Everything is bigger in Texas, and when it comes to winter storms, mid-February is going to be remembered as one of the biggest failures in energy distribution on the record. But no, it wasn’t frozen wind turbines that caused problems.
Texas isn’t known as a state with blowing snow, freezing temperatures, and paralyzing winter storms. When those weather events do strike, that leaves the state unprepared for digging out. The lack of proper snow removal equipment, road salt, and an energy grid that’s prepared to handle the chill has come to head over the past few days, leaving tens of thousands of Texans without power in positively freezing conditions that they are uniquely unprepared for.
Experts are still unpacking what went wrong, but the biggest culprit was natural gas. While some social media posts blamed power shortages on frozen wind turbines, the reality on the ground just doesn’t back up those claims. First of all, the majority of Texas’ energy is produced by natural gas. Some experts are estimating that nearly half of the state’s natural gas power plants stopped working due to low temperatures, while others were forced to shut down due to freezing components that threatened to fail.
Those failures, most of which began around 1 am on Monday, came just as millions of Texans were turning up the heat to meet the sweeping cold and to hunker down in place throughout Monday morning. By that afternoon and evening, those without power were experiencing cold temperatures inside with no plans for power to return. Some left shelter to find warmth, charge phones, or seek help.
While Texas has invested heavily in wind power over the past several years, turbines have unfairly been blamed for energy shortfalls. Only about 7% of the state’s current energy capacity comes from wind, approximately 6 gigawatts of the 69 gigawatts called for during peak usage on Sunday. Wind turbines did fail, however, due to operators deciding not to winterize turbines. The cost-cutting measure makes sense until it doesn’t; wind power could be playing an important role in restoring power. Winterizing kits have been proven in the Arctic and in cold states like Minnesota and Michigan.
In addition, Texas is well behind other states in energy storage capacity. In 2018, the state’s ERCOT utility company, which powers almost all of Texas, had precisely zero energy storage capacity. By 2020, it was at 1,700 mWh. Changing rules in how energy storage is classified in the state and by subsidizing it when the technology is paired with renewables like wind could help the growth of energy storage as a long-term solution to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the risk of another power outage on this scale.