The extreme weather that forced power outages from North Dakota to Texas on Tuesday triggered a bout of the usual finger-pointing about the causes. But it could also deliver a boost to President Joe Biden’s efforts to upgrade infrastructure, counter climate change and expand the reach of renewable energy.
As millions of Texans shivered in the dark, supporters of the fossil fuel industries turned their ire on the state’s massive — and frozen — wind farms, even as Republican Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged that the extreme cold had shut down all types of power plants, including those that burn coal. Data showed that the freeze hit the state’s natural gas power plants the hardest.
What most experts saw was the Texas grid’s vulnerability to harsh weather — and a warning that climate change-induced disasters could devastate the nation’s leading energy producer.
The resulting crisis could be a boon to Biden’s proposal to spend huge sums of money to harden the nation’s electric grid as it connects giant wind and solar power plants to cities and states thousands of miles away. That’s an essential step if the U.S. is to make a major turn toward relying on solar, wind and other renewable energy to keep the lights on.
“When supply doesn’t show up, legislative or regulatory intervention begins,” said Kevin Book, managing director at the consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners. “The reactivity to a supply shock is one of the few things you can rely on.”
Freezing temperatures sent energy demand soaring in Texas to levels that eclipsed even the hottest summer days. Grid operators there and across the Midwest implemented rolling blackouts to prevent further damage to the grid, but in Texas alone 4 million customers have been without power since Monday.
Investigations of the causes are just beginning, but data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s electric grid, showed that at least 30 gigawatts of power fueled by natural gas, coal and nuclear went off line Monday, along with 16 gigawatts of renewable power.
National Republicans — and those with national aspirations — seized on pictures of frozen wind turbines to hammer Washington’s green energy agenda, even though Texas operates a grid outside of federal oversight and has spent decades making its own energy decisions.
“If the last few days have proven anything, it’s that we need oil & gas, ”tweeted George P. Bush, who as Texas Land Commissioner oversees much of the state’s oil and gas production. “Relying solely on renewable energy would be catastrophic. Many of these sources have proven to be unreliable.”
“Texas is frozen solid as folks are left w/ no power to stay safe & warm,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) tweeted Tuesday. “This is a perfect example of the need for reliable energy sources like natural gas & coal.”
But the extreme cold shut down a large share of those fossil fuel sources, too. Natural gas wellheads froze, and coal and nuclear generators in Texas were thrown off line, as Abbott himself acknowledged.
In addition, the national debate about green energy versus fossil fuels is no longer what it was 10 or 20 years ago. The balance of power has shifted as the auto industry, Wall Street and even some fossil fuel companies line up behind renewables and move to shape the multibillion-dollar transition to cleaner energy, a shift they defend on economic grounds.
“Wind and solar and, increasingly, storage are the most cost-competitive options on the grid,” said Jeff Dennis, a managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of big power users and other businesses that advocates for clean energy. “There’s a real case to be made for rapidly scaling our investment in those technologies to improve both our reliability and our resilience.”
The shift has made the usual Washington energy blame-game less one-sided. Biden’s allies in and out of government spread the message that the Arctic blast showed the urgency of countering climate change and was another taste of the disasters the nation can expect from extreme weather.
“We need to think how our overall infrastructure can accommodate increasingly common uncommon events,” said Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.). “It’s tragic that so many people on the other side of the aisle are using it to bash renewables.”
Clean energy groups were quick to provide support for Democrats. The American Council on Renewable Energy, a clean energy business trade group, said specific regional conditions worsened the crisis in Texas: The state’s grid, though geographically large, is almost entirely cut off from the rest of the country, so it could not draw power from other regions. In contrast, parts of the Midwest that avoided Texas’ fate are members of regional power networks linked by high-voltage transmission lines.
ACORE said expanding those interregional power lines would make the grid more resilient, preventing future crises.
“It’s time for Congress to pass an ambitious infrastructure initiative aimed at expanding and upgrading America’s grid,” Greg Wetstone, ACORE’s CEO, said in a statement.
The Biden plan aims to green the economy and is likely to include money for additional transmission lines, weatherization, battery storage, burial of power lines and other improvements to the electrical grid.
“[The grid] really is the uber-infrastructure and we need to ensure that it is resilient,” said Melanie Kenderdine, a principal at the Energy Futures Initiative and former head of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis under President Barack Obama. “We need to think about undergrounding key critical electricity infrastructure. Expensive? Yes, but so was the entire state of Texas shutting down.”
Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT, which runs the state’s grid, said the extreme weather was “unprecedented” in the operator’s existence, but that as of Tuesday evening the operator had restored some power. Despite another storm in the forecast, slightly higher temperatures should allow more generators to come back online.
The White House, meanwhile, was avoiding getting drawn into the debate Tuesday.
The Biden administration for now is focusing on “ensuring that the millions of people across Texas who are impacted by the storm get the relief they need,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “Clearly as there are investments in the future forms of energy across the country they’ll need to plan for inclement weather, but I think that’s a discussion and conversation that’s a little bit down the road.”
Zack Colman and Ben Lefebvre contributed to this report.