Beware Misinformation About Texas and Renewable Energy

There has been a vast amount of misinformation about the role of renewable energy in the crisis currently happening in Texas. The misinformation seeks to use the crisis in Texas to score political points against renewable energy around the country, including Michigan, where groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are promulgating very basic misunderstandings about our energy system. In reality, the ongoing crisis in Texas is due to extreme weather and fossil-fuel energy infrastructure that was never designed for such cold weather.

The truth is that years of experience of wind and solar operating throughout the electric grid show that renewable energy does not harm reliability. Michigan’s utilities, in their long-term plans, are voluntarily choosing to adopt more clean energy than they are required to obtain. That is because renewables, energy efficiency and storage are an essential part of the most cost-effective path forward for energy in Michigan and elsewhere, and are only becoming even more competitive. Building new solar and wind facilities are now cheaper than operating coal and natural gas plants, a recent Lazard study found, for example.

Those who are using the events in Texas to attack renewable energy in Michigan and elsewhere are perpetuating several falsehoods: First, they conflate different types of energy uses to make an incorrect comparison between current events in Texas and a previous polar vortex incident in Michigan; second, they incorrectly put the blame for power outages in Texas onto renewable energy despite significant evidence to the contrary; and third, they trot out long-debunked assertions that renewable energy is more expensive than fossil fuels when in reality for several years now unsubsidized renewables have been among the most cost-competitive forms of energy.

Let’s take each of these points in turn. First, the 2019 polar vortex in Michigan has important distinctions from what is going on in Texas, and ignoring those differences leads to a misunderstanding of what happened that could lead to more crises in the future. In 2019 the combination of extreme cold temperatures and a fire at a natural gas compressor led to spikes in heating costs and an emergency where Michigan residents were asked by the governor to dial back on their thermostats. The causes of the problems in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, meanwhile, are multifaceted and will be evaluated and discussed for some time, but appear to be rooted in complex questions around market design and, as Princeton University’s Jesse Jenkins put it, a failure to “future-proof” the grid in Texas —not electrification.

Second, in the wake of the Texas outages, we all are again hearing the familiar assertion that because renewable energy is variable and intermittent it is inherently not reliable. This is false. Renewable energy has exploded in popularity over the past decade with exponential growth of wind and solar facilities around the country and the amount of electricity the U.S. generates from renewable sources rising from less than 3% of the total to nearly 10%. Over this same period, many uneconomical coal plants and nuclear plants were retired by utilities. And yet, reliability has only been improving during this time, as the U.S. Department of Energy, the Congressional Research Service and others have found. Grid operators are able to use sophisticated forecasting methods to plan around the intermittency of renewables, and battery storage continues to become more and more cost-competitive.

Does the crisis in Texas somehow prove otherwise? Not at all. As has been reported by many different sources, the amount of coal, nuclear and natural gas generation knocked offline in Texas by extreme weather has dwarfed the amount of wind generation that has been unavailable. For example, on Feb. 16, thermal plants accounted for 30 GW out of 46 GW of offline power, with renewables accounting for just 16 GW. 

Wind generation, meanwhile, actually exceeded ERCOT’s daily forecasts over the weekend when the crisis began. ERCOT had based its winter peak plan on an assumption that in the worst-case scenario where renewables were largely unavailable, there would be enough power from other sources like coal, nuclear and natural gas to cover peak demand. There was more wind available than ERCOT planned for, but the amount of thermal plants offline was more than double what the plan envisioned.

It is clear that simply because a power plant is “dispatchable” and non-intermittent, it is not necessarily always available, demonstrating the folly of the assumption that fossil fuels are inherently reliable while renewables are not.

While some wind generation that could have been available was not due to frozen turbines, that is more of an issue of Texas being unprepared for such frigid temperatures—wind turbine operators in cold-winter states like Minnesota and Michigan use deicing techniques to keep their turbines spinning year-round. In fact, DTE Energy just gave a good explanation of how they maintain wind reliably.

Finally, it is important to remember that advanced energy has become one of the most affordable ways to power the modern world. The groups that are using the Texas crisis to call for a move back toward fossil fuels and away from clean energy are arguing against what is winning in the marketplace. Michigan utilities like Consumers Energy and DTE continue to shift from fossil fuel power to renewables, efficiency, demand response and storage. By law, these utilities have to choose the least cost options to meet customer electricity demand into the future. It’s clear, therefore, that by the utilities’ own modeling, renewables, efficiency, demand response, and storage are the cheapest ways to make sure Michiganders have the electricity we need. 

The rush to make renewable energy a scapegoat for the complex challenges raised by the crisis in Texas is factually inaccurate. But more than that, it is dangerous because it misleads people into falsely blaming a growing sector of economy that provides clean energy, while shifting attention away from the ways we must prepare the electric grid for future severe weather events.