Dear EarthTalk: Were frozen wind turbines the reason for Texas’ historic power outages recently? If so, how can we make renewables more reliable moving forward? — G. S., Hartford, CT
As Winter Storm Uri wreaked havoc on the American Midwest this past February with bitter cold snow, entire power grids shut down and states like Texas faced a crisis like never before. Conservative politicians put the blame on renewable energy, particularly wind and solar. “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,” Governor Greg Abbot told Fox News.
Contrary to this argument, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) reports that renewable energy is responsible for less than a fraction of the state’s power supply—with wind power making up a mere seven percent of energy losses. While issues such as frozen wind turbines did contribute to the widespread power grid failures, wind turbines tend to generate less power in the winter anyway, leaving the chief culprit of the statewide power shortages to natural gas.
Natural gas provides more than a third of Texas’s power and heats over 40 percent of homes. The ERCOT reported that over 80 percent of the state’s total winter capacity is generated by natural gas, coal and nuclear power. Natural gas power plants don’t usually store fuel on site, and a lack of cold insulation because of the rarity of severe cold in Texas left most pipelines frozen and unable to maintain a continuous transferring of gas.
The ample evidence of fossil fuel energy failures behind Texas’ electricity crisis points to the broader issue of climate change denial and its devastating consequences. “It is an extreme weather problem, not a clean power problem. If anything, it shows why we need to be investing in building out more renewable energy sources with better transmission and storage to replace outdated systems,” says Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association.
Regardless, everyone is in favor of making renewable energy more reliable as well. One short-term solution is to modify wind turbines with anti-icing methods to withstand extreme temperatures, which Texas grid operators have yet to invest in. In the long run, however, the nation needs to drastically decrease its reliance on fossil fuels in order to make renewable energy more reliable. In the case of wind energy, the inconsistent demand of wind power makes wind power output fluctuate and thus less reliable. As more wind power is added to a localized grid, wind energy output is more easily predicted, decreasing wind variability and increasing the efficiency, flexibility and reliability of the grid.
In the end, the disastrous level of under-preparation resulting in a cascade of failures in Texas highlights the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and failure to build resilience by investing in a sustainable infrastructure. Though developing clean energy may come at a high cost, climate-linked disasters will only intensify and cause dangerous fallouts. Let’s hope that Winter Strom Uri can serve as the final wake-up call for our nation to begin a firm transition to renewable energy and fight for a habitable future.
CONTACTS: “Rick Perry says Texans would accept even longer power outages ‘to keep the federal government out of their business’,” washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/02/17/texas-abbott-wind-turbines-outages/; “Don’t blame wind turbines for Texas’ historic power outages,” cbsnews.com/news/wind-turbines-texas-power-outage-electrical-grid/.
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