Fact-checking the Texas energy-failure blame game
This week, all eyes have been on Texas. An unprecedented winter storm left 4 million people without power across the state and put nearly half of all Texans under a boil-water advisory. Initial reports from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, suggested frozen wind turbines were partially to blame. Though ERCOT’s report on Sunday said that limited natural gas supplies had also crippled the power grid, many Republican officials seized on frozen wind turbines and solar panels as primary culprits behind the outages. On Tuesday evening, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that due to the weather “our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collected more than 10% of our power grid and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”Texas GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw listed “frozen wind turbines” as a major reason for the statewide outages. “This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on the wind as a power source. When weather conditions get worse as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like the wind isn’t there when you need it,” Crenshaw said in a Twitter thread Tuesday.
Facts First: It’s incorrect to claim that issues with wind and solar were directly or even primarily responsible for the state’s power outages. Additionally, suggesting that Texas has “force[d] the grid to rely in part on the wind” energy is misleading. Though frozen wind turbines were a contributing factor, wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the outages, Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT, told Bloomberg. Most of the power outages were due to losses in coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, according to ERCOT. On Wednesday, ERCOT reported 46,000 megawatts of generation were offline. Of that, ERCOT officials said 28,000 megawatts came from thermal sources such as coal, gas, and nuclear plants, and 18,000 megawatts were from renewable energy, namely solar and wind. “It’s really a bigger failure of the natural gas system,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN. “That’s the part that really struggled to keep up.”
Webber said it is “disingenuous to blame the grid’s struggles” on renewable energy, given that the state’s energy supply is dominated by fossil fuels. According to a report from ERCOT, solar accounts for only 3.8% of the state’s power capacity throughout the year. Wind energy accounts for 10% of Texas’s winter energy capacity and throughout the entire year, it is able to provide 24.8%, the second-largest source of energy in the state under natural gas, which accounts for 51%. Webber also clarified that “Texas does *NOT* force the grid to rely on the wind” as Crenshaw claimed. “Other than a small mandate signed into law in 1999 by Governor Bush and revised in 2005 that we install a few GW of renewables, we use market forces to make decisions about what to build and what to operate,” Webber told CNN. The 2005 mandate revision Webber referenced required the state to produce at least 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2025, 500 megawatts of which needed to be from a source other than wind. According to the Energy Information Administration, Texas exceeded the 2025 goal in 2009, due in large part to the generating capacity of the state’s wind farms.
Preparing for the cold
On Fox, Abbott also said that the failures from renewable energy sources like wind turbines “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” He added that “[i]t just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” Facts First: Wind turbines can properly function even in freezing temperatures if properly winterized. Furthermore, the cold weather also caused generators and other parts of Texas’s energy infrastructure to fail and regulators have previously warned about the lack of preparedness when a 2011 cold snap caused power outages in the state. Webber disagreed with Abbott’s assessment, noting that “Wind performs just fine in many colder climates where they prepare for it.” Wind turbines can be equipped with different devices that heat and de-ice parts of the turbine along with other measures like water-resistant coatings to help keep them operational in severe cold. Some wind turbines can function at -22 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Webber, a lack of winterization affected power supplies across the board in Texas, not just wind turbines and solar panels.
On Twitter, Crenshaw acknowledged that the state was not prepared for such a storm, claiming “Texas infrastructure isn’t designed for once-in-a-century freezes.”However, the state had previously been warned about the issues in its infrastructure and what steps they could take to be better prepared for future cold weather situations. After low temperatures battered the Southwest in 2011 — resulting in the loss of power for 1.3 million customers across several states and rolling blackouts for several million Texans — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation released a report recommending preventative measures to protect Texas’s energy infrastructure from future extreme winter storms. The 2011 report also notes that after a similar cold snap in 1989, recommendations to better prepare energy infrastructure for such weather went largely unheeded. “[T]he answer is clearly that the corrective actions were not adequate, or were not maintained,” the report says. “Generators were not required to institute cold weather preparedness, and efforts in that regard lapsed with the passage of time.”David Tuttle, a research associate in the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, told CNN “[T]here is a fair criticism that the Texas generator fleet was not sufficiently winterized” but noted that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation did not mandate Texas to follow its recommendations.
“It looks like NERC made recommendations on best practices but did not make them mandatory,” Tuttle said. While key questions remain as to the extent these recommendations were implemented across the state, at least one Texas city took precautions that might have paid off. Following the freeze of 2011, El Paso winterized its power plants, and this time, the city experienced minimal outages compared to the rest of the state.