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Wind energy is big business in Texas. Over the past five years, wind has grown from supplying 11% of Texas energy demand to 23% and is now the state’s second-largest resource after natural gas.
But that growth has come despite attempts from some conservative groups to slow its progress, and many of those groups seized the opportunity to criticize the renewable resource after initial reports surfaced that turbines were freezing up due to this week’s historic single-digit temperatures across much of Texas.
Gov. Greg Abbott became one such critic on Tuesday night as millions of Texans were without power and facing another freezing night. The governor appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox News show and tied the crisis to the state’s renewable energy resources.
"Our wind and our solar got shut down and ... that thrust Texas into this situation where it was lacking power at a statewide basis," Abbott said during an interview on Hannity. "As a result, it just shows that fossil fuels are necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure that we're able to heat our homes in the wintertime and cool our homes in the summertime."
But how accurate is it to say that renewable energy’s increasing market share is to blame for thrusting "Texas into this situation where it was lacking power"?
Abbott’s comments and those of his Republican colleagues directly contradict information reported by the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Throughout the week, operators have stressed that record-low temperatures across the state have impacted all energy sources, from renewables to fossil fuels.
According to ERCOT's Fuel Mix Report, the state’s largest energy source last year was natural gas, which provided 46% of the state’s energy needs. Wind followed as the second-largest with 23%. Coal supplied 18%, nuclear 11% and solar 2%.
Over Valentine’s Day weekend, before grid operators mandated statewide blackouts, several wind turbines froze due to unusual levels of cold moisture in West Texas’ typically dry air. But as electricity demand spiked to record levels early Monday morning, grid operators said that electric plants of all energy sources "began tripping offline in rapid succession."
On Tuesday, as the number of homes without power peaked around 4 million, grid operators said that thermal energy plants were mostly to blame for the ongoing shortfall.
"There is significantly more megawatts in that thermal unit category than in the renewable category as far as what's out during this particular event at the current time," said Dan Woodfin, head of system operations at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.
Around 29,000 megawatts of thermal energy — which is sourced from coal, gas and nuclear plants — were missing from the grid Tuesday.
Texas has 24,000 megawatts of total installed wind capacity spread mostly across West Texas and the Gulf Coast, and over half of that was frozen up this past week.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas forecasts the state’s full inventory of turbines to generate around 6,200 megawatts of electricity during the month of February due to the season’s typically low winds. However, even though more than half of Texas’ wind resources were frozen up, the storm’s bluster caused the turbines that remained operational — mostly located in the Gulf Coast — to outperform seasonal forecasts. On Tuesday, for instance, the unfrozen turbines collectively produced up to 1,000 megawatts more energy than grid operators expected.
Nonetheless, the grid was in need of any juice the frozen turbines could have otherwise added.
"If you’re pointing to a few thousand megawatts of wind being short and ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of thermals are short — I don’t see how you can paint that kind of picture," said Josh Rhodes, a University of Texas research associate at the Energy Institute.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas hasn’t yet released information showing how the 29,000 megawatts of missing thermal energy breaks down between the three resources — coal, gas and nuclear.
But grid officials said during news conferences that most of this deficit was due to gas plants.
"It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system at large," Bill Magness, ERCOT CEO, said on Tuesday. "From getting the gas from the wellheads, through the pipes to generators and to consumers for heating natural gas. That really seems to be a lot of the issues from the plant that we're seeing become unavailable during the day today."
While freezing temperatures can hamper wind energy by freezing up turbine blades, natural gas plants can be affected in a multitude of ways. Gas wells can freeze up. Uninsulated pipelines can cause gasses with heavy carbon chains to liquify. A plant’s water intake or outtake pipes can freeze.
"All of those things can impact operations of any type of plant," said Bernadette Johnson, an energy economist at Enverus.
"We're seeing issues with resources across the board. We're seeing outages with gas plants, we're seeing outages with coal plants," Johnson said.
On Wednesday, the day after Abbott’s Fox News interview, the governor held a press conference in which he appeared to alter his messaging by saying "every source of power the state of Texas has access to has been compromised."
When asked to explain this shift, Abbott said that in over two dozen interviews he has "repeatedly talked about how every source of power that the state of Texas has, has been compromised."
Not once during his interview with Hannity did Abbott mention coal, gas or nuclear as reasons behind the outages and blackouts.
One reporter highlighted the disparity in his messaging and pushed the governor to explain the shift.
Reporter: So you’re now saying something totally different than what you said on Hannity?
Abbott: Not at all, not at all.
Reporter: That’s what you said.
Abbott: That’s not what I said.
Abbott said that the failure of the state’s renewable energy sources "thrust Texas into this situation where it was lacking power at a statewide basis."
Texas is a state with diverse energy sources. Grid officials have said multiple times that, on top of grid infrastructure being poorly designed to handle the week's freezing conditions, the drop in power supply is attributable to all energy sources. Although many wind turbines faltered under the conditions, wind energy as a whole outperformed normal expectations thanks to blustery weather.
Abbott walked back the comments he made on Hannity during a press conference the next day, denying that he singled out wind power as the culprit.
We rate this claim False.
Fox News, Hannity presses Gov. Abbott on ongoing Texas blackouts, Feb. 16, 2021
Austin American-Statesman, Fight over wind power rises up in Texas, April 5, 2019
Austin American-Statesman, Frozen wind turbines hamper Texas power output, state's electric grid operator says, Feb. 14, 2021
PolitiFact, Tucker Carlson falsely blames Green New Deal, wind energy for Texas power outage, Feb. 17, 2021
Austin American-Statesman, Is wind to blame for the Texas power outages? Fact-checking Republican statements, Feb. 18, 2021
Interview, University of Texas Research Associate Joshua Rhodes, Feb. 16, 2021
Interview, Enverus Energy Economist Bernadette Johnson, Feb. 16, 2021
Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Fuel Mix Report 2020, accessed Feb. 16, 2021
Electric Reliability Council of Texas, press conference, Feb. 14-16, 2021
Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Final Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy for the ERCOT Region (SARA) Winter 2020/2021, Nov. 5, 2020
CBS Austin, Gov. Abbott press conference, Feb. 17, 2021
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