Texas Shows What Happens When We Ignore Climate Change
A city of Austin worker operates a bulldozer to restore water in Austin, Texas, U.S. (Photographer: Thomas Ryan Allison/Bloomberg)

Texas Shows What Happens When We Ignore Climate Change

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” said boxing’s philosopher king, Mike Tyson. That’s a variation on an earlier adage from another prizefighter, Joe Louis, as well as observations from countless military strategists who have warned that battle plans often evaporate the moment bullets begin flying.

Texas, plunged into darkness by vicious winter weather and an inadequate power grid, may have to come up with its own pithy description of what happens to best-laid plans when reality intervenes. On Monday, about 4 million Texans — around 1.4 million in greater Houston alone — had no heat or electricity during an ongoing series of rolling blackouts.

Texas is hardly alone, of course. Severe weather has sideswiped power production in 14 states stretching from the Dakotas to Oklahoma and derailed energy markets in places as far away as Japan and France. The common denominator is climate change, and the jarring extremes in temperature and precipitation that can accompany it.

But Texas offers unique lessons about hubris, management and governance. And its crisis has landed the state in the center of political and private-sector blame-trading that is a hallmark of our era.

No sooner had the lights gone out in Texas than Tucker Carlson, the Fox News commentator, named wind power the villain. “The windmills froze, so the power grid failed,” he opined in a Monday broadcast. “Rather than celebrate and benefit from their state’s vast natural resources, politicians took the fashionable route and became recklessly reliant on so-called alternative energy — meaning windmills.”

Well, no.

Natural gas, coal and a bit of nuclear energy fuel about 80% of Texas’s power grid. Wind generates a fraction of that amount, particularly during the winter.  Even with the weather conspiring against it, wind still appears to have produced significantly more capacity in Texas during the current crisis than anticipated. In 2011, the last time Texas’s grid suffered a major failure, wind power wasn’t even in use. As my colleague Liam Denning makes clear, the causes of Texas’s power failure are complex, but laying the blame on wind alone is silly.

Stepping away from the mechanics of how Texas generates power and looking at the broader ways in which it manages its grid is also revealing. Some of the state’s woes are due to old-fashioned dilapidation.

Texas’s grid “has collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union,” Ed Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. “It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”

Texas, which has always prized its independence, runs its own electricity grid, which isn’t extensively integrated with those that neighboring states oversee. That has allowed Texas to avoid federal regulation, and find creative ways to feed its massive appetite for electricity. It consumes far more electricity than any other state, including California, in part because of the sprawling oil refineries and petrochemical plants that demand a constant supply (and have been hobbled by the current crisis). After the grid failed during the 2011 freeze, industry observers pointed out that power plants of every stripe in Texas weren’t properly winterized and would need to be to avoid future outages. Were they winterized? Apparently not. Now, with its power generation frozen, go-it-alone Texas is turning to the federal government and the Biden administration for a helping hand.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state agency that manages the power supply, is supervised by the governor and the legislature. So just imagine the finger-pointing spawned by this week’s power outages — and ERCOT’s inability to say when the outages will end.

On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott called for ERCOT to be investigated, promising that he and his “partners” in the legislature (who supposedly oversee ERCOT) would work “to enhance Texas’s electric grid and ensure that our state never experiences power outages like this again.” Call me a cynic, but “enhancing” the grid sounds like political-speak for “maybe we’ll get to it someday.” Abbott also managed to find his way onto Fox News on Tuesday evening, where he blamed — you guessed it — wind power for Texas’s outages.

ERCOT says that it merely advises local power utilities (such as CenterPoint Energy Inc., Oncor Electric Deliver Co. and Austin Energy) on how much electricity they can safely generate at any point in time; the utilities then make their own decisions on energy management. It’s not clear that the utilities see it in exactly the same way. Austin Energy, for example, said that it operates “with the constraints and the direction of ERCOT.”

That little disagreement is interesting, too. Texas and its energy companies built a grid meant to handle surges in demand during the state’s hot summers. They didn’t expect spiking demand in the winter, because they didn’t anticipate the plunging temperatures that have come with climate change. They also built a grid meant to run leanly, without the kind of power reserves that utilities have traditionally kept on hand to meet unexpected surges in demand. That’s fine — unless an unexpected surge arrives, like a Tyson roundhouse.

This is all quite familiar. When the coronavirus laid siege to the U.S. last year, it exposed the weaknesses in a neglected public health system. When Covid-19 patients arrived en masse, hospitals were strained, because their managers had adopted “just-in-time” practices that de-emphasized, among other things, maintaining reserves of beds and supplies.

Mother Nature has pivoted from offering lessons, via a pandemic, about the importance of high-quality public health infrastructure to a new tutorial, via savage weather, about the importance of flexible and well managed energy infrastructure.

Not everybody is an attentive student, though. “The great Texas climate catastrophe is heading your way,” Carlson warned on Fox News, invoking the specter of windmills and green energy programs stalking the country — trademark fearmongering that conveniently avoids discussing the realities of climate change.

Good public policy matters. When someone pretends that pandemics and climate change aren’t threats — or simply don’t exist — it should send chills down your spine. Just ask Texas.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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