Understanding the Texas Energy Crisis

A rhetorical battle is now underway to make sure the Texas energy crisis does not go to waste.  As the largest electoral star in the remnants of red states, the stakes for changing the politics of the state are considerable.  The arctic weather that descended on Texas February 14 weekend flummoxed the power grid of the state and set up a debate on whether renewables like wind or fossil fuels like natural gas will bear the brunt of the blame.  At the heart of the management of this question is ERCOT, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas. 

Outsiders may not be aware that Texas has a uniquely independent power grid that is relatively disconnected from regional energy consumers and providers. Outsiders may also be surprised to discover the dramatic growth of wind power in a state that has among the largest fossil fuel reserves in the world.  The growth of wind power to be second as a source only to natural gas is the debate raging in Texas politics now.  Did wind reliance help set up the energy crisis in an energy rich state?  At a moderate level of study, it is apparent that both wind and natural gas was blocked from full utilization by extended severely sub-freezing weather.  This is exceptionally cold for Texas and prevented even natural gas facilities from being properly prepared.  The anti-fossil fuel crowd is eager to deflect criticism of wind and solar and points to how wind performed better than expected on some days of the cold blast.  These surface points are near exhaustion but miss some larger deeper issues about the controversy. 

Has the decade-long move to invest in wind power that placed so many turbines and transmission lines in West Texas proven to be a wise investment for ERCOT and energy providers?  The answer is probably ‘no.’  Some diversity of sources can be useful in such a geographically large state.  Wind power can be secured from cold weather and defenders have pointed out these examples.  More profound -- was the switch from coal to natural gas completely wise?  Most audiences of this debate missed a key global study for 2020 showing it to be the largest reduction in CO2 emissions because of drastically lower energy use worldwide.  That is not surprising when a draconian flu regime brings the global economy to a largely unprecedented stop.  Not widely touted was the data showing that the earth’s atmosphere actually accelerated in its warming trend.  But how?  Should not a large reduction in CO2 emissions reduce global warming? In fact, the study showed that reduced particulate emissions from dominant sources of energy such as coal allowed more sunlight to reach the Earth’s surface and heat the surrounding atmosphere more effectively. Climate scientists have known these effects well since at least the 1970s.  Moreover, in the midst of this cold crisis, were Texans able to purchase gasoline for their automobiles?  There is little or no evidence that this energy source was greatly diminished by the cold.  Imagine for a moment that all the cars in Texas were electric.  How would those cars draw sufficient electricity from the grid to be ready to drive?  The easy answer is that they would not, and in fact, the electrical grid would be catastrophically crippled by the demand.  Gasoline is actually a uniquely efficient medium for the storage of energy compared to waiting for the wind or the solar panel.  Batteries drop in their ability to store energy as temperatures turn cold.  Here again, reasonable debate about how to convert all gasoline engines to electric batteries is blocked.  Lucky Texans previously bought generators often fueled by their natural gas lines to power their homes in outage situations like this one.  If incentives to buy solar panels were replaced with incentives to buy backup generators, a great deal of suffering could be relieved going forward.

The Texas energy crisis exposes the whimsical contradictions of green energy.  The goal cannot be to save the environment because reduced emissions warm the earth even more.  Green energy cannot provide electric cars because there is no medium for storing such vast quantities of energy for instantaneous usage.  If Texas invested more consistently in coal and natural gas as a broader energy base, the toppling of the electrical grid would have been much more difficult. The long and escalating demonization of energy production connects the crises in both Texas and California despite their distinct political practices.  The cold spell in Texas was unique and exceptional.  Nonetheless, the crisis in 2011 warned ERCOT that hardening of electrical generation assets against the cold was necessary.  The near complete displacement of coal-fired electricity may have crippled the reserve capacity of Texas. The primary emphasis in the past decade appears to be to the task of proving Texas to be ‘greener than thou’ in its usage of wind power or removing coal plants.  Texas does have one of the largest installed bases of wind power in the world. Texas electricity providers primarily advertise their capacity to provide “green energy.”  Some providers brag they provide 100% green energy.  This past week, many Texans would have preferred to have any energy -- whatever color it was. 

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of rhetoric and director of debate and speech at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.  His latest book Rwanda Rising includes an analysis of the latest controversies surrounding climate change. 

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