Millions of Texans remain without power as the state experiences a massive failure brought on by a historic freeze and a power grid that — unlike the other 47 contiguous states — is separated from the rest of the country and is not under federal regulatory oversight. That prevents Texas from being able to borrow power from other states.
The crisis has turned into a political flashpoint in Texas about issues that are core to its economy, with some of the world’s largest energy companies headquartered there, and the environment, with Republican leaders in Texas insisting they don’t want to follow the lead of Democratic-led California and other states that have more broadly embraced renewable energy sources.
Early in the crisis, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s power grid, said that frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies had caused higher-than-normal power generation outages; since then, additional failures sharply worsened the outages. ERCOT officials later clarified that the problems with the natural gas system was primarily responsible for the distribution challenges.
But that clarification came too late for Abbott, who seized on the phrase “frozen wind turbines” in the original ERCOT statement, when he appeared on Fox News on Tuesday night and said that the failures indicate problems with adopting renewable energy sources.
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said on right-wing opinion host Sean Hannity’s program, condemning a proposal by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives that has not become law and has not advanced far in Congress. “It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas, as well as other states, to make sure that we will be able to heat our homes in the winter time and cool our homes in the summer time.”
But solar and wind energy make up just a fraction of Texas’ energy supply, particularly in the winter.
“We have a fossil fuel-dominated grid,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He said it is “disingenuous to blame the grid’s struggles” on renewable energy, which makes up a relatively small share of the state’s energy supply.
“It’s really a bigger failure of the natural gas system,” Webber said. “That’s the part that really struggled to keep up.”
He said a lack of winterization affected power supplies across the board in Texas: Pumps froze at a nuclear power plant. Coal piles and equipment froze. Some natural gas plants’ equipment froze and the supply fell too low. Wind turbines were stymied by ice on their blades. Solar panels were covered in snow.
“Wind performs just fine in many colder climates where they prepare for it,” Webber said.
Republicans like Abbott are “pointing to one unique tree in a forest, and missing the forest,” said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University. “It’s been a long list of what has gone wrong in this crisis, and really cascading failures on top of each other.”
“Planners aren’t expecting wind and solar to carry the lion’s share on the hottest hours of the summer or on the coldest hours of the winter,” Cohan said, pointing to Texas power grid managers’ planning documents, which show the state expecting to rely much more heavily on natural gas in the winter. Focusing on wind shortfalls rather than natural gas failures, he said, is “deeply misleading.”
Abbott’s comments drew sharp criticism from Texas Democrats who accused him of attempting to duck blame for the state’s failures.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was sharply critical of Abbott’s comments, saying on Twitter
: “You’re the governor of a state where millions don’t have power, where people are literally dying of exposure, and you go on Fox news to talk about… the Green New Deal? You are the governor. Your party has run Texas for 20 years. Accept responsibility & help us get out of this.”
“Governor Abbott failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess,” said Julián Castro
, the former San Antonio mayor and former Housing and Urban Development secretary.
“He neglected the state’s antiquated and deregulated electrical grid. Now 4.4 million Texans have no power in freezing conditions,” Castro said.
Many Republicans, though, were delivering a message similar to Abbott’s, blaming renewable energy despite its minimal role in the colossal crisis facing the nation’s second-most populous state.
“This is what happens when you force the grid to rely in part on wind as a power source. When weather conditions get bad as they did this week, intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it,” Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw said in a Twitter thread
discussing the outages, in which he listed wind failures as the top factor.
“The Green New Deal was just proven unsustainable as renewables are clearly unreliable,” tweeted Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert.
Other Republicans resisted calls for regulatory intervention to prevent a similar disaster from happening again, as global warming helps lead to increases in extreme weather.
Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and former President Donald Trump’s energy secretary, said the state’s residents would be willing to endure blackouts to keep federal regulators from new oversight of the Texas grid.
“Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” Perry is quoted as saying “partly rhetorically” in a blog post on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s website. “Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically.”
For his part, Abbott has called for reforms of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the non-profit that manages majority of the state’s power grid making it an emergency issue for the 2021 Texas state legislative session. He said Tuesday that it has “been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” and in local interviews has called on ERCOT’s leadership to resign.
Meanwhile, Texas Republicans were facing criticism for their comments mocking California, which faced a similar energy crisis last summer.
“This is what happens when the Democrats are left in charge. Why California’s liberal climate policies are causing electricity blackouts,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweeted in August 2020.
“California’s politicians did this, not the heat,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted in September.
“Biden/Harris/AOC want to make CA’s failed energy policy the standard nationwide,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted in August. “Hope you don’t like air conditioning!”
Cruz, for his part, didn’t attempt to defend his old tweets.
“I got no defense,” he tweeted
, citing an article in The Hill about Texas lawmakers’ tweets mocking California resurfacing amid their own state’s crisis. “A blizzard strikes Texas & our state shuts down. Not good.”
Some Democrats pointed to those tweets and said Texas Republicans should support other states when they face crises.
“I hope this will teach Texas politicians to stop dunking on other states when they are going through disasters,” tweeted Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat. “All Americans deserve help and empathy from fellow Americans no matter if it is a blue or red state.”