With both early voting and the anniversary of Texas’ catastrophic blackouts coming up, and another potentially dicey winter storm on the way this week, the grid is on the forefront of many Texans’ minds. In a recent Dallas Morning News op-ed, one commentator urged voters to use electric reliability measures as a rubric for casting their votes in the primary election — but for all the wrong reasons.
The author objects that “strong incentives imposed to encourage contracts with ‘reliable and dispatchable’ plants” will somehow increase the likelihood of blackouts. The truth is the exact opposite — as the slim projected reserve margins for Friday’s storm confirm. If the wind doesn’t blow, Texas may be in for more power outages. The fundamental problem that Winter Storm Uri exposed is that Texas is relying entirely on wind and solar to meet its growing demand.
It defies common sense that Texas shouldn’t incentivize — if not outright require — power plants to be “reliable and dispatchable.” There’s a reason fossil fuels have always provided the vast majority of our energy and will continue to do so for many, many decades at least. Quite simply, the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, and battery storage to compensate for Texas’ notoriously fickle weather is incredibly expensive.
The narrative that natural gas failed Texas is catchy because it’s simple, but like most public policy problems, the full picture isn’t quite so black and white. While it’s true that some of the state’s natural gas power plants had weather-related issues, even if every gas plant was running at 100% capacity the night of the blackouts, we still would have seen widespread and lasting outages.
If we’re going to point fingers over failures during the storm, wind and solar should bear the brunt of the blame. Despite making up a third of Texas’ electric generating capacity, solar offered no power during the dead of night, and over the course of the storm wind bottomed out at just 1.5% of its generating capacity. Renewable advocates were quick to claim wind exceeded expectations, but that’s surely little comfort to the families of the hundreds who died during the storm.
Despite the supply issues, natural gas generation increased 450% over the course of the blackouts, and coal ramped up nearly 50%, while wind fell by 93%. Fossil fuels are the reason Texans’ lights and heat stayed on at all.
Not only have unreliable wind and solar generators destabilized our grid — an issue the Texas Public Policy Foundation has been calling attention to for years before the blackouts — they’re also inevitably more expensive.
There are plenty of news articles claiming wind and solar are cheap and getting cheaper, but the prices cited ignore the broader costs imposed on the grid — and therefore on Texans — through increased need for backup generation, transmission costs paid for through our utility bills, plentiful subsidies paid for by our taxes, and higher costs for nuclear, natural gas, and coal generators who don’t enjoy the same subsidies.
Texans love to hate on California, so let’s use the Golden State as an example. Since 2011, California’s electric prices have risen seven times faster than the rest of the nation’s. And to avoid blackouts, California regularly has to import power from other states who need it just as much. The same story is unfolding in every city, state, and nation that have significantly expanded renewable energy or mandated accordance with the flawed Paris Climate Accord, from the United States to Germany.
Higher energy costs are more than a pesky inconvenience — for the poor, they are potentially deadly. The hundreds of Texans who died during the blackouts, and untold others who experienced severe health issues due to the cold or inability to get medical care, experienced firsthand the everyday reality faced by billions around the world suffering from energy poverty. The grid is more than a political issue; it’s essential to our survival.
Some ideas like energy efficiency and winterization of power plants might contribute some to improved reliability. Others like stealing power from parked electric vehicles and deliberately reducing Texans’ allotted power usage during storms are too ridiculous to be discussed seriously. In the long term, the only real solution to prevent future blackouts is to ensure our grid is powered by reliable, dispatchable generators.
The blackouts showed us just how critical electricity is to our lives and our futures. Texans should hold their elected officials accountable — but not in the way that Dallas Morning News op-ed suggests. Blindly ditching our most reliable, affordable sources of energy simply because renewable energy sounds nicer would be a disastrous future for Texas.
This commentary originally appeared in The Cannon Online on February 1, 2022.