Don't blame wind turbines for Texas' historic power outages

Why does Texas have its own power grid?

Officials say the situation in Texas is dire, as some 3 million homes and businesses remain without power following a deadly, record-breaking storm. As some of the coldest temperatures in decades hit the Lone Star State, many have pointed blame at an unusual source: wind turbines.

While the state's power grid can handle its blazingly hot summers, it is not nearly as prepared for severe winter weather — extremes that are only expected to worsen as the climate crisis escalates. Frozen wind turbines across the state led some conservative politicians to declare that renewable energy is responsible for the catastrophic power failures and rolling blackouts.

"This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source," Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw tweeted Tuesday. "When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn't there when you need it."

"We should never build another wind turbine in Texas," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller wrote on Facebook. "The experiment failed big time." 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott echoed the sentiment and took the opportunity to criticize the Green New Deal. 

"This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America," Abbott said to Fox News' Sean Hannity on Tuesday. "Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10% of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis."

But the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which supplies about 90% of the state with its power, said Tuesday that wind power is responsible for just a fraction of the loss. Of the 45,000 megawatts of power offline during the peak, 30,000 megawatts stemmed from natural gas, while 16,000 megawatts were from wind turbines. 

"Of the power shortfall that hit Texas, over 80% was due to problems at coal- and gas-fired plants," PolitiFact reported.

Experts say traditional energy sources, including coal and natural gas, performed below expectations, while wind power actually performed above expectations. 

"Main story continues to be the failure of thermal power plants — natural gas, coal, and nuclear plants — which ERCOT counts on to be there when needed. They've failed," Princeton engineering professor Jesse Jenkins tweeted Tuesday. "Those of you who have heard that frozen wind turbines are to blame for this, think again. The extreme demand and thermal power plant outages are the principle cause."

Proponents of renewable energy blasted state officials for blaming the issue on turbines alone.

"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," Heather Zichal, the CEO of the American Clean Power Association, said in a statement Tuesday. "It is an extreme weather problem, not a clean power problem. If anything, it shows why we need to be investing in building out more renewable energy sources with better transmission and storage to replace outdated systems." 

Both ERCOT and energy analysts say natural gas, which provides just over one-third of Texas power and heats about 40% of its homes, holds most of the blame for the outages.

"By far the biggest outages have come from our natural gas plants," Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, told CBS MoneyWatch reporter Irina Ivanova. "A portion were down for scheduled maintenance. Others weren't designed to operate reliably in extreme cold weather and others haven't been able to get enough natural gas supply."

"It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system," Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT, told reporters.

Abbott also acknowledged it, in contrast to his comments on Fox News. "The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas and coal generators," he tweeted Monday.

Furthermore, there are anti-icing methods available to keep wind turbines operating in frigid temperatures, but Texas has not invested in them due to the rarity of severe cold weather there. 

"Iowa and Denmark get a bigger percentage of their power from wind than we do. There are ways to winterize a lot of these power suppliers, but it costs money and it takes power and maintenance," Cohan said. "In Texas and the South we've been more focused on keeping our lights on in the summer."

ERCOT said it prepared for winter storms — but even their most extreme predictions were surpassed by this week's severe weather, and demand for power skyrocketed. Nearly every energy source has had failings during the storm, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. that has its own separate power grid — it isn't regulated by the federal government and is disconnected from neighboring states. On Tuesday, Abbott ordered an investigation into ERCOT.

"The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours. Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes," he said in a statement. "This is unacceptable."  

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
f

We and our partners use cookies to understand how you use our site, improve your experience and serve you personalized content and advertising. Read about how we use cookies in our cookie policy and how you can control them by clicking Manage Settings. By continuing to use this site, you accept these cookies.