Texas vs. The Future

The last-ditch push to forestall the renewables revolution

I love my home state of Texas. It’s severely underrated as a place to live, and its culture is much richer and more nuanced than most people understand. And despite living in California now, I’ll be the first to admit that the nation’s biggest blue state has handled many policy issues less competently than its biggest red state. I’m also bullish on the future of Texas’ economy and its ability to become a technology hub.

But for now, my home state’s economy is still too dependent on fossil fuels. It’s not nearly to the same degree as in the 70s, of course, when Texas was effectively a petrostate. But oil and gas still loom large enough in Texas’ industrial mix that energy price swings still have a measurable effect on the state’s GDP and tax revenues. Houston, especially, has become a high-value cluster of oil and gas services companies, with perhaps a third of the city’s economy tied to fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, that creates an incentive for Texas leaders to politicize the energy issue. Even when a historic ice storm cuts out power to most of the state, you have the governor getting up on live TV and blaming it on renewable energy:

Of course, this instantly feeds into the larger nationwide political battle over energy sources. Right-wing culture warriors are out in force, taking advantage of Texans’ woes to spew lies:

If people listen to Abbott, Cornyn, and their Fox News cheerleaders, it could have negative long-term consequences for the whole country. Energy should be a technological issue, not a political one, and dishonestly trying to pin Texans’ woes on wind power could hamper the U.S.’ attempt to secure a future of abundant energy.

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Texas’ blackout woes aren’t because of wind power

First, let’s get the facts straight. Texas’ blackouts are NOT due to wind power.

First of all, Tucker Carlson is just wrong to say that the state is dependent on wind. According to a recent report by the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), wind is only about a quarter of the mix, with natural gas still by far the biggest piece:

An ERCOT report on generating capacity listed the top sources of power in the state:

  • Natural gas (51%)

  • Wind (24.8%)

  • Coal (13.4%)

  • Nuclear (4.9%)

  • Solar (3.8%)

  • Hydro, biomass-fired units (1.9%)

In fact, wind is an even smaller percentage in the winter (i.e, now).

Nor were frozen wind turbines a significant reason for the blackouts. Cornyn, Carlson, etc. are just making stuff up here:

While ice has forced some turbines to shut down just as a brutal cold wave drives record electricity demand, that’s been the least significant factor in the blackouts, according to Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid.

The main factors: Frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas, he said. “Natural gas pressure” in particular is one reason power is coming back slower than expected Tuesday, added Woodfin.

According to ERCOT, wind outages accounted for only about 13% of the total power losses.

Jesse Jenkins, an engineering professor at Princeton who specialized in electricity systems, reports that natural gas, goal, and nuclear plants have been responsible for most of the failures (while solar, interestingly, is producing more than usual). Check out his thread here:

B..b…but aren’t nuclear and gas plants supposed to be the most reliable stuff? Not if you don’t winterize them, they’re not. Jenkins has a good article here about what could have been done (and what should still be done!) to protect the Texas power grid against cold snaps like this one. In fact, Texas had outages in 2011 that should have served as a warning, but Texas ignored the writing on the wall and didn’t make investments for the future.

Oops.

As for windmills, it’s easily possible to winterize them as well — as demonstrated by the fact that they exist in large numbers in cold countries like Canada. You just have to install internal heating within the turbines and paint them with water-resistant coatings. It adds a bit to the cost, but wind is so cheap now that it’s worth it. Of course, Texas’ short-sighted leaders didn’t do this either.

Now Texas’ ever-ruling Republican party is attempting to distract from its own disastrous short-sightedness by pointing the finger at a reliable culture-war bogeyman. And Abbott appears to be using this canard as a way to make political hay — to paint renewable energy as unreliable, and thus stave off the energy transition that is threatening a major piece of his state’s economy.

Texas, and the country, deserve better than bumbling finger-pointers, culture vultures, and defenders of obsolete technology. But that’s what we’re stuck with, because we insist on turning energy into a political wedge issue.

Stop politicizing energy!

In an ideal world, the question of where to get our energy would not be a political one. It should simply a matter of delivering people electricity cheaply and reliably, without incurring disastrous environmental costs. And it’s clear by this point that solar and wind, rather than natural gas, are the technologies that can and will deliver that:

In the real world, of course, there are tons of local economic interests at stake — switching from natural gas to solar and wind might be good for the country, but bad for Houston, etc. We should understand this and be prepared for it, and deal with it as best we can. Nor should we expect folks like Greg Abbott — leaders of places where fossil fuel industries are concentrated — to simply bow their heads and acquiesce to a necessary nationwide energy transition that will reduce their own constituents’ comparative advantage. Human beings, and human politics, don’t work like that.

But what we don’t have to do is turn energy into a CULTURAL issue. But since even before Ronald Reagan tore the solar panels off of the White House roof, American conservatives have made energy technology a symbolic wedge issue, sneering at solar panels and windmills, vowing to defend the tiny and dying culture of coal mining, and so on. Gas and coal and oil are the energy sources of Manly Men, while solar and wind are the wimpy tools of effeminate hippies, etc. etc. Growing up in Texas in the 80s and 90s, I certainly heard this trope over and over.

And in the 1980s and 1990s you could maybe-kinda-sorta see an economic rationale for that culture war? Solar and wind really were too expensive to be competitive as large-scale energy solutions back then, despite their environmental benefits. It was only through the far-sightedness and perseverance of our government’s research efforts and subsidies that the situation changed.

But as with all of America’s culture wars, energy tribalism eventually turned into just another way to own the libs — a symbolic way for the Right to declare that they don’t like the direction in which the country is changing. Standing against the energy technology of the future simply because they don’t like the future in general.

Of course, culture wars over energy are not unique to the Right — the environmental Left’s opposition to nuclear power always hurt the cause of decarbonization. Nor are they a uniquely American disease — energy is an emotional flashpoint in Australia, Japan, and many other countries.

But if we could ever afford the energy culture wars, we no longer can. The cost advantage of solar and wind has become decisive, and promises to become vaster still. Finally, the promise of “electricity too cheap to meter” is within our reach, promising to bring a new productivity boom. It would be an almost unfathomable act of national self-harm to allow either parochial economic protectionists like Greg Abbott or cynical culture war peddlers like Tucker Carlson to stand in the way of the new technological age.

As for Texas, I don’t want to see my home state become an economic backwater, shackled to the corpse of a dying fossil fuel age. Texas has several huge and highly productive cities, plenty of human resources, and weather that usually doesn’t remind people of Game of Thrones. It has succeeded in pushing its economy to diversify away from oil and gas in the past; all it needs to do is continue those efforts to their logical conclusion. The alternative — to keep trying to make hay out of unrelated disasters and leverage B.S. culture wars to try to throw up barricades in the path of new energy technologies — is a dead end. Texas can be the future, instead of fighting the future.


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