In the early hours of Monday February 15 2021, the US state of Texas suddenly became two things it had never been before. First, it became a winter electricity peak jurisdiction. In every year of the state’s electrical history following the widespread adoption of air conditioning, Texas was a summer peak jurisdiction. The electric grid was planned around providing enough AC to fend off the summer heat. The second thing Texas became was North America’s single largest electric heating jurisdiction, by far (up to then Quebec was the reigning champion in that department).
These two things were the same thing. Over five million of Texas’s 9 million households heat with electricity—or rather, don’t heat with natural gas. Literally overnight, as temperatures plummeted below minus-15°C through the state, these 5 million “electric heat” households collectively became urgently in need of 30,000 to 40,000 megawatts of heat just to prevent indoor plumbing from freezing. Everybody turned on their kitchen stove, just for the heat. Those 5 million households, many of them suddenly using up to 5 kilowatts each, collectively became a giant load centre.
That was the biggest energy demand spike in the state’s history, suddenly channelled through the electricity system, and it almost brought down the entire grid. At just the moment demand spiked, supply was failing all over the state. Texas is a natural gas grid: gas is the predominant generation fuel. There are 122,000 gas wells in the state, and they are the interface between Texas’s gas storage system—a.k.a. Mother Earth—and demand centres. Mother Earth only stores the gas, she doesn’t take the water out of it. Humans have to do that. For most of Texas’s history as a modern jurisdiction that hasn’t been a huge problem.
But with outdoor temperatures hitting minus-20, well heads froze off. Gas couldn’t get out of the earth and into the network of pipes. A large part of the electricity supply system was suddenly crippled, and spiking demand literally slammed the brakes on the generators that were still running. Those generators collectively decelerated, and this slowed grid frequency to the point—59.5 cycles per second—that strikes fear into the hearts of grid operators. If it goes below that point, there’s Hell to pay.
To avert the complete collapse of the grid, the state grid operator, ERCOT (the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) implemented rolling blackouts—sequentially cutting off then re-energizing geographic sectors through the grid. This likely saved Texas from complete catastrophe.
But the cold snap lasted four days straight. Those 5 million households experienced the same level of demand they reached in the early hours of Feb 15—30,000 to 40,000 MW, through every minute of those 96 hours.
That demand was not met, of course, at least not the entire time. That’s why this was such a disaster. At the beginning of each of the rolling blackouts each of those households would have been losing heat at the rate of 5 kilowatts, that rate slowing as each household’s inside temperature got closer to the outside temperature of minus-15. I can only imagine was that was like. You want to know why people poisoned themselves with carbon monoxide burning barbecues inside for heat? Sit in a deep freezer for five minutes and you’ll understand.
Watching this tragedy unfold from my warm and cheery home in minus-fifteen Ottawa, Canada, I could only shake my head in amazement. Cold snaps are normal in Ottawa winters. But minus-fifteen is still cold. Every time I go to bed during a cold snap I pray there isn’t some massive failure in my heat system (gas-fired). A general failure in the gas delivery system would put people in this part of the world into a crisis that would become lethal in mere hours.
While Texans froze, a PR machine elsewhere in the country went into motion. The Texas crisis wasn’t three days old before Google searches on “texas blackout renewable energy” returned page after page after page of headlines saying “No, The Power Crisis In Texas Wasn’t Caused By Renewables” (NPR) and criticising Texas governor Greg Abbott for telling Fox that wind and solar “were collectively more than 10 percent of [Texas’s] power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”
Somehow Abbot’s statement to Fox was turned into another fact check moment, and this fact was proclaimed wrong by numerous media. But is it possible that what Abbott was getting at was that Texas has spent the past two decades and US$60 billion building the biggest wind power fleet in America, 29,000 megawatts of capacity connected with more than 5,000 kilometers of dedicated transmission, and that at the moment of the greatest energy demand in the state’s history and in a life-and-death crisis that 29,000 MW fleet was actually producing 600 MW (see the plot), 2 percent of its capacity?
That was in the evening of Monday February 15, about the time that all these media were gearing up to provide massive free advertising support to their favourite energy source, and those 5 million electrically (i.e., not gas) heated Texas households were plunging to sub-zero indoor temperatures.
Texas’s 29,000 MW of wind capacity, producing 2 percent of nameplate before spiking 4,000 MW then plummeting 4,000 a day later, was useless to those households.
There was nothing at all wrong with Abbott’s statement. It was the media fact checkers who got it wrong. Yes, thermal generation failed massively. Yes, it was fossil failure, mostly in the gas fleet, that caused the blackouts. But—most gas did not fail. Look at the gas line in the plot—gas dropped beginning at midnight on the 15th, but it dropped to about 17,000 MW. That’s why ERCOT was able to avert total disaster with rolling blackouts.
But wind did fail, nearly totally. Those 29,000 MW of wind turbines costing $60 billion that simply didn’t show up during the greatest energy shortage in Texas history, they’re fair game for criticism. I have yet to hear anybody credibly explain how that $60 billion was money well spent. Each megawatt of wind generation that showed up on Monday evening—Texans, and taxpayers all across America, paid $100 million for it. That’s money not spent on freeze protection at gas wellheads. Given that residential plumbing froze and burst and there’s now a slow motion water damage crisis in who-knows-how-many Texas homes that will drag on for months and cost hundreds of billions to fix, I’d say most Texans would agree they didn’t get their money’s worth from that investment in wind.
A short time after power was fully restored across the state, Abbott relaxed Covid restrictions. He was excoriated for it. I think he was being kind to his citizens. Covid restrictions went out the window, along with heat, during the blackouts. Try physical distancing when it’s below zero inside your home. You need other people’s heat, literally. Once the crisis was over, Abbott was supposed to tell people “stay shivering inside your water damaged home”?