The 2021 Texas Power Crisis
(With opening re-caps from Wikipedia)
Blog #85, CaliforniaGeo 2-12-22
Wikipedia’s opening two paragraphs about Texas’ 2021 deep freeze-
“In February 2021, the state of Texas suffered a major power crisis, which came about as a result of three severe winter storms sweeping across the United States on February 10–11, 13–17, and 15–20. The storms caused the worst energy infrastructure failure in Texas state history, leading to shortages of water, food, and heat. More than 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power, some for several days. At least 246 people were killed directly or indirectly, with some estimates as high as 702 killed as a result of the crisis.
State officials including Republican governor Greg Abbott initially blamed the outages on frozen wind turbines and solar panels. However, data showed that failure to winterize power sources, primarily those of natural gas, had caused the grid failure. Texas’s power grid has long been separate from the two major national grids to avoid federal oversight; this disconnection made it difficult for the state to import electricity from other states during the crisis. Deregulation of its electricity market beginning in the 1990s resulted in competition in wholesale electricity prices, but also cost cutting for contingency preparation.”
Wikipedia’s opening paragraph about Texas’ 2011 deep freeze-
“In 2011, Texas was hit by the Groundhog Day blizzard between February 1 and 5, resulting in rolling blackouts across more than 75% of the state. Many roads around Houston were impassable, and boil-water advisories were issued in several areas. Following this disaster, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation made several recommendations for upgrading Texas’s electrical infrastructure to prevent a similar event occurring in the future, but these recommendations were ignored due to the cost of winterizing the systems. At the time the blackouts and failures in the power grid were likened to those that occurred in December 1989, after which similar recommendations were made to the state government and ERCOT, which were similarly ignored. On August 16, 2011, a 357-page report was released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in response to the February 2011 power outage in Texas.”
The second time around-
It wasn’t a tornado or a hurricane. It wasn’t a tsunami, a destructive earthquake, or a gigantic wildfire consuming everything in its path. This was a recurring event that stung because of a combination of Texas’ independence, its leadership’s arrogance, de-regulation, and a lack of preparation in the face of previous warnings. As a result, the state’s citizens paid the price in displacement, discomfort, death, and in some cases, monthly billings in the five to six THOUSAND dollar range.
The displacement from normalcy was massive once the electricity began to fail. Cold homes, frozen water pipes exploded inside homes and there were few opportunities for relief until the cold went away. Unfortunately, ERCOT did not respond to documented previous disruptions.
Governor Abbott and like-minded officials immediately began a campaign to blame the disaster on renewable energy generation sources. Eventually, it didn’t wash, but the state’s ongoing love affair with renewables soured as a casualty of mendacity.
Texas is clearly the leader in new renewable generation capacity, far ahead of California, for example. But that didn’t stop misinformation artists from ginning up other baseless explanations. My social media favorite is the one that applauded a fossil-fueled helicopter spraying a fossil-heated solution of antifreeze onto rime-iced blades to get a turbine back into production. The truth was only separated by half a continent, one ocean and six years’ time!
In a situation similar to newspaper retractions on the back pages following impactful former mistakes—authorities from outside the isolated Texas grid published reports with conclusions different from that of Governor Abbott. The majority of the problems were with fossil-oriented power sources.
Considering that this failure was directly tied to Texas’ de-regulation and isolation of its grid, untethered from the others it might have relied on, this was an outcome long in the making. Texas was the original home of the derided energy corporation named Enron, which was central to over nine billion dollars in California State debt, made necessary by the bankrupting of two large utilities. This was the result of a 1996 deregulation of California’s electric generation. Enron and two other companies gamed the deregulated landscape and manipulated prices that punished formerly stable markets while rolling blackouts ensued.
California is recovering, and ratepayer’s bills carry a segment of that debt service. It has walked away from deregulated electricity, but Texas has not.
In a continued slap at renewables (which were not the root cause of Texas’ 2021 generation failures) Governor Abbott wrote a July 6th letter to the state Public Utility Commission instructing them to increase “reliable” power from fossil and nuclear sources and enforce a cost penalty on “non-reliable” sources such as solar and wind. No matter that the cost of grid-scale battery storage of renewables (or any electricity source) is dropping fast. Many states (including Texas) are expanding battery storage that is instantly dispatchable.
A responding letter of August 9th by the Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance went to the governor, a legislative head of business and commerce, and members of the Public Utility Commission. It highlighted the renewable investments to date, their job generation, tax revenue production, and the fact that hardening of the grid by fossil technology had been ignored.
Texas has a fossil-based policy history that captures many of its political actors. Contributions fuel their election campaigns, and until the money is out of all political campaigns, that influence will remain strong.
There is another lens through which this fibbing governor’s support for fossil based energy can be seen, along with the continued absence of a grid-hardening plan that should have pre-dated his tenure. The simple fact is that when renewable energy is FREE (sans the infrastructure to capture it) there is less money to be earned by accessing it than by staying with conventional electricity generation.
Renewables improve climate defense and minimize pollution. And in a state that brags about its “bigness” and its “independence” so ceaselessly, one might think that energy cost freedom for ratepayers would be sought and celebrated. It would seem possible that in their self-interest, Texas citizens would want to learn more about energy truths contrary to their governor’s assertions. But it turns out that Texans may be more aligned with trust than with curiosity.