No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages
Lost wind power was expected to be a fraction of winter generation. All sources — from natural gas, to nuclear, to coal, to solar — have struggled to generate power during the storm that has left millions of Texans in the dark.
As Texas faced record-low temperatures in February 2021 and snow and ice made roads impassable, the state’s electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving millions without access to electricity. As the blackouts extended from hours to days, top state lawmakers called for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and Texans demanded accountability for the disaster. The Texas Tribune covered the impact of the storm in real time and continues to bring accountability coverage as officials address the issues exposed by the storm.
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Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative state politicians to declare Tuesday that the state was relying too much on renewable energy. But in reality, the wind power was expected to make up only a fraction of what the state had planned for during the winter.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas projected that 80% of the grid's winter capacity, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power.
February Winter Storm 2021
When will my water come back? How can I get water in the meantime?
We do not know. State and city officials are urging patience — and telling Texans who have running water to boil it. Take whatever measures you need to prepare for several days without water. Officials in Austin, for example, said Feb. 19 that restoring water services would likely be a multiday process for the whole city. We have some resources here, but your best bet to find free water is to check your local media.
Will I get a large energy bill?
You shouldn’t immediately. Texas officials have signed an order temporarily preventing electricity providers from sending bills to residents. The order is a stopgap measure to give officials time to address a spike in some residents' bills. Officials also signed an order to stop utility providers from cutting off service to residents who haven’t paid a bill. Read more here.
I was without power for more than a day. Why are people calling these rolling outages?
When the state’s electrical grid operator began implementing rolling outages at 1:25 a.m. CT on Feb. 15, these were intended to be a temporary measure to deal with an extreme winter event.
Instead, some Texans are going without power for much longer, facing days without electricity instead of the originally planned 45 minutes at a time
The electricity grid was designed to be in high demand during the summer, when Texans crank their air conditioning at home. But some of the energy sources that power the grid during the summer are offline during the winter. So when Texans stayed home during the storm on Sunday and demanded record amounts of electricity, the state’s power grid could not keep up.
Wait, we have our own power grid? Why?
Yes, Texas has its own power grid run by an agency called ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The history is long, but the short version is: Texas has its own grid to avoid dealing with federal regulations. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. But Texas’ utilities do not cross state lines. ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards.
Note that Texas is not all on this same power grid. El Paso is on another grid, as is the upper Panhandle and a chunk of East Texas.
I read online that wind turbines are the reason we lost power. Is that true?
No. The lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said on February 16 that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.”
How can I stay warm? How can I help others?
The National Weather Service encourages people to close blinds and curtains, gather in one room if possible and close doors to others, and stuff towels in the cracks under the doors. Wear loose-fitting layers of warm, lightweight clothing. Eating snacks and staying hydrated will help to warm the body up. Some cities are providing warming centers and transportation as needed — find local resources here. If you have resources or are able to offer financial donations, find nonprofits who are helping people here.
An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said Tuesday afternoon that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, were offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.
By Wednesday, those numbers had changed as more operators struggled to operate in the cold: 45 gigawatts total were offline, with 28 gigawats from thermal sources and 18 gigawatts from renewable sources, ERCOT officials said.
“Texas is a gas state,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
While Webber said all of Texas’ energy sources share blame for the power crisis, the natural gas industry is most notably producing significantly less power than normal.
“Gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now,” Webber said.
Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, echoed that sentiment Tuesday.
“It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system,” he said during a Tuesday call with reporters.
Still, some have focused their blame on wind power.
“This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source,” U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it.”
He went on to note the shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Bay City because of the cold and finally got to what energy experts say is the biggest culprit, writing, “Low Supply of Natural Gas: ERCOT planned on 67GW from natural gas/coal, but could only get 43GW of it online. We didn’t run out of natural gas, but we ran out of the ability to get natural gas. Pipelines in Texas don’t use cold insulation —so things were freezing.”
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, known for his right-wing Facebook posts that have, in the past, spread misinformation and amplified conspiracy theories, also posted an unvarnished view of wind energy on Facebook: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas."
In another post, Miller was even more forthright, but also misleading. “Insult added to injury: Those ugly wind turbines out there are among the main reasons we are experiencing electricity blackouts,” he wrote. “Isn’t that ironic? ... So much for the unsightly and unproductive, energy-robbing Obama Monuments. At least they show us where idiots live.”
While wind power skeptics claimed the week’s freeze means wind power can’t be relied upon, wind turbines — like natural gas plants — can be “winterized,” or modified to operate during very low temperatures. Experts say that many of Texas’ power generators have not made those investments necessary to prevent disruptions to equipment since the state does not regularly experience extreme winter storms.
It’s estimated that of the grid’s total winter capacity, about 80% of it, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity, or 6 gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.
Production of natural gas in the state has plunged due to the freezing conditions, making it difficult for power plants to get the fuel necessary to run the plants. Natural gas power plants usually don’t have very much fuel storage on site, experts said. Instead, the plants rely on the constant flow of natural gas from pipelines that run across the state from areas like the oil and natural gas-producing Permian Basin in West Texas to major demand centers like Houston and Dallas.
Gov. Greg Abbott specified that fossil fuel sources were contributing to the problems with the grid when describing the situation Monday afternoon.
“The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators,” he wrote in a tweet.
Heather Zichal, CEO of the industry group the American Clean Power Association, said opponents of renewable energy were trying to distract from the failures elsewhere in the system and slow the “transition to a clean energy future.”
“It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power — who attack it whether it is raining, snowing or the sun is shining — engaging in a politically opportunistic charade, misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities,” she said.
Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.
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