One Year Later: The Texas Freeze Revealed a Fragile Energy System and Inspired Lasting Misinformation

Power outages in February 2021 were largely a failure of the natural gas system, a reality that state officials don’t acknowledge, blaming wind energy instead.

A sign warns of icy conditions on Interstate Highway 35 on February 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A sign warns of icy conditions on Interstate Highway 35 on February 18, 2021 in Killeen, Texas. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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Texas is recovering from this week’s winter storm, nearly a year after a much more severe set of storms led to a devastating failure of the electricity system and about 250 deaths. The February 2021 storms showed the fragility of the grid at a time when climate change is contributing to an increase in extreme weather.

But the most enduring legacy of the 2021 blackouts may be the spread of a falsehood: the idea that the crisis was mainly due to the failure of renewable energy.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, invoked this idea in December, when he announced he was voting against President Joe Biden’s climate and social spending bill, saying that a rapid transition to clean energy “will have catastrophic consequences for the American people like we have seen in both Texas and California in the last two years.”

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Fossil-fuel industry groups and elected officials across the country have made similar claims, part of a trail of distorted facts that has helped to obscure the true story of the Texas power crisis. That story, as told in a succession of reports by outside experts, is that the most consequential failures were in the natural gas industry and at gas-fired power plants.

Yet many Texas officials have responded as if they believed the warped version of events, choosing not to engage with what really happened.

“The idea that wind and solar were the problem, when our grid is dominated by fossil fuels, doesn’t add up in any way,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the aftermath of the 2021 storms, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, oversaw a complete change in the leadership of the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. But he and other state officials did much less to require changes to the gas industry, which is regulated by the Railroad Commission of Texas.

Meanwhile, various reports have confirmed the central role of the gas industry in the power outages. These include a joint investigation from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation; a detailed timeline of events by the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin; and a paper in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, the authors of which include energy researchers from Texas and across the country, including Webber.

The reports showed that every major energy source, including wind, had problems that contributed to a shortage of electricity, but that the grid’s heavy reliance on gas meant that the breakdowns in the gas delivery system were a leading factor. Much of the gas system was not winterized, so many parts of it couldn’t function in extreme cold.

“I’m concerned that our regulators over the natural gas industry don’t appear to even be interested or curious about the capabilities of the system they have oversight of,” said Beth Garza, a Texas-based senior fellow with the R Street Institute, a think tank that promotes open markets. Until 2019, she was head of the office that serves as the independent watchdog for ERCOT.

“I don’t know what’s in the railroad commissioners’ heads,” she said. “But publicly their comments seem to be, ‘Natural gas wasn’t the problem, we were the solution.’”

Among those comments was a March 19 opinion column in The Wall Street Journal with the headline, “Texas’ Blackouts Blew in the Wind,” by Wayne Christian, a member of the commission.

“Regardless of your thoughts on climate change, last month’s storm made painfully clear that climate catastrophists have an oversize influence on public policy,” he wrote. “An obsessive focus on reaching the unattainable goal of zero carbon emissions led to decades of poor decisions that prioritized and subsidized unreliable energy sources (wind and solar) at the expense of reliable ones (natural gas, coal and nuclear).”

This commentary, and many others like it, helped to underscore that Texas officials did not seem interested in a serious investigation of what went wrong.

The shortcomings of Texas’ response to the 2021 crisis led some analysts to worry that the state was not prepared for another storm of similar magnitude. Luckily, Texas hasn’t yet faced that kind of test, even with the storm that hit this week, which turned out to be shorter and less cold than what happened last year.

Freeze Cut Supply and Spiked Demand

Winter storms hit Texas in February 2021, bringing snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures.

The extreme cold led to a spike in demand for natural gas and electricity for home heating. The high demand for gas was happening at the same time as a drop in the supply of gas. Many of the companies that extract and deliver the fuel were going offline because of frozen equipment or because they were shutting down equipment to avoid weather-related damage.

The sudden decrease in the availability of gas meant that some gas-fired power plants, Texas’ leading source of electricity, could no longer get fuel and had to shut down. Other gas-fired plants shut down because of the effects of freezing on valves, air systems and other equipment.

ERCOT was faced with record-high demand for electricity and a plummeting supply. In response, the grid operator initiated blackouts, starting on Feb. 15, over much of the state, leaving some residents in the dark for days.

The sudden loss of natural gas supplies led to a nationwide spike in gas prices. Gas producers that were still online made billions of dollars in just a few days, while utilities and other gas buyers across the country were bound by contracts that forced them to purchase it at prices that would take years, or even decades, to pay off.

ERCOT records showed that all electricity sources were impaired in some way, except for the state’s small share of hydroelectric power.

But the majority of the power losses were from gas plants, including 25 gigawatts of capacity that went offline. Coal and nuclear outages cut another 4.5 gigawatts and 1.3 gigawatts respectively, according to the University of Texas at Austin report. Considering that peak demand was about 70 gigawatts, losing about 30 gigawatts from gas, coal and nuclear was a disaster.

Wind energy also performed poorly, starting with ice accumulation that led to some wind farms needing to shut down early in the crisis. Wind power outages peaked at about 9 gigawatts, a number that takes into account wind levels on those days, according to the UT Austin report.

Solar power is rapidly growing in Texas, but it remains a tiny share of the state’s electricity supply and had little effect, positive or negative, during the crisis.

“It’s not like wind is blameless, but (the power crisis) wasn’t caused by wind failure,” said Webber. To say otherwise is “at best misleading, at worst an outright lie.”

About 4.5 million Texans lost power, many of them living in homes that were not built to withstand frigid temperatures. At least 246 people died of causes related to the storm and power outages, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. 

The deaths included a mother and her seven-year-old daughter who died of carbon monoxide poisoning and a 60-year old man with disabilities who died of hypothermia, according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle, KTRK television in Houston and other local media outlets.

The Texas power crisis turned out to be the largest example in U.S. history of grid operators forcing blackouts because the electricity supply was not enough to meet demand, according to the FERC/NERC report.

Hot Air Blames Wind, but Cold Facts Implicate Gas

During the crisis, when many Texans were still without power, Abbott said on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that failures in wind and solar “thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power [on] a statewide basis.”

This framing was widely repeated across Fox News’ schedule. On the Fox & Friends morning show, images from the state were shown above a chyron saying, “Frozen wind turbines cause blackouts in Texas.”

Fossil-fuel industry groups and sympathetic think tanks also trumpeted this message.

“This week, as the state and nation are blanketed in ice, we can expect most of our wind turbines to be still and solar panels to produce little to no electricity,” said Katie Tahuahua, communications manager for the Life:Powered campaign, a pro-fossil fuel public relations project from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Fortunately, our abundant natural gas and clean coal power plants can be ramped up to meet our power needs at any time.”

Co-host Pete Hegseth discusses the Texas power outages with Danish author Bjorn Lomborg on the Feb. 16, 2021 edition of “Fox & Friends” on Fox News. Credit: Media Matters for America.

William Pendley, who had been the top official in the federal Bureau of Land Management in the Trump Administration, tweeted a link to a post from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and added this comment: “Read the whole thing but; short answer: Texas—home to vast oil and gas supplies—drank the renewable energy Koolaid. Sad.”

But there also was substantial news coverage about the actual causes of the crisis, with outlets like The Texas Tribune and many others reporting what really happened.

Doug Lewin, a Texas-based clean energy advocate and consultant, said any discussion of the attempts to distort the facts should also include that many media outlets succeeded in holding leaders accountable. 

“There are definitely a lot of people that believe the misinformation, but I think most people understand what happened,” he said.

Post-Blackout Legislation Only Tackles Part of the Problem

In the months that followed, Texas political leaders vowed to take action to fix the systems that had failed.

But the steps they took were in line with the view that the problem was in electricity regulation and management, not in the gas industry’s inability to deliver its product during extreme weather.

To be sure, there were many issues with the state’s electricity regulation and management, but this was just part of the problem.

On June 8, Abbott signed several bills inspired by the crisis. Among them, Senate Bill 3 aims to make the electricity system more reliable by requiring power plants to winterize, among other steps. Some gas wells and other gas infrastructure would be designated as critical infrastructure, which would mean that they would have priority to receive electricity during times of forced outages so that they could continue to deliver fuel. 

The bill also said that natural gas production and delivery facilities would need to winterize if they were part of the supply chain of gas for power plants. A new state panel is determining which gas sites should be included and will issue a report by September 2022. After that, the railroad commission would set the rules for winterization.

“We promised not to leave session until we fixed these problems, and I am proud to say that we kept that promise,” Abbott said. “These laws will improve the reliability of the electric grid and help ensure these problems never happen again.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Lewin said the legislation fell far short of what was needed, by not doing enough to require prompt action by gas companies, and by not addressing the larger problem that millions of people live in homes with inefficient heating systems and inadequate insulation.

“Overall, the system is very vulnerable,” he said.

Public Disapproval of Response, Officials Silent on Climate

After the state legislature did little to address reliability issues in the gas system, there was backlash from the public and some legislators. 

A poll released in November by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune showed that 60 percent of respondents disapproved of the way state leaders and the legislature handled concerns about reliability of the electricity grid, and only 18 percent approved. It was the lowest level of approval for any of the 13 issues covered in the poll.

One flashpoint was that the legislation didn’t change an existing rule that said gas producers could apply to opt out of having to follow winterization rules by paying a $150 fee.

“Your rulemaking proposal sucks, and we need a different direction,” said Texas Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, in a September hearing with leaders of the railroad commission.

That comment was indicative of broader public criticism of the legislature and the railroad commission for providing little assurance that the gas system would be ready for the next winter crisis.

In response, the railroad commission made changes to the opt-out rule before approving it, saying that the largest gas producers were no longer eligible to apply for an opt-out.

“Despite what you may read in the news, no one is getting a bailout, and no one is getting a loophole,” said the commission’s Wayne Christian in November, as it adopted rules to comply with the new law.

Christian did not respond to a request for comment.

Texas leaders’ statements about the causes of the crisis were also notable for the almost complete lack of discussion about climate change and its role in the rising frequency of severe storms.

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But university researchers and former officials have been more open to discussing these subjects.

A group of former members of the Public Utility Commission of Texas wrote a report in June with 20 recommendations for improving the state’s power system, including that “ERCOT should design and explore multiple climate change and extreme weather forecasts.” Among the co-authors was Pat Wood, who was the commission’s chairman in the 1990s and later FERC chairman in the George W. Bush administration.

“Texas is the world’s ninth-largest economy,” said Wood and his co-authors. “We owe it to our families and fellow citizens to learn from this event, plan for the future, and do the right thing for the good of Texas.”

The Energy Research & Social Science paper also discusses the role of climate change, saying that Texas leaders have the opportunity to learn from what happened last winter to build a cleaner and more reliable grid.

“Getting this balance of cleanliness, affordability, and reliability right is not simply a technocratic question as it has major implications for health, equity, and human well-being,” the paper said. “As such, the big freeze of 2021 provides a cautionary tale that others can learn from.”