Frozen wind turbines aren’t why Texas can’t keep the lights on

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The ongoing electricity crisis in the Lone Star State hasn’t stopped a chorus of conservative pundits and even some Republican lawmakers from pointing fingers at the state’s fleet of wind turbines as the reason for the rolling blackouts, as nearly 3 million remain without power throughout the state. Even the state’s own governor, Greg Abbott (R), joined in.

In reality, frozen wind turbines are just a small part of a much bigger problem. All types of energy systems in Texas are struggling with subfreezing temperatures. The rolling blackouts are the result of a systematic failure of Texas’s power plant and grid operators to prepare for a record-shattering Arctic freeze.

It is Texas’s traditional thermal power plants, which rely mostly on natural gas, that were supposed to provide the bulk of power during the harshest winter months, but failed to do so, according to Texas grid officials and outside energy expects.

“The entire system was overwhelmed,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate on energy issues at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet as if an on cue, Republican lawmakers — even some from Texas — want to blame the power failures on renewable energy.

The crisis in Texas shows the degree to which energy policy has been politicized along party lines in the United States.

Abbott, Texas’s governor, suggested on Fox News Tuesday that the crisis unfolding his state “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal,” referring to a sweeping manifesto from progressive Democrats to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that was never implemented in his state.

He went on to single out renewables for Texas’s power woes, saying “our wind and our solar got shut down,” without mentioning the steep decline in output from gas, coal and nuclear plants during the cold snap.

Anchors elsewhere on the conservative news network spent much of Tuesday making dubious ties between the outages in Texas and proposals from Democrats for building out renewable energy resources in order to tackle climate change

Under the chyron “Texas Power Issues Blamed on Frozen Wind Turbines,” for example, host Pete Hegseth asked, “Is this what America would look like under the Green New Deal?” Another Fox News host, Dana Perino, similarly said the outages are “raising questions about the Lone Star State’s increasing reliance on renewable energy.”

Meanwhile on Twitter, GOP lawmakers such Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) linked the outages to the growth of Texas’s renewable energy sector.

The truth: Traditional power plants, not wind turbines, are responsible for most of the energy shortfall.

The loss of power from thermal plants — that is, gas, coal and nuclear — is more than five times greater than decline in output expected from the stalled wind turbines, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, with manages most of the state’s grid. Texas only planned to get a tenth of its power anyways from wind energy during the peak winter season.

“There is significantly more megawatts in that thermal unit category than in the renewable category, as far as what’s out during this particular event,” Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told reporters Tuesday.

Sky-high demand for gas for heating homes during the winter chill, along with power plant equipment designed for warmer weather being hobbled by frigid temperatures, is what is straining output from the state’s gas, coal and nuclear generators during the cold snap.

More fundamentally, well before the storm Texas declined to put in place financial incentives for power producers to prepare for winter and ensure they could meet energy needs during periods of extreme demand, as our colleague Will Englund explains.

The Lone Star State also runs an electric grid largely disconnected from the rest of the country, allowing it to operate with less federal scrutiny but making it difficult to draw power from neighboring regions during times of crisis.

Iced wind turbines, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, are “so far down the list of what has gone wrong.”

“Overall,” he added, “wind has come closer to expectations than many other sources.”