Tilting at Windmills: Texas Leaders Are Lying about the Cause of the Winter Power Crisis

Narrator: The real reasons are deregulation, incompetence and greed.

Governor Greg Abbott of Texas did a curious thing as his state plunged into freezing darkness: He went on Sean Hannity to blame wind power as the reason the electricity was out, telling this outright lie: “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. ... It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.”

Indeed, Abbott spent much of his time attacking renewable energy programs. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States,” he told Hannity.

Governor Abbott was not alone in this bizarre take. As the crisis in Texas went into full swing, conservative media was also quick to blame wind power turbine failures for Texas’s blackouts. Other GOP politicians followed suit, with Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) tweeting, “This is what happens when you force the grid in part to rely on wind as a power source. When weather conditions get bad as they did this week intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it.” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, declared on Facebook: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas."

Fact check time. Wind power accounts for just 10 percent of the electricity in Texas generated during the winter. And though some wind turbines were frozen due to failure by operators to winterize them properly, wind power actually generated in excess of forecasts, according to ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas):

Heather Zichal, of the American Clean Power Association, said opponents of renewable energy were trying to distract from the failures elsewhere in the system. “It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power — who attack it whether it is raining, snowing or the sun is shining — engaging in a politically opportunistic charade, misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities,” she said.

The real culprit behind the Texas outages is a sacrosanct driver of the Texas economy itself: natural gas. The shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas that had frozen inside of pipelines, dwarfed the small impact dent caused by frozen wind turbines—by a factor of five or six. The natural gas freeze-ups, due to moisture within the gas, happened because Texas had failed to sufficiently winterize any of its supply and distribution of natural gas for a storm this bad. This neglect occurred despite a very similar storm a decade ago, over Super Bowl weekend in 2011, which knocked out power to over 3 million Texas residents for many of the same reasons.

The readiness of right-wing politicians to blame renewable energy for Texas’s winter crisis is a concerted effort to obscure the real culprits—deregulation, incompetence and greed—that actually led to this nightmare.

Texas has long prided itself as being off the national power grid, nearly entirely cut off from the rest of the country. In a very Texas fashion, it has remained independent purposefully in order to avoid federal regulation (and, some insist, so that it could secede from the Union quickly if needed). But the costs of this isolation have been high. It has left Texas without access to additional electricity from outside the state to survive emergencies like this one. But more fundamentally, it has permitted the state to run a “Wild West” type energy market, like few others in the country, where short-term profits are emphasized, and things like long-term maintenance (e.g. winterizing its pipelines and equipment) are neglected. That is because there are zero financial incentives for power companies to undertake this work and prepare for storms like this one, which are just infrequent enough to be outside of “rational” cost allocations.

This leaves Texas and California in rather the same boat, despite Senator Ted Cruz’s sneering jabs at the rolling blackouts experienced by the Golden State last year. Both states have been unwilling to compensate power generators for long-term maintenance costs, which is how most other states handle this basic question. What happened last summer in California with power lines left unburied is now inflicting massive damage upon Texas this winter with pipelines and equipment left unwinterized.

In addition, and quite perversely, because most power generators use cheap natural gas, they make almost no money for most of the year, but are able to crank prices sky high when demand peaks. Texas power generators actually depend on these peak prices for most of their profits, having sold electricity at rock bottom prices for all of the rest of the year. This can have devastating consequences, however. For example, due to lack of adequate price and supply regulation, in Houston over Monday and Tuesday during the storm the wholesale price of electricity went from $22/megawatt-hour to near $9,000.

This go-it-alone and trust-the-market approach in Texas will spell disaster in the coming years and decades as the climate crisis renders events like a deadly frozen winter or scorching hot summer all the more frequent. The attacks on renewable energy don’t help clarify the need for preparations and regulatory reform. Most ironically, it is the very burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels like natural gas that is accelerating climate change and driving polar vortexes deep into an unprepared Texas.

Texas will need to accept that it must bring its grid, its practices, and its maintenance of equipment up to national standards and into the 21st century. Without public oversight that is more focused on safety and security than on profits, the citizens of Texas will continue to pay a steep price.