As Texans reel from ongoing blackouts at the worst possible time, during a nationwide cold snap that has sent temperatures plummeting to single digits, the news has left people in other states wondering: How could this happen in Texas, the nation’s energy powerhouse?
But policy experts have seen this moment coming for years. The only surprise is that the house of cards collapsed in the dead of winter, not the toasty Texas summers that usually shatter peak electricity demand records.
The blackouts, which have left as many as 4 million Texans trapped in the cold, show the numerous chilling consequences of putting too many eggs in the renewable basket.
Fossil Fuels Aren’t to Blame
There are misleading reports asserting the blackouts were caused by large numbers of natural gas and coal plants failing or freezing. Here’s what really happened: the vast majority of our fossil fuel power plants continued running smoothly, just as they do in far colder climates across the world. Power plant infrastructure is designed for cold weather and rarely freezes, unlike wind turbines that must be specially outfitted to handle extreme cold.
It appears that ERCOT, Texas’s grid operator, was caught off guard by how soon demand began to exceed supply. Failure to institute a managed rolling blackout before the grid frequency fell to dangerously low levels meant some plants had to shut off to protect their equipment. This is likely why so many power plants went offline, not because they had failed to maintain operations in the cold weather.
Yet these operational errors overshadow the decades of policy blunders that made these blackouts inevitable. Thanks to market-distorting policies that favor and subsidize wind and solar energy, Texas has added more than 20,000 megawatts (MW) of those intermittent resources since 2015 while barely adding any natural gas and retiring significant coal generation.