The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Frozen wind turbines aren't why Texas can't keep the lights on

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

It's not just wind turbines. The whole Texas power system wasn't ready for this. 

The ongoing electricity crisis in the Lone Star State hasn't stopped a chorus of conservative pundits and even some Republican lawmakers from pointing fingers at the state's fleet of wind turbines as the reason for the rolling blackouts, as nearly 3 million remain without power throughout the state. Even the state's own governor, Greg Abbott (R), joined in.

In reality, frozen wind turbines are just a small part of a much bigger problem. All types of energy systems in Texas are struggling with subfreezing temperatures. The rolling blackouts are the result of a systematic failure of Texas's power plant and grid operators to prepare for a record-shattering Arctic freeze.

It is Texas's traditional thermal power plants, which rely mostly on natural gas, that were supposed to provide the bulk of power during the harshest winter months, but failed to do so, according to Texas grid officials and outside energy experts. 

“The entire system was overwhelmed,” said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate on energy issues at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yet as if an on cue, Republican lawmakers — even some from Texas — want to blame the power failures on renewable energy.

The crisis in Texas shows the degree to which energy policy has been politicized along party lines in the United States.

Abbott, Texas's governor, suggested on Fox News Tuesday that the crisis unfolding his state “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal," referring to a sweeping manifesto from progressive Democrats to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that was never implemented in his state.

He went on to single out renewables for Texas's power woes, saying “our wind and our solar got shut down," without mentioning the steep decline in output from gas, coal and nuclear plants during the cold snap.

Anchors elsewhere on the conservative news network spent much of Tuesday making dubious ties between the outages in Texas and proposals from Democrats for building out renewable energy resources in order to tackle climate change 

Under the chyron “Texas Power Issues Blamed on Frozen Wind Turbines,” for example, host Pete Hegseth asked, “Is this what America would look like under the Green New Deal?” Another Fox News host, Dana Perino, similarly said the outages are “raising questions about the Lone Star State’s increasing reliance on renewable energy.” 

Meanwhile on Twitter, GOP lawmakers such Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) linked the outages to the growth of Texas's renewable energy sector.

The truth: Traditional power plants, not wind turbines, are responsible for most of the energy shortfall.

The loss of power from thermal plants — that is, gas, coal and nuclear — is more than five times greater than decline in output expected from the stalled wind turbines, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, with manages most of the state's grid. Texas only planned to get a tenth of its power anyways from wind energy during the peak winter season.

“There is significantly more megawatts in that thermal unit category than in the renewable category, as far as what's out during this particular event,” Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told reporters Tuesday.

Sky-high demand for gas for heating homes during the winter chill, along with power plant equipment designed for warmer weather being hobbled by frigid temperatures, is what is straining output from the state's gas, coal and nuclear generators during the cold snap.

More fundamentally, well before the storm Texas declined to put in place financial incentives for power producers to prepare for winter and ensure they could meet energy needs during periods of extreme demand, as our colleague Will Englund explains

The Lone Star State also runs an electric grid largely disconnected from the rest of the country, allowing it to operate with less federal scrutiny but making it difficult to draw power from neighboring regions during times of crisis.

Iced wind turbines, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, are “so far down the list of what has gone wrong.”

“Overall," he added, "wind has come closer to expectations than many other sources.”

Power plays

At least 14 people are dead from winter storms and record-setting cold. 

Some have died as they turn to unsafe methods to stay warm amid the widespread power outages. A woman and girl died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Houston after leaving a car running to stay warm, our colleagues report.

Three people died in North Carolina after a tornado associated with the storm system, which has drawn Arctic air south, hit a seaside town. Others have died in car accidents or from exposure.

IBM has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The technology company said that it would cut emissions 65 percent compared to 2010 levels within five years, the Verge reports. By the end of the decade, the company said 90 percent of its electricity would come from renewables, with any remaining carbon emissions offset through the use of carbon capture technology.

But the company’s commitment does not include indirect emissions from its supply chain or from the use of its products by consumers. Competitions Microsoft and Amazon, by contrast, have included these emission sources in their climate pledges. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and executive chair of its board owns The Washington Post).

Toxic air pollution continues to decline. 

The Environmental Protection Agency released annual data showing a significant decline in toxic power plant emissions, which are known to cause health problems.

The 2020 data show that emissions of sulfur dioxide declined 19 percent compared to 2019; emissions of nitrogen oxides dropped 16 percent; and mercury emissions declined 17 percent.

Last year’s decline is part of a steady downward trend largely related to changes in the mix of fuels used to generate energy. That trend has seen annual emissions of sulfur dioxide decline by 95 percent from 1990 to 2020 and annual emissions of nitrogen oxides fall by 88 percent.

Confirmation hearing for Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is set for Feb. 23.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold the hearing for President Biden’s interior secretary nominee next week. If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American to run the Department of the Interior.

Haaland has faced opposition from some Republicans, who have seized on her support for the New Green Deal and used her nomination as a venue to criticize the Biden administration’s commitment to ending new oil and gas leases on federal lands. But Democrats likely have the votes to confirm her.

A Wisconsin state biologist traded sturgeon eggs for $20,000 worth of caviar.

State fisheries employees said that they needed sturgeon eggs for research. Instead, Ryan P. Koenigs, an official with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, traded the eggs – which are highly prized among chefs for their briny flavor – to a caviar processor in exchange for $20,000 in jars of caviar, the New York Times reports.

“The arrest of Mr. Koenigs last week, along with three other people who were not state employees, followed a three-year investigation by the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A former supervisor of the fisheries unit told investigators that employees would accept caviar and eat some of it during team meetings, take some for personal use and give some to bars, according to prosecutors,” the Times writes.

Extra mileage

Success in landing NASA’s Mars rover depends on everything going exactly right.

The spacecraft carrying NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance is expected to arrive Thursday on Mars at a speed of 12,000 miles an hour. Its arrival in the atmosphere will trigger a harrowing seven minutes of entry, descent and landing, during which everything must operate perfectly, our colleagues Joel Achenbach, Ben Guarino and Christian Davenport report. The rover is aiming to land in Jezero Crater, a 30-mile-wide basin that contains the remnants of an ancient river delta. It’s a much harder target than previous rover missions.

“Hitting the 4.8-mile-wide landing site targeted by NASA after a journey of 300 million miles is akin to throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas,” our colleagues write.