By Julian Lee
Green energy isn’t to blame for Texas’s power problems. It’s the state’s exceptionalism that has made the situation worse than it might otherwise have been.
Loud voices, from that of Gov. Greg Abbott on down, are being raised against renewable energy, blaming wind farms for the power outages that have scoured Texas along with the abnormal cold weather. But in reality, every source of power in the state has been hit and the contribution to the crisis from wind and solar is the least significant factor, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid.
Texans are just the latest group of people to experience firsthand the impact of the climate crisis, which has been driven in large part by the unfettered use of fossil fuels with no attempt to mitigate their impact on the atmosphere for so long.
Warming of the Arctic may have weakened the polar jet stream, a band of high altitude winds that usually circle the earth around 60 degrees north of the equator — the latitude of the south coast of Alaska. That, in turn, allowed cold, polar air to move much further southward than normal, bringing frigid temperatures to Texas and much of the rest of the U.S.
“Our wind and our solar got shut down and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a state-wide basis,” Abbott told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday. Not only was that statement incorrect — wind continued to generate more power than was forecast by ERCOT amid the cold — it simply ignored the impact of the cold on the other 90% of the grid supply. As my Bloomberg News colleagues Rachel Adams-Heard, Naureen S. Malik and Brian Eckhouse wrote, everything went wrong.
Freezing temperatures stopped oil and gas from being pumped out of the ground, or delivered through exposed pipelines. In colder climes they would generally be buried, insulated or heated to keep fluids flowing, each of which imposes an additional cost.
Power plants, also unprotected from extreme cold, shut more than 45 gigawatts of capacity, in many cases because instrumentation froze over. The impact was felt across coal, gas and even nuclear plants.
Of course, wind turbines weren’t exempt from difficulties either. Icing on turbine blades stopped them from turning. Even so, wind generation exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the weekend and it contributes a much smaller share of state’s electricity in winter than it does in summer.
The common theme is a total lack of preparation for cold weather. After all, wind farms generate plenty of power yearround in the Arctic conditions of Norway or Sweden. Perhaps that’s understandable in a state where temperatures aren’t expected to fall below freezing, even in the winter months. However, this is the second time in a decade that Texas has suffered blackouts as a result of cold weather. And then there’s the Texas exceptionalism.
The state’s power grid is largely disconnected from the rest of the U.S. — for political, not technical reasons. That has left Texans largely unable to draw on power supplies from their neighbors, although many of them are suffering similar problems.
Add to that a lack of any sort of capacity market that would pay generators to guarantee back-up supplies or face stiff penalties and you end up with a system that only works when everything runs smoothly.
“It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure that we will be able to heat our homes in the wintertime and cool our homes in the summertime,” Abbott added on his Fox interview. Actually, governor, it shows that Texas needs a power system that can cope with extreme weather, in winter as well as summer. Julian Lee is an oil strategist for Bloomberg First Word. Previously he worked as a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies.