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Deep Freeze in Texas Highlights Challenges to Renewables, Electric Infrastructure

  • Unusual winter storm in Texas prompts blame game as strain on electric grid causes rolling blackouts
  • Oil and gas advocates point to frozen wind turbines and accuse renewables of not being reliable enough in a crisis
  • Others say the fossil fuel industry is also not immune from weather-related problems, and that a diversified grid is essential

An unusual winter storm in Texas is stressing the state’s power grid and reinvigorating a debate over renewable energy and the nation’s electric infrastructure.

The recent combination of low temperatures, freezing rain, sleet, and snow resulted in rolling blackouts in the state, as the grid struggled to keep up with consumer demand. The grid operator said the problem was largely due to limited natural gas supplies available to generating units as well as frozen turbines knocking out about half of Texas’s wind power capacity.

The crisis has led to a round of political sparring on energy policy, with several conservatives saying the wind turbine malfunctions illustrate the unreliability of renewable energy compared to fossil fuels. Some opinion pieces have followed this same line, saying the ability to draw on a consistent source of power is essential during severe weather events.

Others have suggested that oil and gas also performed poorly during the storm, and were in fact responsible for the bulk of the power outages. Natural gas sources in particular were under excessive demand, as they were being called upon to provide both heat and power. Fossil fuel plants have sometimes been unable to operate in frigid temperatures if they were designed for warmer climes.

The storm has been described as an unusual event for the normally temperate Texas, with the grid not suited to meet the pressure of the wintry mix. A piece in TechCrunch says the situation showcases how the nation’s overall electric grid is vulnerable to severe weather events, with a need for strategies such as pairing residential solar capacity with battery storage as way to provide backup during unusual situations.

Wind power accounts for 23 percent of energy production in Texas, second only to natural gas. Turbines can produce as much as 60 percent of the state’s power, but lower production is assumed during the winter.

Turbines in areas with more regular cold weather typically include technology to ensure that normal operations continue after winter storms. These include water-resistant coatings to reduce moisture buildup and algorithms that analyze weather data to determine when winter storms are likely and start up heating elements to minimize ice accumulation.

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