Texas is the energy capital of America, producing more power from oil, gas, and wind each year than any other state in the union. Yet on Tuesday morning, 4 million of its residents woke up without electricity, amid a historic polar vortex that left Dallas colder than Anchorage.
This combination of near-zero temperatures and widespread power failures killed at least eight Texans, grounded flights at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, threatened to spoil thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine — and made the Texas Republican Party rue the day that it decided to give eco-socialism a chance.
Or so much conservative commentary on the disaster would suggest.
Tucker Carlson is a windbag.
On Monday night, the most-watched anchor on America’s most-watched cable news channel informed his audience that the reason Texas is suffering blackouts this week is because the state’s Republican governor quietly implemented Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s climate agenda. Or, in Tucker Carlson’s own words:
The Green New Deal has come, believe it or not, to the state of Texas. How’s it working out so far?
… Fifteen years ago, there were virtually no wind farms in Texas. Last year, roughly a quarter of all electricity generated in the state came from wind. Local politicians were pleased by this. They bragged about it like there was something virtuous about destroying the landscape and degrading the power grid. Just last week, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott proudly accepted something called the Wind Leadership Award, given with gratitude by Tri Global Energy, a company getting rich from green energy.
So it was all working great until the day it got cold outside. The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.
Carlson went on to argue that only coastal elites who’ve never had to live near a wind power plant support the technology; that wind turbines are actually bad for the environment; and that green-energy enthusiasts like Cory Booker “couldn’t fix your ice-maker, much less understand your wind farm” — after all, just look what politicians like him “have done to our cities.”
Not a single major American city is prettier or more functional than it was in 1950. The parks that previous generations so lovingly built are filled with vagrants and junkies. The monuments they constructed are covered with spray paint. Public transportation is a disgrace. It’s filthy, the streets are dangerous. Are you really surprised that Cory Booker was once the mayor of Newark, New Jersey? You shouldn’t be.
This last bit is peripheral to the substance of Carlson’s analysis of the Texas power outages, but illustrative of its character. Tucker Carlson was born in San Francisco, hosts a television show in Washington, D.C., and has spent plenty of time in New York City. He is surely aware that Central Park is not a dystopian hellscape dominated by “vagrants,” that heroin addiction is not a pathology peculiar to urban America, and that Newark’s economic decline did not begin with Cory Booker’s election in 2006. Which is to say, he knows that he is telling demagogic lies that affirm the chauvinism of the kind of white, conservative, rural-dwelling American who might mistake Taxi Driver for a documentary about Bill de Blasio’s NYC.
If Carlson’s digs at worthless (Black) politicians and the cities they’ve left to rot are ancillary to his monologue’s thesis, they nevertheless serve a clear purpose: to associate a policy cause with little inherent appeal to the GOP’s reactionary white base (i.e., opposition to wind power) with the complex of cultural resentments that fuel their partisanship.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, meanwhile, fed a somewhat less demagogic version of the same anti-wind narrative to the GOP’s country-club contingent, explaining that the Texas blackouts were a product of the state’s “growing reliance on wind and solar, which can’t provide power 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and therefore, that the “Biden Administration’s plan to banish fossil fuels is a greater existential threat to Americans than climate change.”
This pro-pollution agitprop gained such currency on the right, Greg Abbott eventually began casting his own governing failure as a cautionary tale about the hazards of trusting the far left with power.
Carlson, for his part, continued his “just say no to windmills” campaign Tuesday night.
These accounts may be useful to fossil-fuel firms hoping to fend off further public investment in their clean competitors. But they have less to offer anyone who wishes to understand why much of Texas has gone dark.
Some wind turbines in the state have indeed frozen. But so have coal piles and natural gas pipelines. And shortfalls in carbon energy played a much larger role in bringing about the present crisis than inadequate wind power generation did. Texas only derives 10 percent of its electricity from wind sources during the winter. The state’s nonprofit utility, Electric Reliability Council of Texas, had such low expectations for how much electricity wind would produce at this time of year, the state’s turbines actually outperformed projections on Monday. If all the polar vortex had done was to freeze a few wind farms, there would be no energy crisis in Texas right now.
What actually caused the Texas power outages.
At the most basic level, Texas’s electrical grid buckled because it was not built to withstand weather conditions as extreme as those of the past week. The Arctic air that descended on the U.S. this month didn’t just bring ice storms to Texas, but also record-low temperatures throughout a large swath of North America. This drove up demand for the Lone Star State’s fossil fuels — both within the state and beyond its borders — while abruptly shrinking its supply.
Ordinarily, electricity demand in Texas peaks during the summer months, when millions of air conditioners do battle with 100-degree heat. For this reason, when power plants need to close for maintenance, they typically do so during the winter. But a polar vortex can stress an electric grid even more than a heat wave: Keeping your living room at 70 degrees on a 100-degree day requires enough power to maintain a 30-degree difference with the temperature outside; making that room similarly temperate at DFW International Airport early Tuesday morning would have required maintaining a 72-degree departure from natural conditions. This sort of math propelled energy demand a few gigawatts higher than ERCOT had bargained for. Which would have been a problem but not a catastrophe — if the wintry weather had not simultaneously knocked 24 gigawatts worth of gas and coal plants out of commission.
These plants shuttered for the same reason that Texas’s wind turbines froze: They were not designed to weather near-zero temperatures. Wind power does have some genuine limitations, but an inability to operate in cold weather is not one of them (if Antarctica isn’t too cold to host functioning wind power plants, Houston isn’t either). By the same token, gas pipelines and plants in Texas are not nearly as insulated as those in northern areas. As a result, the former froze, forcing state officials to ration scarce natural gas between power plants and the consumers, businesses, and hospitals that directly burn the fuel for heat. Even when gas plants were able to secure sufficient fuel, some proved too poorly insulated for workers to safely operate.
These design problems were further exacerbated by low levels of investment in the state’s power infrastructure. Texas’s electricity system is less regulated and more market-driven than those in most other states, an arrangement that forces power generators to compete ruthlessly on price. That provides a significant benefit to consumers, especially low-income ones, who devote a higher percentage of their paychecks to keeping the lights on. But it also takes a toll on system capacity and resilience: When competition forces generators to supply electricity at (or below) the current cost of production, they have little revenue to invest in capital improvements or maintenance. Ed Hirs, an energy fellow in the Department of Economics at the University of Houston, believes that this shortfall of investment was central to the crisis, telling the Houston Chronicle, “It’s like not taking care of your car. If you don’t change the oil and tires, you can’t expect your car to be ready to evacuate, let alone get you to work.”
One other idiosyncratic feature of Texas’s approach to electricity provision may have contributed to the crisis. Unlike most states, Texas’s electric grid isn’t integrated into those of its neighbors, which prevents it from drawing on others’ reserves in an emergency. While this is surely imprudent, it’s not clear how much help Texas’s neighbors would have been willing to provide in this particular instance, given that the entire region was struggling to meet their own historic surges in electricity demand.
In sum, Texas’s grid did not fail because it prioritized effete, “Chinese” wind power over rugged, all-American gas. It failed because the state prioritized low electricity prices over the resiliency of its grid, especially against low-probability winter weather events. To the extent that this is a cautionary tale about any ideology, it is not one about eco-socialism, but about free-market conservatism (which makes sense since, you know, Texas is governed by conservatives). That said, it might be a mistake to interpret this as an indictment of any ideology. It probably isn’t economically or technically possible to design an electric grid that is robust during any and all low-probability natural disasters. Fully winterizing every piece of Texas’s power infrastructure would have cost a lot of money, and the burden of that cost would have fallen on consumers. In an actually socialistic Texas — which was capable of organizing public investment on a massive scale and expropriating the wealth of oil billionaires — there might not be any hard trade-off between resilience and affordability. Precisely how to strike the balance between these two goods is something about which reasonable people can disagree. (Given that a winter storm nearly overwhelmed Texas’s grid a decade ago and that the current disaster has pushed power prices up 10,000 percent above baseline, I’m rather skeptical that Texas got the balance right.)
The real Green New Deal has never been tried.
The (alleged) deficiencies of renewable energy did not crash Texas’s electric grid. But the crisis in the Lone Star State does spotlight one genuine hazard of a green transition. On the one hand, mitigating climate change requires increasing Americans’ dependence on their electricity grids; we need people to start heating their homes and powering their cars with (low-carbon) electricity instead of directly burning fossil fuels. On the other hand, climate change is going to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events that threaten the stability of those grids. Subsidies for green technology didn’t cause Texas’s power outages, but for Texans who bought subsidized electric vehicles, such policies may have made the blackouts more onerous.
There is some academic controversy about whether climate change is implicated in polar vortex disruptions like the one that froze Texas this week. But there is little doubt that planetary warming is making other species of meteorological disruption more commonplace. Progressives need clear answers about how a green transition can make America’s electric grids more robust against the coming storms. The Week’s Ryan Cooper, drawing on the insights of climate wonk Dave Roberts, sketches out what such an answer might look like. Specifically, Cooper argues that America can achieve electricity resilience by exploiting its vast size and climate diversity through a nationally integrated power grid:
[D]uring the early morning dark in California, the sun is shining in states to the east, and vice versa at night. Or when the wind is calm in Arkansas, it probably is still blowing in Wyoming. Energy storage can be added to the grid with battery banks, or by using some of the capacity of electric cars, or with pumped hydropower facilities, or many other techniques. Existing long-distance transmission lines can be upgraded with real-time weather data (a slight breeze increases the transmission capacity of a power line by over 40 percent, because it will stay cooler), and the existing fragmented grid can be hooked together with efficient new high-voltage direct current lines. That allows for much more efficient use and transmission of power, and easy compensation if one particular region gets hammered with bad weather.
The Green New Deal didn’t plunge Texas into darkness. But it could prevent other states from suffering similar calamities — if Tucker Carlson doesn’t stop us from seeing the light.