Texas shows what happens when we ignore climate change.
Texas, plunged last week into darkness by vicious winter weather and an inadequate power grid, is learning what happens to best-laid plans when reality intervenes. Last Monday, about 4 million Texans — around 1.4 million in greater Houston alone — had no heat or electricity during an ongoing series of rolling blackouts that lasted for days.
Texas is hardly alone, of course. Severe weather has sideswiped power production in 14 states stretching from the Dakotas to Oklahoma and derailed energy markets in places as far away as Japan and France. The common denominator is climate change, and the jarring extremes in temperature and precipitation that can accompany it.
But Texas offers unique lessons about hubris, management and governance. And its crisis has landed the state in the center of political and private-sector blame-trading that is a hallmark of our era.
No sooner had the lights gone out in Texas than Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator, named wind power the villain. “The windmills froze, so the power grid failed,” he opined in a broadcast last week. “Rather than celebrate and benefit from their state’s vast natural resources, politicians took the fashionable route and became recklessly reliant on so-called alternative
energy — meaning windmills.” Well, no.
Natural gas, coal and a bit of nuclear energy fuel about 80 percent of Texas’s power grid. Wind generates a fraction of that amount, particularly during the winter. Even with the weather conspiring against it, wind still appears to have produced significantly more capacity in Texas during the current crisis than anticipated. In 2011, the last time Texas’ grid suffered a major failure, wind power wasn’t even in use.
Texas, which has always prized its independence, runs its own electricity grid, which isn’t extensively integrated with those
that neighboring states oversee. That has allowed Texas to avoid federal regulation, and find creative ways to feed its massive appetite for electricity. It consumes far more electricity than any other state, including California, in part because of the sprawling oil refineries and petrochemical plants that demand a constant supply (and were hobbled by the current crisis). After the grid failed during the 2011 freeze, industry observers pointed out that power plants of every stripe in Texas weren’t properly winterized and would need to be to avoid future outages. Were they winterized? Apparently not. Now, with its power generation
frozen, go-it-alone Texas is turning to the federal government and the Biden administration for a helping hand.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state agency that manages the power supply, is supervised by the governor and the Legislature.
It says it merely advises local power utilities (such as CenterPoint Energy Inc., Oncor Electric Deliver Co. and Austin Energy) on how much electricity they can safely generate at any point in time; the utilities then make their own decisions on energy management. It’s not clear that the utilities see it in exactly the same way. Austin Energy, for example,
said that it operates “with the constraints and the direction of ERCOT.”
That little disagreement is interesting, too. Texas and its energy companies built a grid meant to handle surges in demand during the state’s hot summers. They didn’t expect spiking demand in the winter, because they didn’t anticipate the plunging temperatures that have come with climate change.
They also built a grid meant to run leanly, without the kind of power reserves that utilities have traditionally kept on hand to meet unexpected surges in demand. That’s fine — unless an unexpected surge arrives.