Blame the wind? In Texas, fossil fuels have actually played a larger role in leaving millions without power

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Pedestrians walk on along a snow-covered street on February 15, 2021 in Austin, Texas.

  • Freezing cold temperatures have caused severe power outages in Texas.
  • A majority of lost generation has been from fossil fuels, not wind.
  • But the main factor is not the source of electricity, but the extreme weather.
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It’s a popular claim and a powerful image, attracting the attention of conservatives and headline writers of all political persuasions: frozen wind turbines are to blame for Texans losing power and icicles forming their homes during this week’s shocking cold spell.

There are a number of reasons why, as of Tuesday evening, more than 3 million Texas were without power. The simplest explanation is that the extreme cold has spurred an unprecedented demand for heat, outstripping the state’s ability to provide.

According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages 75% of the state’s deregulated electricity market, the previous record for demand, set in 2018, was smashed on Valentine’s Day. And as the weather has gotten worse, the capacity to generate electricity has diminished: By Tuesday, per ERCOT’s CEO, 45,000 megawatts of generating capacity was offline – up from 34,000 megawatts offline the day before, representing more than half of what the state typically uses in a day.

Most of the generation lost has been from coal and gas, according to ERCOT, with only 13% attributable to wind. “By some estimates,” The Texas Tribune reported Tuesday, “nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt.”

“Gathering lines freeze, and the wells get so cold that they can’t produce,” Parker Fawcett, a natural gas analyst at S&P Global Platts, told the Tribune. “And, pumps use electricity, so they’re not even able to lift that gas and liquid, because there’s no power to produce.”

Texas is unique: It does, by far, generate the most electricity from wind of any state – three times as much as liberal California. It is also energy-independent, its electricity grid almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the country, a move that insulates it from federal regulation and has also left it hanging now, in this moment of need, with so much of its own power generation frozen and offline.

Despite its greater than typical reliance on wind, Texas’ chief source of electricity is not renewable. Indeed, a majority, 52%, comes from natural gas, according to the US Energy Information Administration, while less than a quarter comes from renewables like wind and solar.

And fossil fuels have been affected by the weather too.

As of Tuesday morning, distributor Texas Gas Service warned consumers, “our suppliers of natural gas are experiencing freezing gas wells due to the duration of the extreme cold.”

It is also simply the case that, whatever the fault of regulators and local politicians, Texas is a victim of a cold spell like it hasn’t seen in decades.

A 2016 risk assessment from the US Department of Energy, detailing electricity outages between 1992 and 2009, says 18 were caused by thunderstorms and eight by heatwaves. It doesn’t list freezing temperatures.

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