“The Power’s Back On”: From Minnesota to Texas’s Biggest Energy Emergency Ever
I never imagined a day in 2021 would top anything I encountered in the year before. Unfortunately, after experiencing only five hours of electricity through 30-plus hours of freezing temperatures in Texas from Monday to Tuesday, I stand corrected.
My girlfriend and I moved from Minnesota to Texas in early February. As it turns out, this was horrible timing. Two weeks after arriving in the Lone Star State, on Sunday, Feb. 14, Texas went through one of the snowiest and coldest days in state history. Snowfall accumulated from 4 to 10 inches from the Mexico border to northern Texas, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area would later experience its coldest day in 75 years of -2 degrees.
This may sound like normal winter conditions for Minnesotans, but Texas simply wasn’t built to withstand these freezing temperatures — and especially not the electrical grid.
On Monday morning, I woke up at 4 a.m. in my apartment in northern Texas to discover that the power had gone out. Thinking it would last for an hour at the most, I bundled up and went back to sleep.
I was wrong.
Little did I know, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) issued rolling blackouts early that morning to maintain the integrity of the grid due to power facilities falling offline from extreme weather. Over 45,000 megawatts of electricity capacity tripped offline at one point on the electrical grid — more than 22 percent of total capacity in Texas.
Out of the capacity that tripped offline, about 15,000 megawatts belonged to wind energy. Freezing temperatures led to wind turbines not being able to generate electricity, much like the 2019 Polar Vortex event in Minnesota that froze wind turbines across the state and prevented them from producing electricity for over 15 hours.
The turbines that didn’t trip offline were hardly any help, either. At one point on Monday, wind and solar produced a combined 1.5 percent of total generation in Texas (wind energy had a capacity factor of 2 percent, while solar was at zero), meaning natural gas, coal, nuclear, and hydro energy sources produced over 98 percent of the state’s electricity demand.
While natural gas pipelines also froze overnight, resulting in nearly 30 gigawatts of natural gas capacity tripping offline, it was still the largest energy provider in the state as the graph below shows. Had it not been for fuel-based energy sources like natural gas, coal, and nuclear, Texas would have been completely black.
With the state’s two largest sources of electricity — wind and natural gas — experiencing difficulties because of cold weather, it was nearly impossible to restore power in a timely manner to the state’s grid and the millions of people who went without power for hours at a time.
I just happened to be one of these millions.
Poor Grid Conditions
Unfortunately for my apartment, the power outage was not the result of rolling blackouts. Oncor, the transmission authority in our territory, notified customers that the cause of extended power outages lasting longer than two hours was not from rotating blackouts but “poor grid conditions” that prevented Oncor from restoring power to many of its customers.
After waiting several hours, it became clear that the power was not coming back anytime soon.
Not being able to cook breakfast, my girlfriend and I left to seek refuge in our car where we could at least get some warmth. We drove around looking for open restaurants to get some food, but almost every store was closed because of poor road conditions. By a stroke of luck, we happened to stroll by a taco shop that made breakfast tacos and burritos (Fuzzy’s Tacos).
This was the last time we ate anything other than soup, chips, and granola bars that day.
The power would not come back on in our apartment until 1 p.m., a full nine hours later and after the temperature in our apartment dipped below 50 degrees. After heating our apartment back up to 65 degrees, the power went out again around 5:30 p.m. “This time,” I thought, “it HAS to be a rotating blackout.” Around two hours later I realized I was wrong again, and we went back out to our car to get some warmth.
With restaurants still being closed, our only place of refuge was Target, where we killed a couple of hours. Heading back to our apartment, the entire city looked like a ghost town. I have never seen anywhere in the Dallas-Fort Worth area look so deserted. Streetlights were out completely, and houses and businesses were pitch black – including gas stations.
We were truly in a state of emergency.
A Long, Powerless Night
We arrived back at our apartment at 8 p.m. We would go on to miss dinner sitting in our car and waiting for another four and a half hours before our lights came back on.
Having fallen asleep in the car, I woke up at 12:30 a.m. to my girlfriend screaming, “The power’s back on! The power’s back on!” The desperation in her voice showed just how dire the situation had become. We spent the entire day with only 4 hours of electricity, and I had never been more grateful to see working lights again. We rushed inside to warm up our apartment before we lost power again, which would happen only one hour later.
At six in the morning on Tuesday, we still had no power. The temperature outside was around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and our apartment was getting too cold to stay. Instead of waiting for ERCOT to bring the power back online, which we now knew would not happen anytime soon, we left immediately to go to my girlfriend’s parents’ apartment — 45 minutes away on icy and snowy highways — where electricity was more stable.
Our situation certainly was not the worst that could have happened. At least three people died in the state of Texas alone, and more than 4 million Texans went without power on Monday. Luckily for us, we had family who lived in areas that were not experiencing power outages. Not everyone was so fortunate.
When Will We Learn that Renewables are not Reliable?
The worst part about all of this? Most of it didn’t need to happen.
If Texas had prioritized investing in reliable energy sources, such as nuclear or coal, instead of intermittent and unreliable energy sources like wind energy, the emergency in Texas could have been much less dangerous and power would have stayed on for most of the state.
However, like many other states in recent years, Texas has done the opposite. Coal and nuclear capacity once made up over 32 percent of the state’s electricity resources in 1990. Now, they make up only 18 percent.
Coal capacity has decreased by over 5,000 megawatts from a high of 25,420 megawatts in 2015, and nuclear capacity has remained at 5,390 megawatts since 1993. In comparison, wind capacity has increased to 28,064.2 megawatts from the 1990s to 2019, making Texas the leading state of wind energy in the entire country by nearly 20,000 MW.
While coal and nuclear power facilities were the most reliable energy sources during Texas’ state of emergency, as hardly any of these facilities were forced off the grid, renewable energy sources were the least reliable even with 30 GW of natural gas capacity falling offline. Natural gas still managed to supply no less than 60 percent of total generation from Monday to Tuesday and at times produced over 71 percent – meaning that the natural gas facilities that were still operating were working overtime to produce electricity. The same cannot be said of the wind and solar facilities that were not affected by freezing temperatures, which only produced between 1.5 and 14.7 percent of total generation during the energy crisis.
To put in perspective just how unreliable wind and solar energy truly was, consider that wind and solar energy make up over 30,500 megawatts of capacity in Texas, or around 22.5 percent of total capacity in the state, and only produced an average of 8.8 percent of total generation throughout the crisis. Meanwhile, coal and nuclear makeup over 25,100 megawatts, or 18.5 percent of total capacity, and provided an average of 25.8 percent of total generation from Monday to Tuesday.
The fact is that energy sources that depend on the weather to produce electricity, like wind and solar, usually become inoperable when the weather is at its worst and people need electricity the most, as states like Minnesota, California and now Texas have all experienced in recent years.
Despite many in the media coming to the defense of wind energy’s lack of performance during the energy crisis in Texas, claiming that wind energy actually “outperformed” forecasts for the day, the fact remains that wind and solar were no-shows during the coldest temperatures seen in Texas in decades. There should be no applause for wind energy “outperforming” a forecast of essentially nothing.
While wind energy was not the sole cause of the energy crisis in Texas, the emergency event showcased just how unreliable renewable energy sources are when people need electricity the most. Furthermore, it showed how important fuel-based energy sources — especially that of coal and nuclear — are to maintaining a functioning grid. Had the Lone Star State been 100 percent renewable as renewable energy advocates across the country desire, this energy crisis would have been much worse.
Nuclear Instead of Wind
At 2020 capital costs provided by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Texas could have built over 11,600 megawatts of nuclear energy instead of 28,000 megawatts of wind. At annual capacity factors (36.8 percent for wind; 95 percent for nuclear), this amount of nuclear capacity would have produced 6 million more megawatt-hours than wind energy each year. (Note: wind energy costs have declined over the years, meaning Texas could have built even more nuclear capacity in prior years).
Additionally, nuclear facilities would have remained online when people needed electricity the most – like the situation Texas is facing now – because they are largely unaffected by extreme weather. If Texas had an additional 11,600 megawatts of nuclear capacity on the grid during this emergency, the state would have had an additional 8,000+ megawatt-hours of reliable generation to mitigate the loss of natural gas capacity (based on nuclear capacity factors during the crisis).
Instead, Texas got the situation we had on Monday and Tuesday. Power outages will likely continue through Wednesday before temperatures resort back to normal conditions later in the week and ERCOT can finally restore electricity to millions of Texans.
If this experience has taught me anything — or rather reaffirmed — it’s that having reliable energy sources on the grid is important no matter where you live, from Minnesota to Texas. Having reliable electricity is most important during the most severe weather conditions, and as such, energy operators everywhere need to plan accordingly.
Tragically for those who have died during Texas’ energy emergency, state energy operators have been falling short on this in recent years.
We need to immediately stop prioritizing renewable energy over reliability on electricity grids for the sake of millions who depend on reliable electricity to keep warm.