Texas produces more power than any other state. Here’s why it went dark anyway
This situation can have wide-ranging effects as the US electricity industry attempts to reduce carbon emissions in response to the climate crisis.
In response, Governor Greg Abbott called for an investigation into the Texas nonprofit Electric Reliability Council, known as ERCOT, which controls most of the state’s grid. The group’s CEO on Tuesday defended the controlled outage, saying he “kept the grid from collapsing” and sent the state into a complete blackout.
‘Not designed to handle these unusual situations’
Although some people are trying to blame one fuel source or another, the reality is that Arctic temperatures are increasing fossil fuels and renewable energy alike.
“Extreme cold is causing the entire system to freeze,” said Energy Jessard Borduff, a former Obama administration energy and director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “All sources of energy are weak in extreme cold because they are not designed to handle these unusual conditions.”
The ripple effect is being felt across the country as Texas’ prolific oil and gas industry stumbles.
Prices at the pump are also increasing. According to Patrick D Hain, head of petroleum analysis at GasBody, the national average could easily rise two or two to 15 cents per gallon next week.
Texas is No. 1 in natural gas, oil and air
According to the US Energy Information Administration, Texas is the No. 1 US state in both crude oil and natural gas. The state accounted for 41% of US oil production in 2019 and a quarter of its marketed natural gas production.
The EIA said that wind power is also booming in Texas, which produces about 28% of US wind-powered electricity in 2019.
But the problem is that not only is Texas an energy superpower, it is an above-average temperature situation. This means that its infrastructure is currently wreaking havoc. And the result is being felt by millions.
It’s not just wind power
Critics of renewable energy have reported that wind turbines have froze or need to be shut down due to extreme weather.
And this is significant because last year nearly a quarter (23%) of the electricity in Texas was generated by wind power according to ERCOT.
Although other locations of cold weather (such as Iowa and Denmark) also rely on wind for large shares of electricity, experts said the turbines in Texas were not in winter for unexpected freezes. Antifreeze and heating elements such as cold weather protection within turbine blades and components are not commonly used in Texas.
Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor at Princeton University, said, “This increases costs, so it’s cheaper not to take those extra features.”
But it is not just about wind turbines falling. Natural gas and coal-fired power plants need water to live online. Yet those water facilities freeze in cold temperatures and others have to lose access to the electricity they need to operate.
According to ERCOT, there is a bigger deal for Texas than frozen wind turbines in 2020 because combined cycle natural gas (40%) and coal (18%) generated more than half of the state’s electricity.
‘Electricity prices going to the moon’
“Even though Texas didn’t have wind power, you’d still have electricity prices going to the moon,” said Matthew Hoza, manager of energy analysis at BTU Analytics.
According to Huza, the problem is that many companies in Texas did not invest in cold preservation for power plants and natural gas facilities.
“When you’re in West Texas, are you really going to spend money on that equipment?” Hoja said.
Off the national grid
It is too early to say for sure what went wrong in Texas and how to prevent similar consequences. More information will need to be released by state officials.
Nevertheless, some experts say that criticism of wind energy is already over-looking.
“In the context of the game, focusing on wind is a red herring. It is more than a political issue because of the power problems on the grid,” said Dan Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University.
Cohan said that Texas lacked more electricity than was expected from natural gas compared to air.
It is clear that a wide range of energy sources – from fossil fuels to renewables – were not prepared for unusual weather in Texas.
Jenkins of Princeton said, “Areas need to rethink the extreme conditions they are planning for and to ensure that their systems are flexible to those people.”
The energy crisis in Texas also raises questions about the nature of the state’s deregulated and decentralized electric grid. Unlike other states, Texas has made a conscious decision to separate its grid from the rest of the country.
This means that when things are going smoothly, Texas cannot export excess electricity to neighboring states. And in the current crisis, it cannot even import electricity.
“When it comes to electricity, what happens in Texas is in Texas,” Cohan said. “It’s really come back to bite us.”