Texas lacks the electricity required to comfortably handle the sustained sub-freezing air which has blanketed the state for the better part of a week. Texas is also the state with the second-largest voting population. Rather than let a crisis go to waste, both major political parties are blaming the opposition for the problem – specifically, they’re blaming the style of preferred energy generation. They’re both lying to their audiences, using math tricks to cover their deception.
First, it’s important to know how much power is normally generated at this time. That’s about 5GW from wind power and about 25 GW from natural gas. It’s also important to know what resources are normally available, and the simple answer there is “plenty“.
There was little perceived need for significant winter preparation as opposed to preparation for the sustained months above 95 degrees Fahrenheit which are experienced almost every year. While areas of Texas typically dip below freezing for a night every year, sustained freezes are uncommon and it has been many decades since the entire state was subjected to one.
One of the attributes of natural gas and coal, both of which are used in Texas’ energy production, is that they are consumed upon use. Companies store some on site, but the majority of the fuel is brought in on regular schedules. The cold affected that, with road closures and community power losses resulting in workers being unable to come in (a problem which affected other sources as well, which is why some oil, biomass and nuclear encountered production stoppages) and, more importantly for coal and natural gas, the loss of new supply. Natural gas has since been hit with a greater problem… but we’ll come to that in a moment. The important item for now is that coal and natural gas had low available supplies at the beginning of this event.
Windmills account for almost a quarter of all energy production in the state, but that energy comes in the middle of the summer. In winter, most of Texas’ roughly 10,700 windmills are down for maintenance or are idled. While it is possible to “winterize” the windmills for use in the winter, that action comes at a significant cost. Because different synthetic lubricants are used in extreme cold and extreme heat, the windmills would need to have, in as simplified a term as possible, their “oil changed” every year. Unlike a car engine, that’s not a quick process and involves a lot more than a few quarts. The process would be exceedingly expensive and render windmills economically useless; they became cost-effective only after the development of various synthetics allowed them to operate for long stretches of time without full lubricant restoration. Moreover, it would require the construction of thousands of other windmills to be available during the stretches of down time where specialized workers hurried from one generator to the next, constantly trying to keep up with the upcoming weather pattern… most of which, in the winter, would never come. Alternately, insulation could be provided for the areas with lubrication… insulation which would ensure far greater heat generation for the lubricant during summers and would result in the lubricant burning off quickly, bringing us back to the prior issue. “Winterizing”, while a simple-sounding answer, is not in any way a solution for wind generators which are expected to operate all year long.
The focus on regular summer problems instead of rare winter problems renders the wind generators – which could normally produce up to 30 GW, enough to cover the excess needed right now – worthless in terms of new production. There is 3 – 5 GW that they can generate, and they’re doing it. The fact that they can’t be called upon to make extra is akin to blaming a car rental service for having limited availability of the model you desire; they are limited by circumstances and a finite fleet. At other times they might have your car, but for the moment it’s unavailable.
Natural gas, which started in a bit of a bind from having low on-site resources and restrictions on getting replenishment, has faced the problem of pipelines icing up. Not all of them are the same size; some are comparatively small. The control mechanisms for some will freeze. And natural gas itself will freeze around the same temperature as water. As many Texans can tell you, an uninsulated pipe stands a good chance of freezing if the fluid inside isn’t allowed to run freely in temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. As the cold snap has continued, more and more of the pipelines have frozen and it’s become difficult to even conduct withdrawal operations. Natural gas is the primary electrical supply source for the state, particularly in the winter.
While the initial problem faced by natural gas was the same as coal – limited on-site supply, resupply issues – and they were thus equally to blame for not being ready to ramp up production as wind energy, over subsequent days their responsibility has grown. More pipeline freezes have resulted in natural gas steadily supplying less power, while coal and wind continue producing their parts of the energy whole. This has resulted in fossil fuel enemies pretending that the natural gas issues were the cause all along… even though that is patently false, as these issues have been steadily building with each successive day.
Wind energy was blamed by Republicans who want to attack radical environmentalist agendas, and that was originally countered by attacking oil (which made no sense, as oil continues to be useful, but provides only a small portion of the resources for the Texas energy grid). A better target, natural gas, has come along and it absolutely deserves some of the criticism its getting, but it’s still inaccurate to claim it’s solely to blame, because what is mostly at question here is why these resources aren’t available to fill extra need.
The real answer to that is complicated, with a little bit of blame to go around… and that’s before even considering the problems faced by Texas having a mostly independent energy grid, which is preventing it from buying energy from other states in the quantities needed, even as that independent grid normally provides significant benefits for the state.
Meanwhile, the fact that Texas isn’t more dependent on just one option, and that we’re dealing with the problem as well as we are, with rolling blackouts rather than widespread outages across most of the state, can be traced to George W. Bush’s tenure as Governor, where he advanced a new wind agenda and promoted alternative energies like the biomass sites and home geothermal use. Having more options allows for economic and physical benefits… and that extra 5 GW from wind, while not enough to cover the need, is still appreciated right now.
Like anything else, it’s a complex series of trade-offs, and everything is worked toward the common problems, not the flukes. But that reality is a hard pill to swallow when you’re lacking power for multiple days and your pipes have frozen. Blame has the possibility of garnering votes, and most of the politicians and pundits seem eager to join in the blame game.