Why did Texas lose power? Math — apolitical, non-ideological, and sometimes cruel math.
During such an extreme cold for which Texas is mostly unprepared, the demands on the electric grid exceeded its output capacity. The majority of Texans heat their home with electricity, and, under typical circumstances, it makes sense. Why spend money to bring natural gas heat into the home when it’s very likely you can go an entire winter without turning it on? As temperatures plummeted, Texans turned on and turned up the heat.
But something else was happening. The extreme cold was impacting all electricity production. All of it: coal, natural gas, nuclear, but most of all wind.
The Department of Energy tracks electricity generation hourly. On Sunday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m., this was Texas’s electricity makeup in megawatt-hours:
- Natural Gas: 43,798
- Coal: 10,828
- Wind: 8,087
- Nuclear: 5,140
The next day, during the height of the storm at 8 p.m., this was the makeup:
- Natural Gas: 30,917
- Coal: 8,023
- Wind: 649
- Nuclear: 3,785
Why the delta? Natural gas, for starters, experienced a shortage. Those Texans who do have natural gas heating their homes turned it up, and what would have been available for electricity generation, went to homes. Similarly, nuclear and coal were adversely impacted by the cold. These are failures, plain and simple, and they can be explained away as anomalies in an unlikely, black swan scenario.
But what of wind power? Wind turbines froze and were rendered useless. Here is the real reason for the failure and I’ll prove it with an apples-to-apples comparison.
One decade ago, almost to the day, Feb. 2, 2011, extreme put a strain on the electric grid. The electric grid was unable to meet demand, and many experienced rolling blackouts for “up to an hour.” Yes, fossil fuel plants also struggled in the cold, but this isn’t about spin or protecting industry or pushing an agenda, it’s about facts.
Fast forward one decade and two weeks, and Texas again faced with extreme cold and a straining electric grid, but it’s not the same electricity mix. Texas for the past ten years had made concerted efforts to go green.
In 2011 about 6 percent of the electricity mix was generated from wind power. Today it’s 25 percent. Simultaneously, Texas has increased its overall electricity consumption by 20 percent as the state is attracting people from everywhere and the population is booming. Furthermore, three coal plants were taken offline. Indeed, the same type of storm of 2011 did not play out in the same circumstances in 2021. Did fossil fuels struggle? Absolutely, but their percentage of the grid dropped significantly.
The difference is wind. So serious is this percentage of the electric grid coming from unreliable wind power that more than two years ago, the Chair of Texas Public Utility Commission called lack of dependable electricity reserves “very scary.” Yet, Texans still saw three coal plants removed completely from the equation, even as a back-up, a safety net.
The question is: Why?
In 2005, then-Governor Rick Perry — who most would agree is a “champion” of the fossil fuel industry — signed into law a mandate requiring Texas to increase its wind power electricity. Why? Rick Perry is not an electrical engineer, and I’m not saying he is to blame for what happened. But even fossil fuel advocate Rick Perry, may have the teensiest notion in his head that fossil fuels are “bad,” insufficient, and therefore, we “need” wind.
In 2017, the Sierra Club celebrated the closing of the Monticello Coal plant in Titus County, Texas. Their campaign “Beyond Coal” is funded with over $500 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and they pride themselves on taking more than 60 percent of the coal plants offline in America.
I am sure in Bloomberg’s circles this is considered noble, and I started my group Power The Future to advocate for the thousands of people in rural America who have lost their jobs as a result of his green activism.
But there’s another component to taking coal offline: the 1,800 megawatts of electricity it generated could have genuinely helped stabilize the electric grid. Maybe instead of more than 20 deaths from the cold, the number would be less. Sadly, we’ll never know.
There’s a lot of blame going around, and frankly, most of it is quite stupid. “Republicans Blame” is the Washington Post headline. An NBC News column claims that wind and solar are “fairly small slices of the state’s energy mix” as if 25 percent were trace figures. And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., neither an engineer nor a Texan, tweeted that Texas Governor Abbot needed to “read a book” about his state’s energy supply — whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s all so very, very stupid.
Energy isn’t sexy. It’s math, physics, and numbers. But it’s also life. We’re told to stop the “existential threat” of climate change we must “go green,” and switch to green energy. I do this for a living and I’ve never seen one confirmed death from “climate change,” but today I can show you several Texan deaths clearly attributable to the cold, and no NBC news spin or AOC twitter stupidity will comfort their families. They are dead from a combination of factors: billionaires don’t like coal, politicians invent mandates, and utility commissioners rest on their reports as well as a severe winter storm.
Fossil fuels aren’t perfect, but renewables aren’t either. They have severe shortcomings, and the results can sometimes be deadly. We can learn from what happened in Texas if we have a serious and necessary conversation about renewable energy. But will we?
China is building more coal plants right now than all of Europe has combined and the reason is simple: it works. China is serious about its energy. I wish we were, too.