February 19, 2021 - By John Moore, NRDC

The Texas Energy Catastrophe and Clean Energy

A historic freeze plunged every county in Texas into a winter weather advisory and caused the state’s electricity system to fail, with 4 million customers facing outages, many that lasted hours and hours. The crisis in Texas continues, and the primary concern now is helping those suffering in the cold and getting the power and water systems functioning again.

Scientists tell us that our climate crisis will cause more severe weather in the years to come: harsher hurricanes, hotter heat waves, bigger floods – and, yes, sometimes even stronger winter storms. We need an electricity system that’s resilient enough to handle these threats.

For some naysayers, the failure of the grid operator in Texas to prepare for severe weather is yet another chance to try and blame clean wind and solar energy, the very technologies we need to address climate change.

 But that dog won’t hunt. Consider the evidence: 

  • “Failures across Texas’ natural gas operations and supply chains due to extreme temperatures are the most significant cause of the power crisis,” the Texas Tribune reported. (As did the Houston Chronicle, Washington Post, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Associated Press.)
  • “The power sources that underperformed on the largest scale were coal and gas plants that had equipment freeze over or couldn’t get sufficient fuel on site as drilling operations and pipelines struggled to work properly,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
  • “While ice has forced some turbines to shut down just as a brutal cold wave drives record electricity demand, that’s been the least significant factor in the blackouts,” an ERCOT spokesman told Bloomberg News.
  • “Power generators and regulators failed to heed the lessons of 2011 — or for that matter, 1989. In the aftermath of the Super Bowl Sunday blackout a decade ago, federal energy officials warned the grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, that Texas power plants had failed to adequately weatherize facilities to protect against cold weather,” reported the Houston Chronicle. (And the Austin Statesman and Bloomberg.)
  • “What most experts saw was the Texas grid’s vulnerability to harsh weather — and a warning that climate change-induced disasters could devastate the nation’s leading energy producer,” Politico reported.

The real problems for the Texas grid are an over-reliance on natural gas, a failure to prepare those gas plants for severely cold weather, and a lack of interconnection with other states. We need new planning to make the grid more resilient and adaptable.

In the longer term, the cleaner, reliable solution will be to wean Texas and the country off of gas and electrify the economy with renewable energy. As Texas is now showing, and as we see elsewhere in the country, we are at risk from our dependence on carbon-emitting gas for both power and heating.

Other keys to resilience are more demand response and more energy efficiency upgrades. Efficient buildings keep you more comfortable during electricity interruptions, and lower system loads reduce the need for rotating blackouts in the first place. And, to top it off, investing in clean energy and grid upgrades would be an incredible economic boon for Texas, creating 72,450 jobs, the most in the nation, according to a study by E2. 

As the catastrophic events in Texas are showing us, there’s no trade-off involved between a clean and resilient power grid. We can – and must – do both.

 

John Moore, Director, Sustainable FERC Project, Climate & Clean Energy Program at NRDC, focuses on developing a modern, flexible, and efficient high-power electrical grid that will help accelerate renewable and clean energy use. He advocates on behalf of the Sustainable FERC Project and other environmental groups before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and regional transmission organizations. Prior to joining NRDC, Moore was a senior attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago, where he coordinated clean transmission initiatives and managed ELPC's clean energy development program. Moore holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Denison University and a JD from the University of Pittsburgh. He is based in Chicago.

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