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No, The Blackouts In Texas Weren't Caused By Renewables. Here's What Really Happened

Snow covers the ground in Waco, Texas, on Feb. 17. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has blamed renewable energy sources for the blackouts that have hit the state. In fact, they were caused by a systemwide failure across all energy sources.
Matthew Busch
AFP via Getty Images
Snow covers the ground in Waco, Texas, on Feb. 17. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has blamed renewable energy sources for the blackouts that have hit the state. In fact, they were caused by a systemwide failure across all energy sources.

This week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on local TV in Dallas and blamed the state's power crisis on the devastating storm that disrupted power generation and froze natural gas pipelines.

He didn't single out one power source to blame. Then he went on Fox News and gave a different story.

"Wind and solar got shut down," he said. "They were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis."

He wasn't alone. Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry also pointed to frozen windmills and warned that this crisis showed the perils of promoting renewable energy.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with ties to the fossil fuel industry, allegedthat the storm "never would have been an issue had our grid not been so deeply penetrated by renewable energy sources."

But this focus on windmills ignores the evident fact that — as Abbott acknowledged on local TVevery kind of power generation fell short in this storm.

In fact, significantly more natural gas and coal went offline than renewables. But that doesn't suggest fossil fuels were uniquely to blame either — they were responsible for more production, so it's no surprise they were the source of more failures.

Grid operators say it simply doesn't make sense to pinpoint any one generation source for criticism.

"It was across the board," says Bill Magness, the president and CEO of ERCOT, or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. "We saw coal plants, gas plants, wind, solar, just all sorts of our resources trip off and not be able to perform."

Here's how the catastrophe unfolded.

Frigid temperatures had people across Texas plugging in electric heaters all at once, causing demand to spike.

"Fundamentally, it is a historic storm that drove electric demand higher than we've ever seen — by far," Magness says.

At the exact same time, for the exact same reason, the supply of electricity went down.

Wind turbines did, in fact, freeze. But so did natural gas wells. And pipelines. And critical pipes at coal and nuclear power plants. And equipment panels.

Perilous road conditions made it hard for workers to access sites. Natural gas was being used for heating needs as well as power generation, making scant supplies even scarcer.

Add it all up, and the state suddenly had a lot of power plants, of all kinds, that simply couldn't function — and not enough electricity to go around.

Electric grids must maintain a delicate balance between supply and demand at all times or risk catastrophic failures. With supply so inadequate, ERCOT saw no other choice than to force demand down with a blunt instrument: outages.

It was a systemwide failure.

"All types of generation have had issues," says Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin's Webber Energy Group. "I mean, having more natural gas power plants wouldn't have helped us because we can't get gas to the ones we have right now."

He's staying with a friend near Austin because his own house doesn't have power. And he says this weather was just beyond what the entire system was ever designed to handle.

Of course it's possible to run pipelines, power plants and windmills in subzero temperatures; plenty of cold climates do it. But Texas' entire power grid is designed to meet peak demand in the summer, when air conditioners all kick in at once. It's not built for high winter demand.

Rhodes, who has now seen snow on the ground for multiple days in Austin, says it's like New England grappling with 105 degree temperatures. Northern grids would struggle under those conditions too, he says.

The storm triggered this disaster, but the role of state policy will be examined in depth in the weeks and months ahead. Natural gas for homes is prioritized over fuel for power plants. Texas doesn't share power with nearby states because it wants to avoid federal regulation.

Then there's the question of winterization. After a freeze a decade ago, Texas recommended that power plants prepare for freak cold weather, but those measures are expensive and were never made mandatory.

And then there's another big question: Will ERCOT's projections and decisions stand up to scrutiny?

The investigations into this disaster may well find blame to go around.

But all the data right now show this was a systemwide failure caused by a storm much worse than the state was ready to handle, and not by the use of renewable energy.

"I think the key point here is that we need to be prepared for these extreme events, today and in the future, no matter what the generation sources [are]," says Lori Bird, who directs the U.S. energy program at the World Resources Institute. "Because I think this event shows that all generation sources are vulnerable to these extreme events."

Blaming wind and solar is a political move, Bird says. What's really needed — in Texas and elsewhere — is better preparation.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.