The suffering in Texas this past week has been horrendous. Snow and ice storms led to massive pile-ups like the 133-vehicle crash in Fort Worth that left six dead. Then an Arctic air mass plunged southward, dropping temperatures to levels one might expect in Alaska. Then, the power went out for millions as a series of power plant failures led to rolling blackouts. Four million households were plunged into darkness, many without functioning heat in uninsulated homes while temperatures dropped to single digits or lower. Hundreds suffered carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to heat their homes with kitchen stoves, barbecues, or by running cars in attached garages. City water plants struggled with low pressure as residents ran their faucets to prevent their pipes from freezing, leading to boil water orders that affected nearly fourteen million Texans.
Not surprisingly, the partisan finger pointing started long before the lights came back on. A National Review headline on February 15, 2021 proclaimed, “Green Energy Useless During Cold Snaps.” Fox News commentator Sean Hannity interpreted the failures as an indictment of renewable energy while his colleague Tucker Carlson mocked, “The windmills failed, like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back arguing “that it was failures in coal and natural gas that contributed to the state’s power shortages.” Defenders of renewable energy shifted the blame to poor planning by Texas Republicans with opinion pieces like this one in the New York Times: “Texas Could Have Kept the Lights on.” Brad Plumer’s Feb 16, 2021 New York Times article took the offensive on behalf of green energy: “A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids.” Plumer argued that the Texas deep freeze was an example of the crippling weather unpredictibility that global warming would unleash. The competing interpretations only added to the confusion. After evaluating these competing claims I suggest four different lessons for energy systems from the recent suffering in Texas.
- The failures in Texas are not an indictment of renewable energy supplies but a reminder of the need for resilience, redundancy, and advance preparation for extreme weather. All types of electrical generation suffered equipment failures this past week in Texas–coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, and solar. Based on data in a February 17, 2021 news release from the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), I calculated that 60% of the lost capacity came from thermal generation plants (coal, natural gas, and nuclear), and the remaining 40% from wind and solar installations.
- Weather extremes happen but it is human nature to take the easy way out and skimp on preparing for extreme events. People, institutions, and systems in northern climates are better adapted to cold extremes while those in the Sun Belt are better adapted to extremes of heat and humidity. The most deadly heat waves in the U.S. have occurred in the Midwest not the Southeast where heat and humidity are predictable parts of summer living. Texas’s power plants are not enclosed and that helps dissipate heat in the summer months. In cold climates, power plants are enclosed within buildings and despite even colder temperatures, power plants hummed along in places like Minnesota and the Dakotas.
- Energy systems are the most complex and most foundational components of contemporary society. Therefore, energy transitions are slow. We are vulnerable to disruptions because we are in the middle of three energy transitions all at once: 1) shifting from electrical generation by coal which can be stockpiled for an entire season to natural gas which relies on just-in-time delivery and competes with home heating uses, 2) shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources of wind and solar that are intermittent and can be interrupted by snow or ice, and 3) electrifying our buildings and transportation fleet. When it comes to energy systems, we need sources that are diverse and reliable as we transition to a greener, more renewable supply.
- Reliable infrastructure systems can lead to individual complacency. We trust that our lights and cell phones will always work, that heat comes from the furnace, and safe water from the tap. When a devastating ice storm hit the St. Lawrence Valley in 1998, it caused greater devastation to Ontario dairy farmers than to their Quebec neighbors. The reason was that the electrical supply had always been more reliable in Ontario so farmers had not invested in backup generators. When we lived in Point Roberts, Washington where extended winter power outages were common, my family learned the importance of backup heat sources, candles, and lanterns. As a society and as individuals, that sort of backup planning is sorely needed.