Inside Clean Energy: Explaining the Crisis in Texas

This is what happens when the challenges of climate adaptation run into the challenges of the energy transition.

Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez stay in their apartment during power outage caused by the winter storm on Feb. 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas. A winter storm has brought historic cold weather, power outages and traffic accidents to Texas. Credit: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Karla Perez and Esperanza Gonzalez stay in their apartment during power outage caused by the winter storm on Feb. 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas. A winter storm has brought historic cold weather, power outages and traffic accidents to Texas. Credit: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Share this article

Even before the frigid weather arrived in Texas last weekend, some people were already saying that the crisis showed the folly of the transition to clean energy sources like wind and solar.

When the power went out across the state, it became clear that the fallout was far worse than from the rolling blackouts in California last year, an event that also inspired an energy debate. But the problem in Texas was much more than the failure of any one type of energy source. Energy analysts were quick to note that much of the problem was that natural gas power plants were unable to function in the snow, ice and cold. Other technologies also weren’t working, including wind farms that underperformed. Millions of people are still without power as I write this on Wednesday.

Newsletters

We deliver climate news to your inbox like nobody else. Every day or once a week, our original stories and digest of the web’s top headlines deliver the full story, for free.

Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher at Georgia Tech, has spent much of the last week talking to people like me, explaining what happened. 

The catastrophe in Texas, she said, is happening at the same time as two different but related issues: Climate change is leading to extreme weather that exceeds what the grid can handle, and the companies that produce electricity are moving away from fossil fuels because of costs and concerns about the changing climate. In the panic of a crisis, people like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have blamed the massive blackouts on the shift to clean energy, when the crux of the problem is in fact the extreme weather.

Yet there are legitimate concerns about how a cleaner grid would deal with extreme conditions. This doesn’t mean we should build a bunch of coal-fired power plants, but it does mean that the grid of the present and future will need to deal with extreme weather, and that any system—even one that runs mostly on coal—will probably break when faced with this kind of pressure.

I asked Grubert what she’s seeing and what lessons we should draw from it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Based on what we know so far, how would you explain what has gone wrong with the Texas grid this last week?

I think the most important thing to understand about this is that these are extraordinarily difficult conditions. So there’s a lot of talk about what’s going on with the grid and a lot of talk about what fuels are responsible and whether there are specific demand patterns that were responsible and things like that. But I think what we really need to understand is that deep, deep cold across the entire state of Texas is extraordinarily unusual and extraordinarily challenging.

When this was starting, we saw some familiar comments, almost like clockwork, where people were talking about how unreliable renewables are, almost pre-blaming renewables. What did you think when you saw that?

Emily Grubert

I’ve got family in both Oklahoma and Texas, and they’ve been texting me about these really wild forecasts for how cold it was going to be for a week or two already. And even seeing that forecast, I guessed the power was going to go out probably, and people were going to die. This is a severe, severe emergency. So then I also see a bunch of the reaction being very focused on, “Oh, yes, this is because the grid is renewable,” and it’s, like you say, kind of coming to a conclusion that isn’t really appropriate here. I do want to make the point that I’m not arguing that fully renewable grids would have handled this. But I think that what’s really, really important to understand about what’s going on here is that these are conditions that no grid is particularly well suited to handle, in the sense not that it’s a certain kind of cold—yes, we have other parts of the world where it gets this cold—but that the experienced conditions are so far outside the design requirements associated with this very complex machinery and system.

There’s a climate change adaptation issue here and then there is an energy transition issue, and they’re kind of happening simultaneously. So how do we make sense of that?

What really worries me, and has worried me for a long time in terms of how we make sense of this, is really understanding that we are going to fail sometimes, and making sure that we have a clear vision of where we’re going, what we’re trying to do with the system. Because it’s very, very easy to recognize failure as an indication that you’re going the wrong way, when it might be more about just the fact that we’re still learning how to do this. We can’t spend too much time learning how to do this. People are going to die because we make bad choices or make mistakes and things like that, and that is not an outcome that anybody wants. That said, to conclude from an event like this that the only solution is to build a whole bunch of brand new coal plants is also, I think, a very difficult and dangerous direction that I’m starting to see people expressing.

When I see the kind of inevitable comments about the reliability of wind and solar, part of me thinks that this is a knee-jerk reaction. But another part of me thinks there’s something legitimate here, too, like when you get in these crazy winter weather events, this presents real concerns for a grid that is going to be relying heavily on wind and solar plus batteries, right?

Yeah, and I think one of the things that I have been trying to emphasize is that it’s a fallacy to assume that the systems that we have are going to perform as well as they have in the past. And that’s a different issue from whether they’re going to perform better under certain circumstances than a fully zero-carbon grid or something along those lines in the future. So, we need to recognize that comparing a future zero-carbon system to historical performance of a fossil-based system is not actually the right counterfactual.


Xcel Energy’s Big Plan: I wrote this week for ICN about how a national debate about the energy transition is leading to high interest in Xcel Energy’s proposal for how to manage its Minnesota power plants between now and 2034. Xcel was the first large U.S. utility to set a target of getting to net-zero emissions. And now the company says it wants to build a new natural gas power plant along with new wind and solar. Environmental groups say a new gas plant is incompatible with a push to get to net-zero, and the groups have issued alternative plans for Xcel. State regulators are reviewing the evidence and are on track to issue a ruling this year.

Xcel Energy is proposing to stop burning coal at the Sherburne County Generating Station in Becker, Minnesota, and build a natural gas power plant on the site. Credit: Tony Webster
Xcel Energy is proposing to stop burning coal at the Sherburne County Generating Station in Becker, Minnesota, and build a new natural gas power plant on the site. Credit: Tony Webster

Understanding the Texas Grid: Much has been written about the crisis in Texas. One story that goes deep into the underlying issues in a smart way is from Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and Caitlin Smith, vice president at AB Power Advisors, writing for Forbes.com. They note that Texas usually hits its peak for electricity demand in the summer, and power systems are not well-equipped to deal with this kind of demand in winter.

Natural Gas Prices Soar: Extreme cold has led to a big surge in the market price of natural gas, which is leading to high costs for many of the consumers who heat with gas, as Bryce Gray reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The volatility in the gas market used to be a regular feature of the heating season, but has been less so in recent years because of mild winters and the plentiful supply of gas from within the United States. The price of gas is relevant to a discussion of renewable energy because wind and solar are competing with gas on the market.

Meet the New Boss at FERC: Richard Glick has gone from issuing flaming dissents as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under the Trump administration, to now leading the panel under the Biden administration. He talked with reporters last week about how he wants to better consider climate change and environmental justice in his office’s work, which is encouraging to the many advocates who have argued that FERC should take a much more active role in addressing those topics. Catherine Morehouse has a story in Utility Dive about how Glick talked about his new role.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.