How did Texas, the nation’s energy capital, epicenter of the fracking revolution, owner of the “energy coast”—and also a leader in wind power—come to be facing the kind of widespread power blackouts formerly associated with California and its wildfires?
All sides in the energy and climate wars were quick to put forward their own narratives. But if a recent piece in E&E News (reprinted in Scientific American) is to be believed, the problems exposed by the Texas deep freeze are not about any one type of energy versus another. They are about good old-fashioned human fallibility and lack of coordination and planning.
Texas has chosen to maintain its own separate electricity grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Its coverage of the state doesn’t map precisely; some parts of the state are covered by neighboring regional grids. Those mostly coal-powered neighboring grids had much more reliable power than ERCOT during the deep freeze, although there were some cutbacks.
ERCOT was unprepared for the deep freeze. “[T]he number of plant outages for ERCOT’s grid [was] far greater than expected. The grid operator forecast nearly 14 GW of plant outages during an extreme winter weather event. [But during the freeze] ERCOT officials said some 43 GW has been forced offline. That sum include[d] plants that were already offline for scheduled maintenance,” according to the E&E News article.
Much has been made of the failure of Texas wind turbines to winterize, as wind turbines in Scandinavia do. Wind turbine output fell by 32 percent as blades froze. But the failure of energy modes across Texas included coal plants, whose output dropped 32 percent, and natural gas, which dropped 25 percent, according to U.S. Energy Administration figures. Energy demand surged to 71 gigawatts, but output was only 51 GW, leaving millions without power.
One issue: unlike in Northern states, energy plants in Southern states are often not enclosed, so as to prevent heat buildups. That works fine in the hot summer months but is a disadvantage during deep-freeze events, which were not expected formerly that far south. Exposed energy plants can have freezing issues in cold snaps, no matter what their fuel. That problem can be addressed, but there needs to be a plan for future deep-freeze events.
ERCOT relies heavily on natural gas, which Texas enjoys in abundance. The E&E News piece notes one disadvantage of natural gas: it is used both for electricity generation and for direct heating, meaning it faces a double demand during cold snaps. Oil and gas drillers have become so “efficient” that they operate in a just-in-time manner, meaning any supply disruptions are immediately registered by users. Also, many gas wells also produce water and distillates, which freeze during cold snaps.
So what are the lessons of the Texas deep freeze?
• What is being called “climate resilience” —i.e., strengthening all forms of infrastructure against future extreme events—may be at least as important right now as reducing emissions or pushing along further energy transitions without enough planning and coordination. Let’s strengthen and protect what we already have, much of whose costs are already sunk, against extreme events of all kinds, whether Mississippi River floods or deep freezes.
• Renewables have demand and reliability issues that need to be acknowledged, addressed and planned for in the future. Energy experts have long known this; now Texas has impressed it on the larger public. Wind and solar are already part of the energy mix, but they will never be able to serve all our energy needs by themselves.
• Neither renewables nor natural gas are magic bullets that will cover all energy needs and demands. While “just-in-time” may be great for lean drilling operations, it may not be the best model for energy reliability and supply, nor should we expect it to be. This is a policy matter, not a technical question. State and regional grids already have plans for energy reliability that can be improved.
• Even though its share is declining, coal will have a place in the energy scheme for a good while yet. The E&E News article conceded an argument that coal advocates have often made about its reliability, although it said this was “not an endorsement of coal.” “Indeed, Texas’ woes highlight some of the challenges facing American climate hawks. Renewable generation fades during the winter months in much of the U.S. as demand for energy surges.” The article did advocate for a sensible energy planning process in which all sources of energy are integrated and coordinated.
A more coordinated and better planned energy transition, even if slower, is better for Americans than a hasty, chaotic one based on wishful thinking or ill-informed ideology, or one that neglects basic infrastructure and exposes more Americans to power outages and soaring electricity rates.
This is something for the Biden administration and incoming energy secretary Jennifer Granholm to think about when they craft energy and climate policies.