Energy Policy Debates Heat Up For Politicians as Texas Freezes and Power Outages Span the State
February 16, 2021 - Texas politicians and political groups sparred over power in politics Monday, seizing the opportunity to debate energy policy as power outages swept through the Lone Star State.
As the storm continued to ravage Texas Monday, pictures of frozen wind turbines and stories of hours-long blackouts spread across Twitter. Texas Republicans, who have been a key players in the fight to protect fossil fuels, as some Democrats vouch for renewable solutions to reduce the country’s carbon footprint, were quick to advocate for the necessity of oil and gas.
“The blackouts caused by this extreme weather reinforces the need to maintain energy independence and increased Texas oil and gas production, not less,” U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin said in a tweet.
A snow-covered Downtown Dallas seen from S Houston St on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021
Photo: Juan Figueroa, Staff photographer
The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation thanked “affordable and reliable” fossil fuels for keeping Texans warm, in a press release.
“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,” communications manager Katie Tahuahua said. “What’s warming Texans and keeping them alive in this deadly winter blast? Fossil fuels, particularly natural gas.”
Sen. John Cornyn set his eye on President Joe Biden’s administration, calling out Biden’s interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland, who opposes fracking.
“What are her plans for rolling blackouts during cold weather?” Cornyn asked in a tweet.
By midday Monday, state energy officials and experts were reporting that the major outages in the power grid came from thermal sources, such as natural gas and coal, not renewable sources.
The Texas Democratic Party criticized Gov. Greg Abbott in a press release for not being open to renewable energy.
“Abbott played politics with alternative sources of energy and now, thermal sources have been knocked offline,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said. “If Abbott cared more about doing his job than trying to scare oil and gas workers into voting for him, Texas should have been able to avoid this crisis.”
But experts say the reason behind the power outages is more complicated than simply needing either more fossil fuels or more forms of renewable energy.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which controls Texas’ energy grid, generally only counts on wind and solar energy for a fraction of energy because they are weather dependent, said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of energy and the environment at Princeton University. Thermal sources make up the bulk of the energy ERCOT depends on.
But a “perfect storm” of contributing factors led to outages, Jenkins said.
Because of unprecedented weather conditions, power was down right when demand was at its peak, said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. Record-breaking cold temperatures were lower than forecasted, and with households demanding more energy than usual, some natural gas power plants could not get the energy they needed to operate.
In some parts of the country with colder climates, natural gas units are equipped to substitute oil or diesel for when gas is unavailable.
“You could have more wind and solar producing at low capacity factors — that does help,” Jenkins said. “But it’s a sign that you need a more diverse mix of resources overall, and in particular, you can’t count on gas units to be 100% firm in winter conditions.”