Domestic Affairs

Why are we arguing about wind turbines? ERCOT, Renewable energy, and what they mean for Texas Residents

Photo of Downtown Austin underneath the unprecedented snow. (@latakoo)

On February 10th, an unusual deep freeze struck the state of Texas, leaving millions without power for days as the state’s energy grid shuttered. Residents also faced water shortages due to burst pipes or low supply, leaving some residents without water as well. To make matters worse, the roads in major cities were frozen solid, and the City of Austin’s Public Works Department was overwhelmed clearing roads. Many parts of Texas, including the capital city of Austin, underwent boil water advisories. Worst of all, many residents died due to the cold weather and power shortages, including a young boy whose family is now suing ERCOT. 

I live in an Austin neighborhood just past I-35 and Oltorf and was one of many personally affected by the outages. Our power cut out about 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning and didn’t come back until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Another unfortunate domino effect of Texas’s grid failure was that many cell providers also struggled to remain operative, and customers were left without connection. On Tuesday morning, my roommate and I realized we were likely not regaining power for a few more days — the information coming piecemeal from patchy phone calls and what we were able to Google. 

Between the icy roads and the extended outages, many residents were left without heat or basic supplies. Near Early Travis Highschool an ominous cardboard sign sat in the middle of the road warning people about the icy hill, but many people attempted to reach the summit anyways. People gathered on the side of the road, some with lawn chairs looking for entertainment, some acting as good Samaritans coaching drivers not to break while spinning and attempting to direct people away from the hill. Many residents (myself included) had to resort to walking to the nearby Congress and Oltorf H-E-B in freezing conditions, only to wait in line. One man was walking between his condo on Oltorf and the H-E-B on the other side of the highway helping people carry their groceries. The line extended around the building and had to be snaked in the parking lot to avoid blocking traffic, and was staked at about 4 p.m. — meaning no other customers could go into the store any later. Residents helped each other by spreading vital information by word of mouth: H-E-B closures, open gas stations, and how to boil water. Here are some clarifications on what led to Texas’s energy crisis in the first place.

Why can’t the ‘energy capital’ meet its own energy needs? What is ERCOT?

Texas is one of the world’s largest gas producers, right after Russia and the rest of the United States. It is also the only state that is not under federal regulation. While the rest of the lower 48 are on two interconnected grids (the Eastern Connection and the Western connection), Texas operates on its own independent grid. The Electrical Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) was formed to regulate energy production within the state. Because ERCOT only operates within Texas, it is not under the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This had two important consequences during this storm: Texas wasn’t easily able to import power from other grids and was not subject to the same weatherproofing mandates as the other grids.  

No, renewable energy is not to blame for Texas’s massive energy crisis. 

Proponents of “small government” and deregulation have long considered Texas’s independent, natural gas reliant energy system as a golden child of their platform for less federal involvement. The homegrown natural-gas-reliant grid has been considered a model of alternative energy, in contrast to efforts to diversify energy production in the United States with more ‘green’ sources. Even though Republican politicians (namely House Representative Dan Crenshaw and Governor Gregg Abbott) are blaming the prolonged outages on renewable sources like wind turbines, this is not the truth. ERCOT president Bill Magness confirmed that multiple different types of energy sources had frozen, including gas wells and nuclear plants. Only about 10% of Texas energy comes from wind sources, with vastly more coming from thermal sources. Thus, even though wind turbines did freeze over and had to be shut off, the greatest loss of megawatts was due to thermal power sources going offline as a result of freezing temperatures. Experts have argued that more alternative energy sources and investment in storage could have prevented the plants from going offline in the first place. Moreover, blaming the failure of wind turbines on the energy crisis is a red-herring anyways, because many countries with colder climates rely on wind-generated energy. The real threat to Texas’s energy grid was the negligent refusal of energy providers to winterize their equipment. 

Winterization is not optional.

Texas energy providers chose not to opt for expensive winterization for obvious reasons: it was costly, and given the rarity of deep winter conditions in Texas, it may have seemed a little overboard. But outages due to weather are not unprecedented in the Lone Star State. In 2011, when the state faced a similar cold spell, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) found that most of the outages were due to frozen equipment failures that could have been prevented by winterization. A FERC task force recommended that local legislatures step in and require winterization measures, arguing that the state should prepare for winter weather the same way it prepares for summer weather. According to Professor Ed Hirs from the University of Houston, providers weren’t incentivized to spend money upgrading their grids, and ERCOT doesn’t have any punitive measures for the companies that produce the power. Hirs even predicted the grid’s failure all the way back in 2013. 

What does this mean for everyday Texans? 

Despite ERCOT’s negligence in upgrading their lines, it seems that they are likely going to cash out on this crisis. ERCOT was encouraged to increase prices by an order of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, citing a need for the prices to reflect the scarcity of the market.

Even though ERCOT created this scarcity by failing to prepare for winter events, consumers are going to be stuck with higher energy bills long after the storm ends. 
In the aftermath of the historic storm, residents are attempting to return to normal but still face challenges. Many parts of the state are still struggling to give their residents access to safe water. Apartment complexes like mine are still trying to ascertain the extent of the damages from burst water pipes and fallen trees. It is a long road to complete recovery for many Texans. Greg Abbot has called for the resignation of the ERCOT’s board members, and a full investigation into what went wrong. Hopefully calls for federal regulation will be reinvigorated now that the weakness of ERCOT’s energy market has been exposed at the cost of people’s lives. Federal regulation would force the hand of the state’s energy market towards winterization, and may even allow Texas to expand its reliance on renewables.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s