What does the Texas Tragedy Teach Us?
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
by: Barbara Peterson - April 2021
The recent energy failures in Texas, which began during an unusual cold snap, caused tremendous harm, including 30 deaths and continued suffering by millions throughout the state. Over 4 million people awoke February 16 to power outages. Warming centers surged over capacity and people are freezing in their homes. This was a tragedy, not a political opportunity. We must therefore support all relief efforts for Texans, and we must help the state and the rest of our country move forward on a path that provides all of us the energy we need in a sustainable and enduring way. We want to not only help current victims, but also protect our communities against any similar reoccurrences.
The fossil fuel industry was quick to capitalize on the horrific tragedy in Texas by immediately spreading a self-serving, misleading narrative that electricity outages during the Texas Freeze were due to failures of renewable energy sources. That narrative has already taken root in right-wing political talk and social media campaigns. Fortunately for the growing energy democracy movement, factual counter narratives are also beginning to circulate. Let’s look at some of these facts.
Texas was encouraged by FERC to protect their electricity plants against extreme cold snaps by installing heat pipes and insulation. However, the state chose to ignore this advice in order to save money.
Texas chose not to provide power companies with incentives to install reserve capacity to deal with possible emergencies. This made power cheaper in normal times, but left the system vulnerable when things went wrong.
Texas has wind turbines, not for environmental reasons, but because they are cost-effective.
Only 25% of energy supply in Texas during the winter is from wind, which is why less than 13% of the energy failings were due to problems with wind turbines, according to Dan Woodfin, senior director of the state’s independent (and only) power grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).
Frozen wind turbines were the “least significant factor” for power outages, when compared with the failures we saw from fossil fuel sources, which include: frozen gas lines, frozen instruments at gas, coal, and nuclear plants,and frozen wellheads.
Wind power has produced more energy than expected during the outages.
Wind towers operate very efficiently in cold climates: Denmark is powered by wind for nearly 50% of its energy needs, and Iowa is the U.S. state with the largest wind farms – both of these places have very cold winters.
Natural gas pressure is a major reason power is coming back on more slowly than expected.
The tragedy in Texas is largely due to irresponsible policy decisions that failed to protect electricity plants from breaking down during extreme weather. These decisions were compounded by extreme weather events -- events that are happening far more frequently as the climate crisis worsens. The fact is that renewable energy is not only more sustainable, but it is cheaper than fossil fuels in most parts of the world. Renewable energy decreases in price the more it is installed and used. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, do not. This means that the gap between renewable energy and fossil fuel costs will increase over the years, making renewables far more cost-efficient. This not only supports businesses and corporations, but also puts more money in the pockets of individuals and families.
Our regional grid operator, ISO-NE, has an opportunity to learn from this tragedy. They can either invest in fossil fuels that may be cheaper now but more expensive in the long run, or they can invest in an economic and life-sustaining future based in renewable energy sources. As we’ve seen with the case in Texas, managing the electrical grid with profit as the only calculation is both irresponsible and dangerous.
We the people need to offer our support to Texans during this sad and heartbreaking time. And we hope that ERCOT will make significant changes to protect the energy needs of Texans so similar tragedies are not repeated. In New England, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons of this disaster; we must pressure ISO-NE to safeguard our future by transitioning to renewable energy. One concrete and decisive way to start this process is to shut down the Merrimack Station in Bow, NH. This antiquated, dirty coal plant is costly, unnecessary, and a danger to our very lives.
Please help us protect our land, our economy, and our lives by demanding that ISO-NE shut down Merrimack Station, end forward capacity payments to fossil fuels, and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to ratepayer relief and a just transition. These are important first steps to shift the patterns playing out in Texas and continue on the path toward energy democracy and a sustainable future.
Barbara Peterson, PhD
Founder/Lead Scholar & Educator for Nonviolent Community Action
Author of Reclaiming Power: Building a Stronger Resistance in the Age of Trump