There is a lot of commentary on the energy crisis in Texas. Was it caused by the frozen wind turbines? Government subsidies favoring one source of energy over another? An insecure power grid? Unmeetable demand? Is it just too dang cold in Texas?
We touched base with Rick Perry, whose time as governor of the state and secretary of the Department of Energy would give us a better idea.
Short answer: it was a perfect storm. Long answer: if the Biden Administration follows through on its talk to ban fossil fuels, this will happen again, and in more places than Texas. And, those places won’t warm up as fast as Texas (New England, which is resisting new pipelines and moving away from a diversified energy mix, is a polar vortex away from disaster).
Gov. Perry says the main reason for the failure is insufficient baseload power, particularly from those with onsite fuel storage, like emissions-free nuclear power. And with a growing economy, Texas needs more reliable power sources.
“We are at the same amount of power needed in the state today than we were in August of 2020, which was the highest megawatt usage in Texas history…If wind and solar is where we’re headed, the last 48 hours ought to give everybody a real pause and go wait a minute,” Gov. Perry told us. “We need to have a baseload. And the only way you can get a baseload in this country is [with] natural gas, coal, and nuclear.”
The freezing cold weather hitting Texas knocked out several of the power grid’s sectors, especially the natural gas power plants (40% of Texas’ electricity), but also wind (23%), and even nuclear (11%). Since the winter months are typically off-peak for a state like Texas, power producers plan to have generation offline for repairs during that season. This, in theory, makes sense, but not if the infrastructure hasn’t been weatherized to ensure all of the remaining generation is up and running in case of an emergency.
Offline power sources, cold weather freezing gas pipelines that hadn’t been weatherized, renewables that can’t provide baseload power, paired with a demand never before seen in the state’s history? That results in millions of people freezing without power and little guidance on when it will be back.
“The frozen turbines out in West Texas is a freakish event. But that’s what the government is supposed to think about – what are the freakish events that can occur that could cost people their lives, and to protect against that,” Gov. Perry said.
A lot of the anger is aimed at Texas’ power-grid operator, called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Current Gov. Greg Abbott has called for an investigation into the operator and the grid’s failure. And while it’s understandable that Texas didn’t insulate pipelines to operate in record-low temperatures, grid operators are waking up to needed contingencies at the state and local level. ERCOT anticipated the state’s wind would only provide 7% of the power demand in the winter months, but it didn’t anticipate the catastrophic loss of baseload power as pipelines froze and natural gas production came to a halt.
Gov. Perry – who led an effort to analyze power reliability risks while he served as Secretary of Energy – believes this is an area where the federal government can help. The Department of Energy national labs have technology and expertise to analyze and model potential catastrophes, and can help states better decide where to invest in weatherization, transmission, and energy storage technology to make their grid more resilient.
“Technology – not regulation” is how the governor believes Texas can ensure its grid can weather the next storm. But there’s also the question of whether government subsidized wind and solar sectors — largely through policies like the wind and solar production tax credits – have made it harder for energy sources with on-site fuel storage like coal and nuclear to compete in the market. In a report issued under his leadership, Gov. Perry and DOE experts recognized this potential market failure. While then-Secretary Perry outlined the benefits of America’s diverse energy resources, he also emphasized the need to “recognize the relationship between resiliency and the price of energy.” And today’s markets don’t always recognize the value of resiliency.
The truth is, the federal government doesn’t need to be playing favorites in the energy market to support a resilient grid. Instead, the federal government should stop skewing the market, and invest in technology and the kind of research that helps states be better prepared, and makes reliable, baseload power cleaner and more affordable. Texas, and we as a country, need to diversify our dependency based on need, opportunity, and technology — not federal subsidies.
“We’ve got to have diversity, we’ve got to have resiliency, and we’ve got to have a baseload that we can absolutely count on no matter what happens out there,” Gov. Perry said.
Those watching on the left may see the situation in Texas as an opportunity to expand their top-down, radical proposals. Two phrases come to mind: don’t mess with Texas, and don’t let a crisis go to waste.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Gov. Perry said, partly rhetorically. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
The Texas episode illustrates why we need more sources of energy, not less. This isn’t a political point: if Texas depended on wind for its electricity for more than the 23% generation it already does, the situation would be much worse.
In the end, this is Texas, and like Gov. Perry said, “the sun will come out, the temperatures will moderate, and this will become part of our rear view mirror. Real leaders have to stay focused on looking over the horizon.” That means rebuilding and filling in the gaps revealed over the last week to ensure this kind of catastrophe doesn’t happen again.