With millions of Texans suffering without power for days now, in a record breaking deep freeze, Governor Greg Abbott is desperately looking for somebody to blame — anybody but the state government he leads. First he went after the leaders of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), managers of the state’s power grid. Then he went on national television and falsely blamed wind turbines.
Before diving in further, it’s worth noting that anytime severe weather happens there can be power losses, boiled water notices, or other loss of services. And, this is a particularly harsh episode of severe weather.
The current issue in Texas, however — and the reason that Abbott is on a mission to assign blame — is that power outages here have been so much worse than in other states hit by the same storm. Plus, Texas has insisted on running its own electric grid — primarily to avoid federal regulation. Although the overall issues of electricity generation and regulation are complex, the Houston Chronicle summed up the current catastrophe pretty well in one headline:
“Texas grid fails to weatherize, repeats mistake feds cited 10 years ago.”
This gets straight to the heart of why Governor Abbott is so anxious to find someone to blame. His anger bears some similarities to the times he has lashed out at the Austin City Council on police and homeless issues. Yes, some Council Members handed him a useful issue with their framing of the the police budget cuts, but Abbott transparently used it to divert attention from from his tragic failure in handling the coronavirus.
Diversion is the common denominator here. When Abbott chooses to angrily lash out at someone or some institution he is usually trying to divert attention from his own failures.
This time it’s harder for him to totally change the subject so he lashed out at the managers of ERCOT, trying to place the blame there for the entire, still very much in progress, disaster. ERCOT doubtlessly bears some responsibility, but they operate at the behest of Texas State government, of which Abbott is the top official. He also appoints the members of the Public Utility Commission who “regulate” ERCOT.
What is ERCOT and How Does It Work?
Here’s a little bit on how ERCOT operates. Texas is the only state with its own power grid, as noted earlier, owing largely to the desire of Texas leaders to avoid federal regulation as much as absolutely possible. The ERCOT grid covers virtually the entire state. Texas utilities must put the power they generate onto the ERCOT grid. For example Austin Energy has its own generation, but is required to put all the electricity it generates on the state/ERCOT grid. ERCOT then distributes electricity through almost the entire state. They can also order utilities to make cutbacks when usage is taxing the grid. That generally happens in the summer and the local utilities are usually able to manage without much disruption.
In the current severe cold, however, a lot of generation plants failed. They failed because many generation facilities, loosely under the regulation of ERCOT, did not have protections for severe cold weather, as is explored in more detail below. At the same time demand shot up because of the cold temperatures. So ERCOT ordered utilities to cut back usage far more than is usually the case. Four million Texans ended up without power during days of record setting cold — an ongoing situation.
So on Monday Abbott tried a play on words, “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours.” It is unclear how many Texans without power in the deep freeze found that funny — or even heard it. Abbott did add review and reform of ERCOT as an emergency item for the legislative session. We’ll see later if that is serious, but it might have been better to do it in any of the legislative sessions since he took office in 2015.
The Windmills Did It
None of Abbott’s comments or actions resulted in anyone’s power getting restored. The Governor stuck with blaming ERCOT for almost two days before pivoting to blame wind energy Tuesday night in an appearance on Fox News. Abbott told Fox host Sean Hannity, “Our wind and our solar got shut down. . . and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. . .It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.” The Governor also went on the political offensive, maintaining, “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,”
The facts don’t back Abbott up. Following are quotes and summaries from articles by the Houston Chronicle and Washington Post which document the real causes of the electric grid failure. Their narratives are buttressed by numerous accounts in publications around the nation.
The Houston Chronicle, in a story by James Osborne and Eric Dexheimer (formerly with the American-Statesman), reports: “Ten years ago, plunging temperatures forced rolling blackouts across Texas, leaving more than 3 million people without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas. Now, with a near identical scenario following another Texas cold snap, Texas power regulators are being forced to answer how the unusually cold temperatures forced so much of the state’s power generation offline when Texans were trying to keep warm.”
Continues the Chronicle, “To start, experts say, power generators and regulators failed to heed the lessons of 2011 — or for that matter, 1989.”
“A federal report that summer  recommended steps including installing heating elements around pipes and increasing the amount of reserve power available before storms, noting many of those same warnings were issued after similar blackouts 22 years earlier and had gone unheeded.”
The Chronicle added, “The outages are likely to turn into a political test for Abbott, who as governor is responsible for appointing the PUC, which has oversight over ERCOT.”
The Chronicle story appeared before Abbott started blaming wind turbines and the specter of a Green New Deal. The Washington Post, however, did an article focusing more on the causes of the power outages.That article, by Will Englund, was headlined:
“The Texas grid got crushed because its operators didn’t see the need to prepare for cold weather – Republicans blame frozen wind turbines, but the problem was much bigger than that.”
Englund pointed out, “Some turbines did in fact freeze — though Greenland and other northern outposts are able to keep theirs going through the winter.” The story goes on to explain that “wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.”
At another point in the article Englund acknowledged that producing power is harder in cold weather, but added, “Operators in Alaska, Canada, Maine, Norway and Siberia do it all the time.” He could have also added Iowa and Denmark. So while the freeze did shut down some wind turbines that was part of an overall Texas failure to prepare for cold weather, and the wind turbines that did fail were not the core of the problem.
For instance moisture in natural gas pipelines caused the lines to freeze, just as the cold weather caused electrical demand to skyrocket. The cold also slowed pumps and kept diesel engines from starting. This led to a cascade of power plants going offline. Thus, continues Englund, “at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.”
Also going out of service was the South Texas Nuclear Plant in Bay City, which as Englund explains, “went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.”
Englund, a Pulitzer Prize winner, also tried to get to the heart of the problem, “What has sent Texas reeling is not an engineering problem, nor is it the frozen wind turbines blamed by prominent Republicans. It is a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter. In the name of deregulation and free markets, critics say, Texas has created an electric grid that puts an emphasis on cheap prices over reliable service.”
The Houston Chronicle story made a similar point, summarizing the views of Rice University engineering professor Daniel Cohan thusly, “Under existing market rules, the incentive for investing in better protection against cold weather is unclear.”
Also unclear is whether Abbott or any other Texas leaders plan to address that issue during Abbott’s declared legislative emergency.
Like so many other instances, this one is very sad as well as revealing of how Republican politicians feel the need to keep their backers scared and angry. The four million Texans without power have to include millions of Republicans. Thus Abbott and other Republican leaders evidently feel they have to give them someone to be angry at and scared of while they shiver in their cold, dark homes — although the ones without power will have to catch the dogma from Fox and other right wing outlets on their mobile devices.
Additionally, CBS Austin reported that Abbott called this the winter Hurricane Harvey. The Governor has a point there, although it’s probably not the point he intended to make. The commonality between Harvey and the current situation is that climate change likely made both events much more severe.
One of the fundamental tenets of planning for climate change is that it is not sufficient to rely solely on learning from the past. As the Houston Chronicle article demonstrates, however, Governor Abbott and other Texas Republican leaders haven’t even learned from the past. And, they won’t acknowledge the threat that climate change poses for the future.
Meanwhile ERCOT has announced what it will take to get the power back on for all Texans: warmer weather.
Photo at top by Adela Mancias
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