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Fact check: The causes for Texas’ blackout go well beyond wind turbines

During a historic cold snap that has left millions of Texans without electricity, water, and heat for days, claims that the state’s use of renewable energy sources, specifically wind energy, are to blame have circulated on television and social media. These claims are misleading, as they shift blame for the crisis away from what appears, so far, to be the root cause: record cold temperatures that affected generation and transportation across all fuel types (including, but not limited to, wind energy), combined with the inability of the state’s independent and isolated electricity grid (operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT) to source supplies from elsewhere.

A plastic bag belonging to a person taking shelter at a Salvation Army facility is seen after winter weather caused electricity blackouts in Plano, Texas, U.S. February 18, 2021. REUTERS/Shelby Tauber NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES.

Public figures who amplified this narrative include Tucker Carlson, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and U.S. House member Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia.

On Feb. 14, Carlson began telling his viewers that “a reckless reliance on windmills is the cause of this disaster,” claiming that “the windmills froze, so the power grid failed” (here). The following day, Abbott said in an interview that the crisis in Texas “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America” (here).

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, freshman Representative Greene tweeted, “If passed, the Green New Deal will literally kill people. Millions of people have suffered in TX with #rollingblackouts & some died bc of reliance on ‘green’ energy. Increasing the use & banning the export of clean & plentiful reliabale (sic) natural gas for electricity is saving TX” (here).

Examples of social media posts making similar claims about the power outages can be found here , here and here .

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN TEXAS?

A brutal winter storm that has left millions without power along the U.S. Gulf Coast and caused power prices to surge has highlighted the differences between Texas’s independent power grid and the rest of the United States (here).

Residents in over 100 counties in Texas have been told to boil their drinking water as treatment plants continue to suffer from energy blackouts, officials said. Upward of 12 million people in the state -- the country’s second largest with a population of roughly 29 million -- have either have no drinking water on tap in their homes or have drinking water available only intermittently (here).

As of Feb. 17, energy was out for 2.7 million households, officials said. With freezing temperatures expected through the weekend, getting the lights back on will be a slow process, as the state has lost 40% of its generating capacity, with natural gas wells and pipelines, along with wind turbines, frozen shut.

RENEWABLES IN TEXAS

It is true that the cold has forced many kinds of energy generation offline, including wind turbines that have frozen (here).

Wind generates 20% of total electricity in Texas, where natural gas supplies 47.4%, coal supplies 20.3% and solar supplies 1.1% (here).

As USA Today reported here , Texas has emerged in recent years as not just a national but a global leader in building renewable energy. Leading energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie called the state “center of the global corporate renewable energy market” (here).

In November 2020, the Chicago Tribune reported here that the majority of proposed projects in ERCOT’s pipeline are for solar, wind and storage.

THE TEXAS POWER GRID

Texas is the only state in the continental United States that runs a stand-alone electricity grid (here).

The problem? It means during critical weather events like the storm, most of Texas cannot connect to other grids, which are connected and draw from each other when needed. Overall, around 4.4 million customers were without power.

The grid, operated by ERCOT, is not subject to federal oversight and is largely dependent on its own resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Texas’ deregulated energy market gives little financial incentives for operators to prepare for the rare bout of intensely cold weather, critics have said for years.

Natural gas wells and pipelines in Texas, the country’s biggest energy-producing state, do not undergo the winterization of those farther north - resulting in many being knocked offline by the prolonged freezing weather (here).

The storm has knocked about a third of the state’s generating capacity offline. Contrary to comments made by Marjorie Taylor Greene and others, the power grid in Texas relies heavily on natural gas, responsible for nearly half the electricity generated (here).

In an official statement on Feb. 15, ERCOT said that “extreme weather conditions caused many generating units – across fuel types – to trip offline and become unavailable” (here).

As reported here by the Texas Tribune on Feb. 16, ERCOT said that thermal sources, such as coal, gas and nuclear, lost nearly twice as much power due to the cold than renewable energy sources, which contributed to just 13% of the power outages (here).

As temperatures drop to record lows, a phenomenon known as “freeze-off” is hitting parts of Texas hard, according to a report from The Verge (here). Due to natural gas wells and pipes that are ill-equipped for cold weather, “liquid inside wells, pipes, and valves froze solid.”

An article by the Washington Post further explaining the relationship between Texas’s independent power grid and its ongoing electricity woes and the inaccuracy of blaming wind turbines for this mishap can be found here .

WHAT DO EXPERTS SAY?

In a statement provided to Reuters via email, Ed Crooks, vice chairman of Wood Mackenzie’s Americas division (here), said, “The crisis in Texas was not caused by the state’s renewable energy industry.  The largest loss of generation came from gas-fired power plants, with the drop-off from wind farms a long way behind.”

He explained, however, that “the loss of power has been a warning of the issues that will be raised as the proportion of renewable generation on the grid rises.” Crooks said that businesses and policymakers who are managing the transition to green energy must pay careful attention to the kinds of catastrophic risks that Texas is experiencing by building resilient generation, transmission and distribution equipment.

In a statement to Reuters via email, Paul Goydan, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group who leads the firm’s energy practice in North America, said that there “were extended power outages because large portions of the U.S. natural gas supply were taken offline due to weather, and generation sources of all types froze from the extreme cold.”

Goydan said he expected “discussions of mandatory weatherization,” followed by “questions around natural gas storage, liquid natural gas export in times of crisis, and overall energy system resiliency” to take place as Texas plans for its future in energy.

On Feb. 16, federal regulators said they would open an inquiry into power outages in Texas and the Midwest due to extreme cold weather (here). The same day, Governor Abbott called for reform of ERCOT after it received widespread criticism for not preparing for the extreme weather.

CAN RENEWABLES WORK IN COLD WEATHER?

Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, reportedly told Newsweek that in Northern Europe, “wind power operates very reliably in even colder temperatures, including the upper Arctic regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.” (here)

More can be read on adapting renewable energy forms to cold weather here , here , and here .

Crucially, the continued use and investment of renewable energy can help slow the effects of climate change, which leads to more extreme weather patterns.

A recent Reuters fact check of social media posts claiming to show “a helicopter, using fossil fuels, spraying de-icer, made with fossil fuels, to de-ice a wind turbine” in Texas is available here .

VERDICT

Misleading. The use of wind turbines in Texas does not appear to be the primary cause of statewide power outages amid historic cold weather. The state’s woes mainly stem from issues surrounding its independent power grid. The cold weather affected all fuel types, not just renewables.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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