Enviros, Get Out of the Dark

“Green power” evangelists have roughed out a syllogism explaining what caused Texas’s power outages last month and what can prevent them henceforth: 1) A free market in electricity caused the blackouts, 2) fossil fuels accord with the free market, and therefore 3) the state’s regulatory response should boost renewable energy.

Even if both premises were correct, the conclusion is a mighty leap. Of course, the first assumption is tommyrot. Recent analyses by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the Heartland Institute have underscored the principal cause of the disaster: unreliable wind and solar power sources couldn’t meet electricity demand and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) didn’t act fast enough to counteract the problem. Was this event simply a matter of ineptitude and daft environmental policy? Almost. It also exposed some daft COVID-19 policy.

Let’s start with the environmental policy. Counter to popular perception, renewables constitute over 28 percent of the Lone Star State’s electricity supply. Texas requires inclusion of solar and wind energy—which are only generated when the weather permits—in the state’s electric grid. Subsidies doled out at the federal, state, and local levels have augmented these sources’ use even further. Texas now outpaces all other states—even California!—in wind-power generation.

Wind and solar power function too unreliably to provide electricity when demand is normal, let alone when it crests, so Texas and other jurisdictions that partly draw upon renewables end up shifting back to fossil fuels whenever the former cannot deliver. Conservative lawmakers have tried to pass legislation forcing wind and solar companies to pay to maintain coal capacity so the lights stay on when wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. The legislature has so far failed to approve such a policy, letting several coal plants close in the meantime.

Green-energy apologists argue that Winter Storm Uri didn’t primarily affect renewables, that it in fact stalled more coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy production. But that ignores the fact that darker skies and colder temperatures took most wind turbines and solar panels offline about four days before the storm began. Fossil fuels provided almost all of Texas’s limited electricity throughout the storm, while renewables supplied 58 percent of Texas’s energy just before the outages.

H. Sterling Burnett, who authored Heartland’s analysis of the power failures, is himself a Texan who experienced them firsthand. “Temperatures in my house fell into the 40s, and within the first night I went through all the heating oil in the old-fashioned lamps I keep for outages caused by periodic tornados, “ he wrote. “For some (not me, fortunately), the problems were even worse. Water-treatment plants lost power, meaning thousands of people lost access to clean water even if their pipes did not freeze. Widespread ‘boil water’ orders were issued, but of course you can’t boil water during a power outage if your stove is electric.”

ERCOT could have averted a major crisis had it responded quickly to the initial failure of solar panels and wind turbines by effecting transitory, rolling blackouts. Being too late to do so, ERCOT triggered many power plants into going offline. Freezing temperatures in turn prevented these facilities from swiftly resuming operation. As a report by TPPF noted, natural-gas producers in the Permian Basin experienced the resulting outages, worsening the situation.

But what role did the government’s intemperate reaction to COVID-19 play in the catastrophe? An investigation by NBC Dallas-Fort Worth indicates that COVID-related work restrictions led to curtailment of power-plant inspections. Further inquiry by Jeffrey A. Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research reveals that ERCOT board member Erik Johnson warned that accommodation of COVID policy “would significantly impact our ability to conduct continuing training for the ERCOT operators.”

While it’s uncertain whether more intensive inspections and training in 2020 would have prevented last month’s outages, COVID restrictions certainly burdened ERCOT and other grid operators. Tucker quotes one Texas energy specialist who asserted, “[Personal protective equipment] shortages and travel restrictions have made generation maintenance more difficult to schedule.”

Despite environmental and COVID policy blunders, the left-wing press insists on scapegoating not only fossil fuels but also Texas’s electricity-market deregulation that began in the 1990s. Anyone who would undo the latter should consult a meticulous study by Peter R. Hartley, Kenneth B. Medlock III, and Olivera Jankovska of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Appearing in the May 2019 issue of Energy Economics, their research shows that electricity costs in competitive Texas markets declined from 2002 to 2016 while costs in noncompetitive markets did not. Reforms allowing the state’s local electric markets to operate competitively have clearly succeeded.

Still, much else the government has done has failed. Environmentalists, safetyists, and other central planners should own up to the inefficiencies they’ve created and stop urging the government to hatch more of them.

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