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What Texas’ Blackout Crisis Says About America’s Energy Future

(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Bradley Devlin General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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Texas’ current energy crisis brought on by an intense winter storm should send a message to the Biden administration and others who have argued energy in America’s near future is an energy economy solely reliant on renewables.

The effects of a large polar vortex that has consumed the Midwest to the American South are being felt hardest in Texas, where frozen energy equipment have left millions in the dark and without heat despite single-digit temperatures. A collapse in energy supply caused by the combined failure of frozen wind turbines and affected natural gas pipelines and plants has forced Texas to save its power grid by creating large-scale blackouts. Some have argued that President Joe Biden’s administration and environmentalists groups eager to scrap cheap, reliable sources of energy like coal should take note of Texas’ current predicament.

For better and for worse, Texas’ history over the past 120 years has been deeply intertwined with the state’s ample energy resources. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), a government entity tasked with managing Texas’ power grid, encouraged residents to limit their energy use despite the frigid temperatures to avoid outages. Texas regulators also tried to shore up energy supply for power plants and heating by rationing gas for commercial and industrial uses. Yet ERCOT still called for rotating outages on Sunday night to avoid even larger, more widespread blackouts.

As Texans sought to stay warm by cranking their thermostats, ERCOT directed electricity providers to cut demand by around 16,500 megawatts, resulting in more blackouts Monday morning, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“We have to maintain the balance of supply and demand on the system to maintain the reliability of the system as a whole,” ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin told the Journal. “If we don’t have more supply, the only thing we can do is start to reduce demand.”

ERCOT has rarely pushed for rolling blackouts. Winter storms that caused gas- and coal-fired power plants offline in February 2011 and January 2014 resulted in rolling blackouts to save the power grid — though they were much shorter than the current blackouts, according to the Journal. More recent extreme weather events have also caused ERCOT to consider rolling blackouts, such as during a 2019 heat wave, according to the Journal.

Power shortages resulted in about 2 million homes without power Monday as energy providers began cutting power beyond rolling blackouts, according to ERCOT estimates reported by the the Journal. By Monday evening, about a quarter of those who lost power were able to turn their lights — and more importantly, their heaters — back on, according to the Journal. ERCOT warned that the blackouts could persist through Tuesday.

Part of the reason Texas currently finds itself in this power predicament is Texas’ broader shift away from coal-fueled electricity towards government-subsidized wind and solar power, as well as relatively inexpensive natural gas, argued the Wall Street Journal editorial board. Other than government interventions into the energy market on behalf of wind and solar, regulations cracking down on carbon emissions have spurred the shift to renewables, the Journal stated. (RELATED: Labor Unions Endorsed Biden — Now Their Members Are Getting Fired)

Grid operators in Texas reportedly have said half of Texas’ wind power capacity was out of commission due to frozen turbines in West Texas, the Austin American-Statesman reported. Even though West Texas turbines don’t usually produce their full capacity this time of year, the affected turbines accounted for 12,000 megawatts — nearly half — of the 25,100 megawatt capacity of wind power generation in the state, the Austin-American Statesman report said.

Wind power’s share of Texas’ energy output has tripled since 2010, and currently hovers around 25%. The week before the storm set in, wind accounted for 42% of Texas’ power, the Journal’s editorial board noted.

In 2020, ERCOT data showed gas accounted for a plurality of Texas’ power, with wind coming second with 23%, coal 18%, and nuclear 11%, according to the Austin American-Statesman. With the rise of renewables in the past decade, the amount of electricity in Texas generated by coal has plummeted by more than half.

It’s important to note that freezing temperatures did not just impact renewables. Grid operators claimed 34,000 megawatts of power supply were lost as some natural gas and coal plants were forced offline because of the freezing cold, as reported by the Journal.

The coronavirus pandemic also played a role in the state’s ill-preparedness to handle a winter storm of such proportions. Across the country, a third of rigs were not being used due to lower energy demand before the storm hit, according to the Journal. When gas-fired power plants increased their output to fill the breach left by out of commission renewables, energy producers were faced with a much tougher challenge meeting demand because such a large portion of the country was enveloped in icy conditions.

When demand spikes and supply is diminished, the result is higher prices. West Texas Intermediate crude shot up to $60 a barrel, the highest it has been since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Journal stated. Before the storm, West Texas Intermediate Crude was increasing as optimism for reopening the economy because of the COVID-19 vaccine increased optimism, according to the Journal. ERCOT data also showed that wholesale power prices increased from $50 per megawatt hour before the storm to over the market price cap of $9,000, the Journal further reported.

Some have argued that energy bottlenecks like the one currently facing Texas can be assuaged by the reliable, secure and relatively inexpensive energy provided by coal.

“Power shortages and incredibly high spot gas prices this winter are reminding governments, businesses and consumers of the importance of coal,” a Wood Mackenzie consultant told Reuters in a Jan. 15 analysis piece.

When Biden unveiled his $2 trillion climate plan as a candidate, he called for 100% clean electricity by 2035, according to The Washington Post. In order to eliminate carbon emissions in electricity production, coal, as well as natural gas, must be completely scrapped from the country’s power grids — which could cause serious problems in future polar vortexes.