According to a public policy expert, a series of legislative decisions, combined with actions the day of the cold winter snap, led to the current crisis sweeping the state.
For days, millions of Texans have been freezing due to rolling blackouts, prompting a public outcry and elected officials to announce investigations of the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages Texas’ power grid.
“By Monday morning, half of Texas’ wind turbines were frozen solid, and wind generation bottomed out at 2 [percent] of installed capacity by Monday night,” said Jason Isaac, director of Life:Powered, a project of Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former state lawmaker.
“Because of this massive gap in wind production and ERCOT’s delay, what should have been a series of brief rolling blackouts—inconvenient but manageable—instead turned into 4 million Texans left in the cold and without answers,” he continued. “To make matters worse, ERCOT shut down power at natural gas substations in the Permian, leading to further shortages.”
Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller has since said Texas should stop building wind turbines; focus on gas, coal, and oil; and called for the firing of Gov. Greg Abbott’s appointees to the Public Utility Commission—the government body that oversees ERCOT.
But was this crisis foreseeable? Isaac says yes.
“We’ve known for years that a weather event combining low wind and solar production and record demand could lead to blackouts,” he told Texas Scorecard. “This week, that event became a reality as new wind and solar generation failed to produce when it was needed the most, and it appears ERCOT fell asleep at the wheel.”
Isaac laid out what led to this disaster.
“The first is that ERCOT waited too long to initiate conservation measures to meet increased demand as the weather turned colder,” he said. “However, this delay wouldn’t have been a problem at all had Texas not put so many eggs in the renewable basket.”
Not everyone managing our energy even lives in Texas, as Isaac explained ERCOT’s chair and five members of its board live elsewhere. “So, you wonder how much they care about Texans losing power,” he said.
Isaac adds green energy sources aren’t the best option to meet the changing nature of our climate. “Unlike natural gas and clean coal, wind and solar can’t be turned up or down to meet fluctuating demand.”
Instead of adding more reliable fossil fuel generation to the grid over the last few years to keep up with our growing population and electricity demand, market distortions in the form of massive subsidies have led to the closure of over 3,000 MW in natural gas and clean coal and instead added over 20,000 MW of unreliable wind and solar to the grid.
What are these “massive subsidies” the taxpayer has been made to shell out at the direction of our elected officials?
“Texas gives an average of $1.5 billion a year in property tax subsidies to renewable energy projects, and that’s on top of the billions in federal subsidies,” Isaac explained. “Often, these subsidies are the only reason renewable energy companies are profitable, while Texans suffer because renewables have been given priority by policymakers despite their unreliability.”
Cary Cheshire, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, believes these taxpayer-backed handouts should never have been issued to begin with.
“So-called green energy and the corporate welfare incentives it receives are a bad deal for taxpayers on two fronts,” he told Texas Scorecard. “In the best times, they hurt taxpayers’ wallets, and in the worst times, they leave consumers out in the cold.”
Green energy lobbyists are already spinning narratives to protect these handouts.
“The green lobby is already claiming fossil fuels failed to keep the lights (and heat) on in Texas,” Isaac said. “However, contrary to numerous false reports that coal and natural gas plants were ‘frozen,’ almost all those reliable generators were operating without interruption until this system failure, just as they do in much colder climates all over the world.”
Which brings up a critical question: Could the Texas Legislature have prevented this? Again, Isaac says yes.
“Had the Legislature resisted creating and renewing these subsidies, the story this week would have been different.”
“Decades of taxpayer-funded energy subsidies have created a systemic bias towards renewable energy and away from more reliable energy sources,” he said.
“Unfortunately, these subsidies and tax breaks for big, often foreign, corporations make renewables more profitable than they would be without the government propping them up—and they increase tax burdens for the rest of us.”
And that leads to what Isaac says is our power grid’s greatest vulnerability.
“The primary vulnerability facing our grid is the reluctance of our policymakers and regulators to take action to correct the obvious imbalances in the market,” Isaac added. “We need to hold them accountable.”
With the Texas Legislature in session through May 31, Isaac says there is a roadmap elected officials can follow towards a reliable power grid.
“The Texas Legislature should develop a market-based plan to require all electric generators to guarantee a certain amount of ‘dispatchable,’ or readily available, power to the grid at all times,” Isaac said.
“Texas should stop discriminating against the reliable energy sources—natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear—we can depend on by subsiding wind and solar generators.”
Those unreliable generators should be required to put their money where their mouth is and guarantee they’ll have power when Texans need it.
This article has been updated since publication.