A winter storm has swept across much of the US in recent days resulting in prolonged periods of heavy snowfall and icy temperatures. Texas, a state that rarely sees cold temperatures let alone snow, was one of the worst affected states and has had a number of cold weather records smashed by the storm. This led to rolling blackouts due to lower available energy supply and a higher than usual demand.
With energy supply right across the state of Texas affected, there was only one obvious scapegoat for the issues seen – renewables. Fox News, obviously, was all over it; wall-to-wall coverage with hosts like Tucker Carlson calling wind turbines “silly fashion accessories” and claiming that the cold weather in Texas means the global warming issue has been solved. They also had a number of guests on, criticising the role of renewable energy in the Texas blackouts. These included Texas Governor (and fossil fuel enthusiast) Greg Abbott attempting to link the power outages to reasons why a green new deal would be catastrophic for the whole of the USA, and the former Energy Secretary Rick Perry reiterating the need for coal, oil and natural gas to continue to play a vital role in the Texan energy mix. I could go on so much further with the climate emergency misinformation that is regularly spewed on Fox News, but that would require a whole other blog.
The issue of blaming wind energy for the power outages is that it is completely misleading and avoids discussing what actually happened. I know, its not like Fox News to be misleading… but again, that’s a whole other blog. I’m not saying that the number of wind turbines having to be stopped due to the freezing weather plays no role in the problems Texas is currently seeing, but it ignores the facts that coal and natural gas power plants were also majorly affected by the freezing temperatures and were much more likely to have been the cause of the blackouts. So what really happened in Texas during the big freeze?
First of all, its important to understand the energy mix of Texas and just what types of energy dominate in a state that produces so much crude oil and natural gas in the USA. Fossil fuels are still the dominant source of energy in Texas providing more than two thirds (69-70%) of the total energy used in October 2020. Renewable energy provided just over 22% and nuclear around 8%. In 2020 as a whole, wind provided just under 25% of the total energy used in Texas and recently overtook coal to as the second largest energy source.
It should also be noted that during these winter months, 80% of the grid’s capacity was to be satisfied by fossil fuels and some nuclear energy, with only around 7% of the energy demand to be satisfied by wind energy – wind energy plays a much smaller role in the Texas energy mix when it’s colder and there’s typically much lower demand. It’s difficult to plan for rare events like this winter storm, however, the grid should be able to adapt when demand is expected to grow in events like this, whether that’s in the form of fossil fuels or renewable energy.
Something else important to note is that Texas is also the only state that regulates its own electricity supply. Where all other states are federally regulated and are forced to plan for all demand scenarios, Texas hadn’t planned for such an extreme cold period, likely the costs for planning and developing the infrastructure required were too much of a cost for the privatised energy supplier. Maybe the Governor should be looking at the lack of planning and amount of corner-cutting rather than trying to shoot down wind energy without evidence?
It Wasn’t Just Renewables Affected
Given the usual climate of cool to mild winters and hot, humid summers, its understandable that the majority of energy infrastructure in Texas is not designed to withstand the freezing temperatures that the state has seen in recent days, but rather the extreme hot temperatures when many are blasting air conditioning units in an attempt to stay cool. That’s why Texas has struggled to deal with the winter storm where others further north have seen even colder temperatures and managed just fine.
Utility officials have said that the drop in renewable energy supply has only played a minimal role in the blackouts seen across the state. ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) that operates the power grid for the state have already stated that failures at fossil fuel power stations and the state’s nuclear plants were the cause of more than twice the number of outages compared to wind turbines. At its worst, an estimated 30 gigawatts of energy was lost from fossil fuel and nuclear sources, compared with just 15 gigawatts from renewable energy sources.
In the criticism of the evidence-free Republican renewable energy backlash, nobody is denying that renewables were affected by the storm. Around 50% of wind turbines were forced to stop as they weren’t built to operate in such cold temperatures. However, the other 50% that were unaffected by the extreme cold were still operating and offsetting some of the loss thanks to strong coastal winds.
The Unsustainability of Natural Gas
The energy blackouts seen in Texas in recent days have been extreme and are rare events in a state that is usually fairly mild during the winter. Understandably, the energy infrastructure didn’t prepare for extreme cold weather in the same way that northern states have; instead they were prepared for the hot and humid temperatures that are much more regularly seen. However, this is something that should be addressed going forward. The climate emergency that the entire planet is having to deal with will mean that more unstable and extreme weather becomes more common.
No matter how often and how aggressively those on the right, many of whom are likely receiving talking points form the fossil fuel industry, continue to shout their mistruths, the actual truth will emerge. Supplies of natural gas that provides more than half of the electricity and heating in the state faltered and was the primary cause of the rolling blackouts enforced during this recent winter storm. The fact that the issues were so widespread across multiple energy sources suggest that there has been insufficient planning for cold weather and should be something considered when developing the energy infrastructure. Other US states can also look to Texas as an example of how not to build and manage an electricity grid.
Renewable energy has its flaws, as do all energy sources, but operating in cold temperatures isn’t one of them so long as they’re built to operate in cold temperatures. That’s why Alaska and much of Scandinavia, for example, has wind turbines that can operate in colder temperatures.
The right-wing response of blaming renewable energy and even name-dropping the green new deal as the reason for the blackouts is wildly inaccurate and, speaking as someone from the outside looking in, is incredibly worrying that someone with the platform . It’s also very hypocritical of someone like Greg Abbott to start bashing renewable energy as a pipe dream of the left when he was gratefully accepting awards for wind energy development just a few weeks ago. And sorry Tucker, but the climate emergency is still alive and causing dangerous problems all over the world.