When blackouts were required in Texas due to an extreme weather event, opinion pieces honed in on a few themes: Texas' struggles show how unprepared we are for climate change that the oil and gas industry helped accelerate, Texas' frozen windmills show that green energy can't replace fossil fuels, and so on. While there is some truth in all these stances, they are often playing off caricatures of the fossil fuel and green energy industry stakeholders as well as the state of Texas itself. We'll look at how this cold snap has brought the focus back on fossil fuel dependence and where we go from here.
- The blackouts in Texas were directly related to temperatures well below what many parts of the power grid – green and fossil fuel based – were designed to tolerate.
- Texas will address many of these problems with solutions that are already used in colder climates to ensure more stability in its system for future cold snaps.
- The situation in Texas highlights the fact that the transition to greener energy has to be done strategically and that fossil fuels still have a role to play while green tech develops.
What Happened in Texas?
Some of what happened in Texas is obvious from pictures. A drastic drop in temperature froze the windmills providing green energy and also iced up the wet gas coming from natural gas wells fueling power generation. The less photogenic side of this is that energy supply on the market dropped rapidly as equipment and feedstock froze, causing prices to skyrocket. These are the fundamental problems, and all of them come with proven solutions.
For example, companies building wind capacity in Texas could move to more robust designs and operating protocols used in northern climes. Similarly, gas wellheads in Texas could use dryers powered by fuel gas (gas straight from the wellhead) to keep the wells running in all temperatures. Texas also had issues with equipment within power plants freezing up due to the cold because they weren't winterized. This will have to be addressed going forward despite the added costs. These relatively straightforward solutions help keep energy flowing in Canada's prairies, which recently spent weeks in a polar vortex.
Most importantly, the Texas energy market itself could be retooled to encourage capacity generation. Just-in-time energy delivery provides cheap energy in many markets, but the less obvious risks of those savings have now been writ large across the state. A capacity market could create an environment more conducive to companies investing more in solutions that ensure robust generation in all conditions.
We will likely see some or all of these solutions adopted in Texas and also in other regions that suddenly feel less sure of their ability to generate power during volatile weather conditions. After the crisis has passed, there has to be a combination of private investment and public policy to protect against a similar situation in the future.
Green Energy vs. Fossil Fuels Is a False Dichotomy
There are few situations more ripe for scoring "gotcha" points that rival the current one in Texas. Images of helicopters deicing windmills are being held up as proof that green energy has failed (again, natural gas wells and other equipment in Texas have the same vulnerability). Images of snowy streets are accompanied with assertions that Texas has fracked us all into climate chaos. Neither of these narratives is fair to Texas, as the state is in the midst of an energy transition along with the rest of the world.
We know that burning fossil fuels and coal for all our power needs is not sustainable, particularly as global energy demand grows. Green energy is not yet capable of fulfilling all the needs of our power grid, but policies that encourage further investment may help close the reliability gap over time as new technological solutions emerge.
Right now, this problem has to be approached from both ends to ensure a successful transition. There are externalities in fossil fuel power generation that need to be priced into the market so that further investment in green energy makes economic as well as environmental sense. Market-based approaches to emissions can, in turn, encourage more efficient fossil fuel generation even as it spurs more green energy grid investment.
The Bottom Line
The conversation around energy – both green and fossil fuel based – needs to evolve beyond these "gotcha" moments. Having multiple, competing sources for energy generation is a good problem to have if you are hoping to green the grid with reasonable economic tradeoffs. It is worth noting that many countries in the world still struggle to achieve consistent energy generation.
In the U.S. right now, both fossil fuels and green energy are part of a critical energy infrastructure. Green energy does currently have limitations that fossil fuels can help to cover as technology continues to advance, and the advancement of green energy will also lead to more efficient and limited deployment of fossil fuels.
One of the biggest advantages green energy has is the data from years of coal and gas-fired energy generation that essentially sets the levels of redundancy, pricing, and capacity the technology must strive for to supplant other forms of generation. Burning less fossil fuels is critical going forward, but this recent cold snap has reminded North America that it is going to have to be a strategic transition rather than one side or another declaring absolute victory on an arbitrary date.