It’s only been a half year since blackouts spread across California during intense summer heat. Those blackouts were immediately blamed on renewable energy; of course it turned out later on that a string of failures in the state’s gas plants were to blame. In fact, it turned out later on that a major part of those blackouts was an instance of a misheard verbal instruction issued to a gas generator. Instead of turning up as instructed, they decreased their output. And it’s five years since South Australia’s 2016 blackout, in which precisely the same sequence of events occurred. A pattern is now clear.
Major blackout events, usually instigated by grid stress related to climate extremes, become opportunities to attack renewable energy. Media articles, political pronouncements, tweets, Facebook posts, everything – the entire media ecosystem assumes that renewable energy must have done it and runs hard with it. And of course, later, it comes out that fossil fuel failures played a significant or even majority role in the cluster of causes of the event – none of which is covered with the intensity of the original stories.
It is currently playing out in Texas, in the United States. A freak cold snap caused by a ‘more wavy‘ jet stream – a climate impact that is a product of burning fossil fuels – has caused massive demand and brought severe stress to the electricity grid, resulting in systemwide outages and a loss of power to many millions of Texans, in the cold and dark. 10.5 gigawatts of load was disconnected: equivalent to the entire state of New South Wales going dark.
This is the second energy crisis driven by black swan extreme weather in the last six months.
— Duncan S. Campbell (@duncan__c) February 15, 2021
Texas’ grid has one of the highest proportions of wind power in the United States, and an increasing installed capacity of solar power. Unsurprisingly, the blackouts immediately led to many assuming that, somehow, wind power had caused the blackouts. Immediately, a narrative began to emerge, across media and far-right networks: the wind turbines were frozen solid by the cold:
These breathless and widely shared reports, much to the delight of climate deniers and conservatives, claimed half of the installed wind capacity in Texas had shut down, around 12,000 megawatts, because it was “frozen”. Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, The Straits Times, the New Statesmen and Forbes all took part in the pile-on. Senior conservatives in the US dove right in, with many articles claiming the incident shows the importance of relying very heavily on gas for energy.
It was immediately clear how fishy the claims were. The grid operator said 30,000 megawatts in total of generation were forced off the system, “across fuel types”. What were the remaining 18,000 megawatts? It seemed like to either be fossil gas, the largest share of generation in Texas, or coal, but there was no information. In that vacuum, the meme about frozen wind turbines spread across large media outlets and social media.
The role of gas
As you might expect, it turns out the major cause of the problem was gas – specifically, components of the gas supply and power generation infrastructure freezing in the cold, along with a major supply crunch. “As of ~10 AM Eastern time [Monday the 15th], the system has ~30 GW of capacity offline, ~26 GW of thermal — mostly natural gas which cant get fuel deliveries which are being priorities for heating loads — and ~4 GW of wind due to icing”, said Jesse Jenkins, a Professor at Princeton and a prominent energy expert. “That is a HUGE amount of gas capacity offline, about 30% of total ERCOT capacity and ~half of the natural gas fleet…devastating for reliability”. This was in addition to gas pipes freezing due to the extreme temperatures.
That information was later confirmed by market data from ERCOT, posted by another energy expert, Joshua Rhodes. “Over 30 GW of generation still down in ERCOT! ~27 GW thermal, or about 35% of all thermal capacity”, he said.
What has emerged is a very clear picture: while the grid operator understands and predicts variations in wind and solar output, and revises expectations accordingly, they did not predict such a massive, significant and unprecedented failure of fossil fuelled power stations in the state, and that is the major cause of the blackouts (one nuclear power plant seems to have been affected, too).
“Most of those generators that went offline … last night, were either—there a few additional wind generators that went offline during the night—but the majority of them were thermal generators, like generation fuelled by gas, coal, or nuclear”, an ERCOT spokesperson told Sonal Patel of Power Magazine.
ERCOT expected to get low capacity factors from wind and solar during winter peak demand. What it didn't expect is >20 GW of outages from thermal (mostly natural gas) power plants.https://t.co/udeeTUHkRU#TexasFreeze #RollingBlackouts pic.twitter.com/VEyQkiJURH
— Daniel Cohan (@cohan_ds) February 15, 2021
Although ERCOT only expected 269 MW of solar during winter peak demand, we may actually get over 3,000 MW at times today. That's more solar than existed in ERCOT two years ago.#TexasFreeze #RollingBlackouts pic.twitter.com/czKqhBgBd2
— Daniel Cohan (@cohan_ds) February 15, 2021
Jenkins highlighted this too, pointing out that ERCOT had only assumed a small contribution from wind power. “In total, that means ERCOT is counting on 1,542 MW of coastal wind output, 1,411 MW of panhandle wind and 3,251 MW of other wind for a total of 6,204 MW of wind from currently operational facilities. 6.2 GW. Use that to track how wind performs during this emergency”. The wind turbines that did not shut down in fact over-performed on their forecasted output, due to the high wind speeds from the storm.
US energy market analysts ICF said the problem was caused primarily by surprisingly high demand. “ERCOT’s Extreme Peak Load scenario anticipated demand up to 67.2 GW, but the day-ahead load forecast for 8am Monday was 74.5 GW. ERCOT’s Extreme Peak forecast was based on 2011 winter weather, which resulted in emergency operations but not widespread load shedding”. They too reiterated the culprit. “Thermal outages, rather than renewables, are the main supply gap”.
What happens next
What is playing out here is a consistent pattern of response to climate-related grid stress. The impacts of extreme weather events on all generation and associated infrastructure (like freezing gas pipelines). In Australia, heat stress and bushfires do impact renewable energy and power lines, but the impacts of heat in particular on aging, unreliable thermal generation are extremely significant, because large amounts of generation become unavailable during critical moments.
In 2020’s AEMO Integrated System plan, an appendix about resilience and climate change was included. It lists a range of very important and relevant direct threats to the National Electricity Market, particularly for transmission and thermal generators. But it did not explore the social and cultural phenomenon of blackout responses – the rapid spread of anti-renewable information and fearmongering, the problems within institutions like media outlets to err on the side of anti-renewable rhetoric and the general ability of the fossil fuel industry to some avoid blame for both causing the extreme weather events, and playing a key role in causing the blackouts that occur in response.
At the time of writing, the outages of thermal generators has increased to 29 gigawatts. Wind and solar are produced at or above planned capacity contribution. ERCOT’s forecast of outages, updated hourly, shows thermal capacity coming back online over the coming days but still very seriously limited. The impacts on residents will continue, with many vulnerable people without heat or power in freezing temperatures.
The best way forward is to understand and avoid exactly how discourse about a climate-impacted grid manifests. We can start by recognising and countering misinformation as it happens in real time.