Your Favorite Power Generation Method Fueled the February 2021 Texas Blackouts
An arctic storm led to havoc in the Texas power grid during the third week of February. Millions of people lost power, many of them for days. Perversely, while those people were doing what they could to keep warm, many who still had power searched for a scapegoat.
The ensuing arguments largely fell along ideological lines. People of a certain political persuasion pinned the blame for the blackouts on failures at fossil fuel power generation facilities: those with different politics instead focused their ire on wind and solar power generation. A disinterested view of the facts reveals a better explanation for the blackouts: every form of electrical generation contributed to the problem.
Whether you like it or not, it was your preferred method of power generation that led to the blackouts in Texas.
Where Does Texas Get Its Electricity?
Before discussing how each type of energy contributed to the blackout, it’s important to know what energy producers in Texas use to produce electricity. According to the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), state energy production comes from the following sources:
- 51% Natural Gas
- 25% Wind
- 13% Coal
- 5% Nuclear
- 5% Other Sources
From these numbers it’s easy to see why many people have been quick to point to issues with the wind power or natural gas supply to explain the blackouts; they’re the biggest sources of energy.
What Happened Leading Up to the Blackout?
Sunday, February 14 through Monday, February 15, electricity demand skyrocketed as a winter storm, featuring snow, ice, and arctic temperatures hit the the entire state of Texas. Even Brownsville, 297 miles south of Houston, experienced freezing temperatures.
During the spike in energy demand, as much as 30,000 MW of natural gas, coal, and nuclear power generation went offline due to freezing conditions. At the same time, almost all of the state’s 25,000 MW of wind capacity fell offline.
In order to maintain the integrity of the grid, which needs power to flow at a constant rate, ERCOT demanded that local power companies cut power drastically. These blackouts persisted for days because so much power had to be cut that there simply was no more non-critical power to shut off. Short of turning out the lights at hospitals and other critical infrastructure, power companies lacked sufficient energy to even temporarily restore power to those without it.
The finger-pointing began before the lights came back on for most of the Texans left in the dark.
The Argument for Wind Power Causing the Texas Blackouts
For many, the near complete collapse of wind power generation during the ice storms and ensuing frigid temperatures is the smoking gun for the blackouts. Throughout most of the storm, the energy shortfall needed to power Texas homes tracked fairly closely with the wind generation capacity of Texas.
The thinking goes that if we had 25,000 MW of natural gas generation instead of the equivalent amount of wind power, then whatever blackouts resulted would have been short and rolling, not the days without power that many experienced.
In short, the intermittent nature of wind power, coupled with the fact that it tends to perform poorly in extreme weather conditions leads some to question why it accounts for such a large portion of Texas’ power generation.
The Case that Failures at Natural Gas Generators Caused the Texas Blackouts
Critics of those who attempted to blame the power disruption in Texas on wind generation rightfully point out that more natural gas-generated power went offline than wind power. Without the problems at natural gas power facilities, any blackouts would have been brief.
The math is simple, while Texas lost 20,000+ MW of wind generation, losses from natural gas generation topped 30,000 MW. From that point of view, it’s obvious that the failure to winterize natural gas plants and the gas lines that supply them is the primary cause of the blackouts.
Everyone Is Right, Except for the Part Where They Deflect Blame from Their Preferred Power Source
So who is correct? Did the blackouts result from a failure to generate electricity via wind or by the steep drop in natural gas-generated electricity? The answer is that both answers are correct.
Even defenders of the prominent role that wind plays in the Texas energy grid acknowledge that it provided very little power during the blackouts. They excuse this fact by pointing out that planners didn’t expect it to work in such extreme conditions. That’s some head-scratching logic, because it doesn’t make failure any more desirable just because it’s expected. No one applies that line of thinking to underperforming schools.
Additionally, the wind apologists point out that in absolute terms, more natural gas generation failed than wind generation. You can spot the problem with this argument by referencing the energy supply breakdown that I provided earlier. Natural gas is a much larger source of energy, so even though wind generators failed as a much higher rate than natural gas generators, the total lost electricity was higher for gas because of its larger share of the energy mix.
This doesn’t mean that problems at natural gas plants didn’t also play their part in the blackouts. Supply lines feeding natural gas plants froze, taking much needed power generation offline. In addition, since many of the pumps that keep the gas flowing run on electricity, the drop in available electricity started a cascade of failure throughout the system.
Given that natural gas and coal represent the reliable portion of the Texas energy mix, their unreliability proved catastrophic. That is certainly an issue in need of addressing. Critics attempting to blame one form of power generation for the Texas blackouts at the expense of another miss the larger point that the amount of missing power from the grid wasn’t just enough to keep the lights on, it approached most of the total demand. Between the failures in natural gas, wind, and coal generation, Texas was missing nearly a peak winter day’s demand worth of electricity.
The Big Takeaway from the Texas Blackouts
Imagine you have two cars. One of them you know has a shaky battery, which probably won’t work when it gets cold. You think to yourself, that’s no big deal, because my other car’s battery is just fine.
You go out on a cold day and predictably, the car with the shaky battery doesn’t start. Unfortunately, the car you were counting on also has battery issues that you didn’t foresee. Does it make any sense to blame one car for your failure to get to work and ignore that the other didn’t start either? While not exactly what happened in Texas, this scenario is a good way to understand what led to the blackouts.
It doesn’t solve the problem to argue which of the cars let you down, because you discovered a flaw in your whole plan. That same lesson applies to whether one believes the Texas blackouts resulted from problems with wind power generation or natural gas power generation.
At the end of the day, the goal remains to make Texas’ power grid more resilient, even for infrequent, extreme weather events. To that end, bickering over whether it was your favorite energy source or the other guys that didn’t stand up to the challenge of arctic weather misses the point.
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