Protestors walk under a makeshift pipeline for demonstrating purposes. Photo by Scott Ball.
Marisol Cortez (center), along with other protesters, walks under a piñata pipeline during a Vista Ridge water pipeline protest at City Hall in November 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As more than 300,000 residents struggled without power during multiple days of severe weather, at least one San Antonio author saw it all coming:

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. … 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.

The above paragraphs would be merely descriptive of a situation many Texans are facing during the current cold weather crisis if they hadn’t been written seven years ago. These eerily prescient lines are excerpted from Luz at Midnight, the debut novel of San Antonio author Marisol Cortez, published in December by FlowerSong Press.

Cortez not only predicted the collapse of the energy grid amid a record freeze, she has proved that the situation was entirely predictable.

“In the past week, a couple of the environmental subplots in my book … have leaped from page to real life here in South Texas,” she writes in a Feb. 16 blog post. She calls the similarities between her subplot and the events of this week “freaky,” but states, “there’s nothing particularly prescient about these parallels between fiction and real life.”

Deep research into energy patterns gave Cortez an explanation of what happened during a similar February 2011 freeze in her hometown of San Antonio that drives one subplot of her complex novel, essentially a love story that explores lives upset by the combination of a trickster spirit, climate change activism, and the dynamics of power.

That research gave Cortez a solid image of what might occur during future freezes if Texas did not make adequate changes in its approach to providing energy, and reading her novel today makes her words sound like they had just been written.

In her blog, Cortez writes that the blackouts described in her book were “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.”

She concludes, “So it makes sense. But then it quickly goes back to being freaky.”

The fictional article quoted above is headlined “There Are No More Acts of God: Blackouts (Rolling and Otherwise) in a Time of Transition,” penned by Cortez in the style of her husband’s writing, and attributed in the novel to the character Joel Champlain. The character is closely based on Cortez’s real-life husband Greg Harman, a journalist, Sierra Club climate organizer, and longtime environmental justice activist.

The article, one of several that appear in the flow of the novel’s narrative, is bylined as appearing in Champlain’s fictional environmentally focused blog called The Volt. Back in the real world, Cortez and Harman work together on a real-world blog called Deceleration, where a post published Feb. 15 deals with the current polar vortex and CPS Energy’s plans to move away from coal power toward renewable energy.

Cortez, writing journalistically in the character of Champlain, covers facts on the ground and ultimately questions whether such disasters as the polar vortex can actually be called “natural” at a point when the effects of climate change are becoming a routine experience.

With high demand for heating plus multiple plants offline, ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] called on utilities to shed 4,000 MW [megawatts] of power, roughly equivalent to 3 million homes, or 45-minute rolling outages affecting 330,000 customers–the first time Texas has seen rolling blackouts during the winter months.

Since the 2011 freeze that generated those statistics, Cortez and Harman agree with reports that ERCOT has not done enough to prepare for predictably similar events.

Current estimates are that 4 million Texans – 300,000 in San Antonio alone – lost power as the storm swept through the City on Feb. 15. Social media posts reported residents without power for up to 37 hours, with others reporting rolling blackouts that left them without power for up to 58 minutes per hour throughout Tuesday. ERCOT itself posted a tweet that its “load shed” – the term refers to “shedding the load” of consumers needing access to electricity – had reached 14,000 megawatts, which in Cortez’s calculation would equal more than 10 million homes.

A Feb. 10 ERCOT tweet shows that the energy utility potentially admits its own culpability in the upcoming power outage disaster: “Peak demand for January 2021 was 19% higher than the January peak set in 2020, mainly due to colder temperatures.” The next day, the company tweeted that extreme cold weather was “expected to result in record electric use.”

While ERCOT then tweeted that consumers should “unplug the fancy new appliances you bought during the pandemic and only used once” to help conserve energy, Harman places responsibility on ERCOT, CPS Energy, government officials, community leaders, and every individual to enact plans to offset the worsening effects of climate change.

“We desperately need to sit down at the table – everybody,” Harman said. “For folks in the climate justice community, we feel good about our data, we feel good about our argument. And we’ll sit down at the table and [say], let’s fix this.”

He said the icon of activist organizers is the ant. “Everybody carries this little bit, we get more people going, and you build movement, and then there’s mass” that forms into a colony built on unified purpose.

Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez Credit: Courtesy / FlowerSong Press

Throughout Luz at Midnight, Cortez employs similar metaphors in an attempt to describe power in all of its dimensions, from the minute particles of quantum physics through the beings made of those particles, to how the sun and materials of Earth power life. The story, she said, is ultimately about how power is directed and used.

Like Cortez and Harman, who unified in purpose and in life, the characters of Champlain and Lali, the main character loosely based on Cortez, meet and eventually join as partners.

What Lali and Champlain reckon with is the power of desire, and “the problematic of power,” Cortez said. Power is defined both in terms of those in positions of power and those fighting against policy – “what we’re fighting against when we are fighting City Hall.”

“Do we have the power to change these things?” she asked.

A warning is written into the Champlain article:

Let us not be distracted by spectacular displays of nature’s power, however disturbing – as three weeks of near-zero temperatures in South Texas certainly were. Instead, let’s see in these highly visible markers of climate chaos the more subtle, but equally disturbing, human policy decisions dwelling beneath the threshold of ordinary perception. As global temperatures rise in this time of transition, it is the planned outages whose complicated meanings are all the more critical to parse and communicate. More than would-be-acts of God, rolling blackouts reveal the shape of forces that lie beneath the visible, as well as the shape of things to come.

An official (virtual) book release event is scheduled to take place at Urban-15 in May, with details forthcoming.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...