GARZA: And so this idea that the feds could somehow come in and tell them how they were going to do their system or what their rates would be or anything was completely abhorrent. And they took significant action to prevent that from happening. And that significant action was to disconnect their systems from Central South West companies.