On the weekend of 13/14 February, a major winter weather system characterised by extreme cold spread across much of the central United States, disrupting energy systems and causing serious health and safety issues, particularly in Texas. At the same time that the cold weather increased energy demand, mainly via the mass switching on of supplementary heating, it also affected energy supply, causing intense and widespread energy market disruptions. Notably, electricity deliveries were disrupted in the parts of Texas served by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) as a result of various issues related to plant operations.
Natural gas wells in the region were affected by freezing temperatures that disrupted production, and pipeline compressors lost power, reducing deliveries. Refineries in the area halted production. Customers across Texas experienced widespread electric service outages, especially within areas managed by ERCOT, which manages the supply and distribution of electric power to 26 million customers in Texas, covering about 75% of the state’s territory and 90% of its electrical load.
EIA’s Hourly Electric Grid Monitor shows that electricity net generation fell below ERCOT’s day-ahead forecast demand shortly after midnight on 15 February, and that trend persisted until 18 February. The mismatch between demand and day-ahead forecast demand quickly grew to at least 30 GW on 15 February15 before eventually narrowing to slightly less than 20 GW by 17 February.
Natural gas is the largest source of power generation in ERCOT, providing for more than 40 GWof supply during peak periods. Grid Monitor data show that natural gas-fired power generation fell sharply once ERCOT began implementing rotating outages at midnight on 15 February. Output from coal-fired plants, a nuclear facility, and wind farms all fell near midnight on 15 February and remained at the lower level.
ERCOT resorted to Twitter to communicate with its customers, posting on 19 February “operations have returned to normal, and we are no longer asking for energy conservation. Thanks for helping the grid during this very difficult time.”
It is recognised that the state’s widespread electricity failure was largely caused by freezing natural gas pipelines, but that didn’t stop advocates for fossil fuels from trying to shift blame to renewables. “Green energy failure” read the banner on the bottom of the screen of Fox News stories about power outages. Social media posts mocked renewable energy as “unreliables.” A Wall Street Journal editorial called for more reliance on coal to help endure frigid temperatures. Some politicians and analysts spread disinformation to advance their defence of fossil fuels.
The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, took to television to start placing blame.
His main target was renewable energy, suggesting that the system-wide collapse was caused by the failure of wind and solar power. “It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure we will be able to heat our homes in the winter times and cool our homes in the summer times,” he said, speaking on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. In fact, wind generation makes up just 7% or so of the state’s overall mix of power generation at this time of year. Other figures, chiefly prominent conservatives, quickly took up the theme, re-igniting a long-running campaign to claim that fossil fuels are too valuable a resource to give up. Ironically, it is the burning of fossil fuels that helps to drive the phenomenon of increasingly dangerous hurricanes and other storms, as well as unusual weather patterns.
The politicisation of the cold weather gripping huge swathes of the country is playing out as president Biden has made combating climate change a key tenet of his administration. With a sweeping set of executive orders in his initial days in office, Mr Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline and issued a moratorium on drilling for fossil fuels on federal land, among other things.
But the question of long term system has also been raised, and is a legitimate one. “Building resilient and sustainable infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and a changing climate will play an integral role in … meeting the president’s goal of reaching a net zero emissions future by 2050,” said Vedant Patel, a White House assistant press secretary.
State Representative Brandon Woodard of Kansas commented that these events should serve as a wake-up call for lawmakers to act. “This is why we have to have the conversations about being resilient to address changing patterns in the climate,” he said. “I don’t think this is the last time we’ll see rolling blackouts.”
On 23 February ERCOT notified the Public Utility Commission of Texas that four (as yet unnamed) unaffiliated Board members, including the chair, have resigned their positions, and that one unaffiliated director candidate, Craig S Ivey, has been withdrawn from the approval process. Formal resignations will take place after the ERCOT directors of the Board meeting, 24 February. ERCOT’s statement said “We look forward to working with the Texas Legislature, and we thank the outgoing Board Members for their service.”