Texas is really going through it right now. More than four million people are still without power in Texas Tuesday morning after a serious winter storm jacked up energy prices across the U.S. and froze key infrastructure in the state. Like clockwork, reports of frozen wind turbines in Texas have given conservatives a new scapegoat in their unending battle to smear renewable energy. But the real story is much more complicated than that.
This weather is unprecedented for large parts of the Lone Star State. Every county in Texas faced winter storm warnings this weekend, and parts of the state were plunged into the coldest weather they’ve seen in decades. Major cities like Houston and Austin broke cold weather records as well. All this cold weather meant that folks were turning up their heat to keep warm just as all kinds of infrastructure from power plants to pipelines were freezing up or being taken offline due to the cold.
“About half of Texas homes heat their homes with natural gas, about half do it with electricity, and about half our power plants also consume natural gas to make that electricity,” Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at The University of Texas, said. “We just have this unprecedented strain on both our major energy grids that is just way beyond what they were designed to handle.”
Part of the state’s power outages come down to the fact that its infrastructure was designed to withstand extreme heat, not cold. Rhodes explained that while the grid is prepared for power surges during the summer, when people crank up their AC units, winters in Texas are so usually so mild that power plants take time off for routine maintenance. Power plants in Texas, he said, are also not winterized for this kind of weather like plants up north.
“Reasonable people would not have planned for this type of event,” Rhodes said. “This [cold] doesn’t happen here.”
But the idea of “frozen wind turbines” is a catchy one, and predictably, fossil fuel fans have latched on to these blackouts as proof positive that we Simply Can’t Trust Wind.
“You know how you unfreeze frozen windmills?” tweeted noted shitposter Rep. Lauren Boebert on Tuesday. “By sending up a helicopter that shoots out chemicals onto the blades. You need fuel for the helicopter. Keep that in mind when thinking how ‘green’ windmills are.”
Nevermind that this isn’t actually how modern turbines, which have built-in de-icing systems, work. It wasn’t just QAnon-elected politicians rushing to blame windmills.
“Herein is the paradox of the left’s climate agenda: The less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them,” a Wall Street Journal editorial from Monday crowed, going on to say that the grid is less reliable because of wind and solar. “The Biden Administration’s plan to banish fossil fuels is a greater existential threat to Americans than climate change.” (Lol, ok cool.)
Conveniently, both these viewpoints ignore the fact that wind turbines aren’t exactly alone in failing in the cold. In fact, they may actually be less to blame for Texas’s troubles than other energy sources. Some of the country’s biggest oil refineries, owned by big names like Saudi Aramco and Exxon, shut down operations in Texas Monday. Last week, several natural gas facilities and pipelines in the state also shut down as temperatures dipped and wellheads froze up.
“We don’t have the supply of gas that we normally do, and we’re consuming gas in record numbers, which is also depressurizing the gas lines,” Rhodes explained. “Natural gas power plants also require a certain pressure to operate, so if they can’t get that pressure, they also have to shut down. Everything that could go wrong is going wrong with the system.”
It’s true that Texas has the most installed wind capacity of any state in the country–wind can supply up to 60% of power in the state. But the grid is designed to allow for natural ebbs and flows in power sources, synchronizing when people need more or less power with when wind energy may be lower, like in the winter. ERCOT only plans for around 25% of electricity to be from wind in the winter; natural gas, on the other hand, makes up around half of the state’s electricity generation.
“It’s not like we were relying on wind, but we were relying on natural gas, and it failed terribly in that respect,” Rhodes said. “Yes, we have wind turbines that are iced up, yes, we have wind turbines that are not performing. We don’t typically rely on wind during [the winter], so we built the grid to rely on those other resources, and they didn’t show up, either. We didn’t plan for this.”
While it may take some time to do a full postmortem on what exactly happened to make conditions so dire this week, this isn’t the first time the Texas grid has frozen up both literally and metaphorically. In 2014, regulators found that wind energy was actually more reliable than both coal and natural gas during an early January cold snap. And in 2011—when Texas’s wind power capacity was one-third what it is now—state regulators ordered ERCOT to make winterizing updates. Since winterization is not mandatory, though, it’s not clear what the utility actually did to upgrade the grid.
“It’s too simplistic to say that one technology would have saved us,” Rhodes said.
But try telling that to fossil fuel lovers. Last summer, several conservative Texas politicians, including Sen. Ted Cruz, blamed blackouts in California on renewable energy and liberal policies despite the fact that there was little evidence that renewables had anything to do with the problem. And if history is any indicator, it looks like those people will ignore reality and point as many fingers as they can at renewables.