Natural Gas Performed Heroically In Texas, Until It Didn’t

In a recent article for WIRED — The Energy Sector Must Prepare for More Extreme Weather — I detailed some of the primary causes behind the recent power outages in Texas.

One aspect I didn’t cover in that article was the political finger-pointing that went on as the incident unfolded.

Tucker Carlson blamed wind turbines for the power outages. Texas governor Gregg Abbott followed that up with an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show, stating “’This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”’

Democratic Representative and Green New Deal supporter Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fired back on Twitter with “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal.”

How can two sides look at a situation like this and come to polar opposite conclusions about the cause? By telling only a partial story.

I am going to present a full picture below. This first graphic shows how one can conclude that freezing wind turbines were the problem, while natural gas was called upon to fill a huge demand surge. Keep in mind that the natural gas demand below is only from electric utilities, but demand for home heating was simultaneously surging.

Hence, one could point to this graphic as evidence that between February 8 and February 10, wind power dropped dramatically while power from natural gas came to the rescue. If you only look at this graphic, then natural gas is the hero of the story.

So natural gas was carrying a heavy load during the early stages of the storm, and that is the source of that particular narrative. Natural gas undoubtedly saved lives early in the storm. Of course, that’s what natural gas is meant to do — supply power when needed.

But after several days of exceptionally cold weather across Texas, more trouble started.

On February 15th, one of the reactors at the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station tripped offline. At the same time, the freeze began to impact natural gas production sites. According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Texas fell almost 45% during the freeze.

Many utilities began to lose natural gas supplies just as power demand was reaching record highs. The result was that the power that natural gas was expected to supply simply wasn’t there when needed, and therefore power outages ensued.

So, neither Tucker Carlson nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are correct. Yes, some wind turbines did freeze up in Texas. Some solar panels were covered with snow. But those power sources are known to be intermittent, and they were not therefore the source of the major power outages.

The big problem was the loss of power from conventional baseload power plants. This is power that is supposed to ramp up when needed.

Natural gas was called upon to fill a massive gap between supply and demand, both for power and for heating. Although natural gas-fired power did surge during the crisis, at the same time natural gas infrastructure was freezing up and preventing it from completely meeting demand.

So, there is plenty of blame to go around, but the biggest factor was with natural gas infrastructure, as detailed in my WIRED article. If natural gas production had not fallen off when demand was greatest, the blackouts could have been largely avoided.

On the other hand, if Texas was being largely powered by wind and solar power — even with battery backups — the situation could have been much worse. Batteries would have been drained early in the storm, and then fast-responding firm power would be required to fill a huge supply gap. 

The takeaway for me is that grids need plenty of backup power that is available on demand. This will become increasingly important as more intermittent sources of power are added to the grid. Unless we can ensure that battery backups can survive an outage that could last days — and could substantially increase demand for home heating at the same time — we need firm power sources that are ready to step up and fill the gaps.

Texas thought it had ample backup power sources, but this historic weather event caused the system to fail. Still, the best available options for firm backup power are natural gas and nuclear power. In the future, I suspect more money will be spent adequately winterizing natural gas infrastructure and water lines in these utilities. That is one of the best short-term remedies that could prevent the next crisis.

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