Let’s not mince words – the energy crisis in Texas is an unmitigated disaster on all fronts. Some 4.4 million people have been without power, heat, and running water for days and lack of the state grid’s preparation is to blame. Texas loves to brag about its energy independence and self-reliant electrical grid. But the events of the past week underscore that America’s largest energy producer is not as energy secure as once thought. About 90% of the Lone Star State is powered by a Texas-only power grid, but the current events strongly suggest that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) should join a regional transmission organization to meet energy demands.
Texas’ energy island, compounded by a failure to weatherize renewable and thermal power sources, led to the worst energy crisis in the country since the Northeast Power Outage of 2003. So far 30 people have died and hundreds have been poisoned by carbon monoxide from generators in their house or by car exhaust, trying to stay warm. What’s worse, we failed to prepare the country for the expectable pandemic, and now we have also failed to prepare a large section of the country to cope with fully expectable weather conditions. These are massive failures of resilience our geopolitical enemies take very seriously.
Climate change is empirically leading to more frequent and more extreme weather events on both sides of the thermometer – this is a fundamental reality. At the same time, America’s energy infrastructure has grown increasingly fragile, with vulnerabilities put on display over the years in California, New York, and now Texas.
While affordable, abundant, and dependable energy access relies on a number of factors, American energy security starts with resilient generation. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are growing fast but are still nascent and underdeveloped compared to the backbone of domestic power: nuclear, natural gas, and coal. Thermal power nationwide is responsible for 80% of power generation. Non-hydro renewables are roughly one-tenth of America’s electricity production, and have only just recently started to take market share from their steam-generating competitors.
In Texas, renewable energy penetration is much higher than the national average. Wind and solar account for nearly 25 of the state’s annual electricity generation (see below). While renewables have zero fuel costs and do not emit greenhouse gases – their intermittency means that thermal power must shoulder the lion’s share of the generation burden – at least until utility scale storage catches up. Therefore, base load energy must continue to come from gas, nuclear, and legacy coal in the interim. In Texas, weather-related failures in the thermal systems that power the state are primarily to blame – not renewables.
An Inconvenient Truth
The immediate reaction of some, including Texas Governor Gregg Abbot, to shift the blame of the unfolding energy crisis to renewables on account of frozen turbines and snow covered panels is misplaced. Abbott appeared on Fox News this Tuesday to proclaim that freeze-related blackouts in Texas “show how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal.” While the Green New Deal is not a realistic energy policy option for the United States, the crisis in Texas is not a fair example thereof.
The loss of generation capacity from gas, coal and nuclear is more than five times greater than decline in output from the stalled wind turbines. In fact, wind generation has actually exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the weekend, according to ERCOT data.
No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages. Something that Russia, Sweden, Norway and Canada understand pretty well, it that is hard to generate electricity when it’s cold. Alaska, Maine, Vermont, and Siberia all manage to do this – because they prepare.
Hard does not imply impossible. Wind Turbines even operate on arctic bases. The key is winterization, which Texas policymakers neglected to pay for given the Lone Star State’s typically warm climate. These same cost-cuts were also applied to Texas’ thermal power stations, which ended up failing like everything else.
Dan Woodfin, a senior director for ERCOT, told Bloomberg News that frozen instruments and wellheads at natural gas, coal and nuclear facilities – combined with limited supplies of natural gas – led to the state’s energy woes. Additionally, we are now observing a threat to the water supply — nearly 12 million Texans face water disruptions and quality degradation.
The entire design of the system is based on short-run prices – not reliability. This has backfired – with wholesale prices soaring 10,000%. Houston has gone from $22 per megawatt-hour to about $9,000 over the course of the storm.
The current state of affairs is clearly bad policy and needs to end – full stop. Increasing fracking production, building out more combined cycle natural gas plants, and investing in weatherization kits could mitigate the problem in the future, but there are only three real solutions to this problem. First, ERCOT should join a regional transmission organization to meet energy demands. Next, we need to take lessons from colder climate countries, like Canada and Sweden, building base load producing power plants and equipping wind turbines with technologies such as automatically heated carbon fiber coatings. Finally, energy efficiency measures – deep energy retrofits of residences and business — must be implemented in order to keep demand manageable.
Let’s hope policy makers learn from this crisis and make the changes needed to build a more resilient and energy secure Texas.
With Assistance from David Pasmanik and James Grant