Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Failed Texas, Not Wind Turbines

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

In the chaos following Texas’ severe winter weather, some folks have gotten their wires crossed. Conservative politicians and pundits across the country have taken the power grid shutdown as an opportunity to condemn green energy in Texas and claimed that everything from freezing wind turbines to the Green New Deal is to blame. The real culprit was two decades of deregulation, an over-reliance on natural gas, and a dismal level of winter-weather preparation.  At least 31 people have now died in relation to the winter storm and in some areas, water pipes are beginning to freeze leaving residents to melt and boil snow for water (if they can).

Why This Matters:  Some have called this event a “black swan,” but a decade ago, snow, sleet, and a week of below-freezing temperatures shut down power across Texas, in some areas for two weeks. At the time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report advising the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages most of the state’s grid, to winterize its power resources. Although ERCOT encouraged power companies to winterize, most didn’t. As climate change worsens, Texas could see these storms much more frequently, and if the state doesn’t upgrade its power grid, every subsequent winter could become deadly too.

Broken Wind?

“This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston. On his show, Tucker Carlson blamed green energy for Texas’ power woes. But in reality, every sector of power generation in the state was hit hard by freezing temperatures. Wind and solar accounts for only 10% of the ERCOT managed power grid, and even after the first freeze, wind turbines continued to produce more power than ERCOT had originally forecasted. The most disastrous power shutdowns happened on the fossil fuel front.

Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT said on Tuesday, “It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system.” Texas’ natural gas wells, oil pipelines, and power plant instrumentation are generally unprotected, running above ground, and vulnerable to the elements. Freezing temperatures and pipes prevented oil and natural gas from being pumped out of reserves, and damaged power plants had to be shut down. An estimated 50% of natural gas production was shut down following the freeze. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“While millions of homes across Texas are without power due to extreme and unusual weather patterns, state and local politicians are inaccurately attacking the state’s wind energy and blaming renewable energy as the cause for outages, which paints a false narrative in the favor of fossil fuels. Energy generated from wind production accounts for less than 20% of the state’s energy production and the most significant cause of these outages has been a failure of natural gas operations and disruptions in those supply chains. At a time when severe and atypical weather patterns are hitting this state hard, we should be supporting renewables. Renewable energy is part of the solution for combating climate change and Defenders of Wildlife supports responsibly sited and managed renewable energy projects,” said Joy Page, director of renewable energy and wildlife, Defenders of Wildlife.

On the Ground

In the meantime, the people of Texas are growing colder, some are collecting snow in their bathtubs, using melted snow just to flush their toilets, and building clay pot heaters to keep warm. Northerners are offering sage winter advice for their southern friends on Twitter and Facebook, just take a look.  Plus the shortages of power are causing electric bills to skyrocket — power prices that were above $9,000 MWH, an increase of 10,000 percent over the pre-storm price of $50 MWH.  The price usually surges during hot summers as well when air conditioners run at full blast.

To Go Deeper:  Allegations have arisen that the management company is prioritizing richer, whiter areas for power distribution across the state.  Read more about the equity issues here.

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