Since millions of Texans woke up Monday morning without power and without heat in freezing temperatures, several false narratives about frozen wind turbines and the unreliability of renewable energy sources emerged. Once we have met the immediate need to ensure that Texans, particularly those in vulnerable populations, are safe and warm, we need to agree about exactly what went wrong and work to ensure it doesn’t happen again. One early lesson is already clear: the United States needs better energy choices and an updated grid to meet the new challenges we face as climate change impacts continue to mount.
To really understand what is happening in Texas, you have to back up a bit and understand what goes into the moment when you flick a light switch and, usually, the light comes on.
Your utility and the operators of the electric grid have literally been planning for that moment for years. They plan for every moment, using very sophisticated techniques to forecast exactly how much electric energy—or “load”—their users will require. They use that forecast to plan for how much electricity they will need to produce, and look at the portfolio of generation sources available to them to plan exactly how they will produce all the electricity their users are likely to require, especially for moments where demand “peaks” in extreme heat or extreme cold.
So, what happens when extreme weather hits the region, causing huge drops in temperature across multiple states? Demand for electricity skyrockets. And the storm knocks out some generation units, meaning there is less generation capacity to meet the increased load. And so, there are shortages, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) institutes rolling blackouts, taking some users offline to reduce load.
Opponents of renewable energy have been quick to make hay out of anecdotal reports of frozen wind turbines, even though as of Monday night, roughly two-thirds of the capacity that was planned from wind turbines during this event was still online. Meanwhile, fossil-fired and even nuclear units were also offline—peaking at 34,000 megawatts (MW) of these types of units, nearly half of the 70,000 MW capacity ERCOT expected to be available. Every form of electric generation has been underperforming through the freeze with the bulk of the failures attributed to natural gas, coal and nuclear facilities. This includes failures in access to fuel supply, particularly natural gas production and transport.
The other thing to consider is the failure to adequately prepare for this event. ERCOT had planned for almost 14,000 MW of outages during an extreme winter scenario this season. But with more than 30,000 MW offline over a long holiday weekend, that’s more than double what ERCOT had planned for.
Like a large portion of the grid across the United States, much of ERCOT’s network is over 75 years old, and it may lack the benefit of the most recent advances in energy storage technology and load regulation. There’s a lot we still don’t know about what could have been done to make the Texas grid more resilient against this kind of event. There will be investigations and reports that will tell us more than we know right now.
Here’s what we do know: we have the opportunity to do better. Now is the time to recommit to investing in critical infrastructure.
A large-scale failure like what happened this week in Texas underscores the need to see the big picture about how the nation is going to power its future. It’s about more than just surviving one type of weather event, it’s about meeting the challenge of the changing climate going forward. We need to build a more resilient energy system that that reduces greenhouse gas emissions overall. More distributed energy like rooftop solar installations, coupled with increased use of improved storage technology, are a way that grid managers can increase resilience. We want our power sources to not only be more resilient, but more affordable for consumers. Technologies that empower users to take more control over how much energy they are using help consumers save money and make us more energy efficient, which can make demand spikes during peak periods less drastic. And finally, it is imperative that we prepare for more weather extremes as climate change continues. If not, we risk repeating this tragic situation.
Lives and livelihoods are at stake; people want answers and assurances. We want to know not just why this happened, but how we’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s important to not take cheap shots, to look at all the parts of the system that failed, and to look at what can be done to improve it for the future. We have an opportunity right now to make critical grid investments and support the technologies that will give us a better, more resilient grid, and that will offer energy choices that are cleaner, cheaper and just as resilient and reliable as fossil fuels. Let’s not let politically expedient narratives get in our way.