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Texas Power Outage: Why Renewable Energy Isn’t at Fault

“It appears that a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system” — Dan Woodfin, Senior Director, System Operations, ERCOT (The Texas Tribune, Feb. 16, 2021)

Texas is still reeling from a massive power outage that left more than 4 million utility customers in the dark following a rare winter storm that brought record-low temperatures to the state. Our hearts go out to the families and businesses impacted by this tragedy, and we hope for a speedy recovery.

While Texans were in the worst throes of this harrowing ordeal, opponents of renewable energy took the opportunity to unfairly cast blame on the industry, when in reality, the power emergency was a confluence of multiple factors. Here’s what informed sources say led to the blackout, how renewable energy factored into the situation, and why solar energy in particular is a dependable power source.

What Caused the Crisis

Officials are still determining exactly what went wrong and when, but utility representatives and renewable energy industry leaders alike were in quick agreement last week that an overwhelming power demand coupled with a loss of production across the state’s energy sources — which is dominated by natural gas — led to the power crisis. As uncharacteristically frigid temperatures set in across Texas, demand jumped to a record peak of 69,150 megawatts (MW) on Feb. 14, according to a tweet from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the state’s power grid. Since demand is normally lower, and temperatures are higher in Texas this time of year, the power grid was ill-prepared for such a strain. In fact, power plants are known to take equipment offline for maintenance during the winter, as Vox explains.

Equipment that remained online was left vulnerable to the cold despite some weatherization efforts following a similar stretch of extreme weather in 2011. The distribution of natural gas, which is used for generating the majority of the state’s electricity, was crippled due to frozen pipelines. Coal and nuclear power infrastructure suffered similar fates. With a loss of generating capacity across the entirety of the state’s energy sources, production fell short of demand by 34,000 MW, prompting ERCOT to trigger rolling blackouts in order to relieve stress on the grid.

Renewable energy was not immune to these once-in-a-lifetime weather conditions. Reports of wind turbines freezing are true, but this alone was not enough to contribute to the blackout on the scale some have suggested. Texas leads the nation in wind power, and it accounts for the highest percentage of the state’s electricity production behind natural gas — making it an easy scapegoat for the crisis among renewable energy critics. Digging more into the details, wind only makes up a quarter of the state’s power production in wintertime and was not a significant driver of capacity loss during the weather event. According to Dan Woodfin of ERCOT, as reported in Bloomberg, “Wind shutdowns accounted for 3.6 to 4.5 gigawatts — or less than 13% — of the 30 to 35 gigawatts of total outages.” All this is to say wind power, and renewable energy at large was not the cause of the state’s grave energy situation.

Why Solar Energy Is Dependable

As the events of last week showed, no energy source is invincible against catastrophic weather. But solar energy, along with other forms of renewables and improvements to transmission infrastructure, can help guard against future power grid collapses. As noted by SEIA, solar systems, which account for less than 4% of generating capacity in Texas, continued to operate and provide power to the grid during the peak of the crisis. With continued investment, solar can be even more of a dependable asset, especially when it comes to energy independence. A solar-plus-storage system with islanding capabilities can power facilities even when the utility grid fails due to inclement weather. Plus, solar production is easily forecasted, taking into account shading, topography, seasonal changes in sun angle, and other predictable factors that can affect energy generation.

Renewable energy, and solar specifically, stands to increase the nation’s energy security while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions inherent to fossil fuels. At the business level, opting to install a solar-plus-storage system at your facility not only contributes to this energy transition but also protects your business from losses in the event the grid goes down. To learn more, contact us for a free consultation and see why companies like Amazon, Target, and ASICS have trusted us to build solar systems that reduce their energy costs and meet their sustainability goals.

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