Texas was hit by a deadly winter storm this week that brought historic snowfalls and freezing temperatures that battered its power grid, leaving millions of people shivering in the darkness. Around 60 percent of homes in the state rely on electricity for heating and the extreme weather conditions led to a surge in demand that crippled the power grid, resulting in 4.3 million people losing power on February 16.
Three million people were still in the dark late on Tuesday night as the conditions turned into rain and freezing rain. The blame game is now well and truly underway with criticism leveled at different fuel sources. The reality of the situation is that both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources were impacted by the conditions. For example, wind turbines were heavily criticized as some were shut down in the western part of the state by icing, though those losses were partially offset by wind farms elsewhere. Wind power itself is not to blame as experts have said that turbines in Texas were not prepared for operating in cold conditions as they were not equipped with heating elements or treated with antifreeze.
Fossil fuel sources also suffered setbacks. Both natural gas and coal-fired power plants require water to operate and the freezing conditons saw some of them go offline as well. Ironically others also ceased operating after losing access to the electricity they needed to remain up and running. Nuclear power stations are also reliant on water and at least one unit was reportedly shut down in the south of Texas due to the freezing conditions. The country’s largest oil refinery, Port Arthur, also ceased operating on Monday due to the unprecedented weather.
An analysis of ERCOT (the Texas grid operator) data by Joshua D. Rhodes shows where Texas gets its energy from. The highest share came from natural gas in 2020 at 46 percent while wind accounted for nearly a quarter at 23 percent, quite a rise on 8 percent a decade ago. The remaining share comes from coal (18 percent), nuclear (11 percent) and solar (2 percent). If anything, the storm has shown that the entire system in Texas is to blame rather than one particular energy source. To make matters worse, Texas operates its own independent grid, unlike other states. This means that it cannot export energy to states in favorable times while it cannot import electricity to compensate for losses during extreme situations.