The claim: Frozen wind turbines are to blame for blackouts in Texas after a winter storm blasted the state
After a winter storm left millions of Texans without power this week, the state’s governor, conservative media pundits and internet users blamed wind turbines frozen by the arctic temperatures.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told Fox News host Sean Hannity that his state’s power problems were an indictment of the Green New Deal, a proposal that has not been enacted. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said the state’s power grid failed because windmills froze.
Photos of iced-over wind turbines went viral on social media, too, as the demand for power exceeded even the worst-case scenarios contemplated last fall.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a Facebook post, which has been shared nearly 9,000 times, that appointees to the state’s Public Utility Commission should be fired and that more coal and oil infrastructure should be built.
“We should never build another wind turbine in Texas. The experiment failed big time,” he wrote. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But wind energy and other renewable sources make up only a fraction of the power generation in Texas, which relies mostly on thermal energy, such as oil and natural gas, to power the state.
Officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas told reporters this week the amount of thermal power offline because of the storm was about double the amount of renewable sources.
Texas powered more by coal and natural gas than wind and solar
Wind turbines have gotten an outsized share of the blame compared with the amount of power they generate for Texas.
ERCOT’s most recent report shows that wind made up about a quarter of energy generated in Texas in January. In all of 2020, it was a slightly smaller portion of the state’s energy picture.
Natural gas and coal, though, represent about 60% of energy generation in Texas, according to the reports. Nuclear energy, another thermal source, adds another 12%.
The Texas Tribune reported Tuesday that an ERCOT official said that about 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation had gone offline, compared with about 30 gigawatts of thermal energy.
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ERCOT officials said natural gas providers that are not equipped to handle freezing temperatures were the main culprit for the outages, according to the Texas Tribune.
Without the wattage it expected to get from those providers, the state couldn’t handle a load that exceeded November projections for peak usage this winter.
On the morning of Feb. 17, about 30 gigawatts of thermal power was still offline — more than double the 14 gigawatts ERCOT contemplated in its most extreme outage scenario, according to Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton University engineering professor.
Texas turbines not prepared for extreme cold
Renewable energy critics circulated several photos of iced-over wind turbines, but experts say that is to be expected in Texas, where they aren’t built to withstand freezing temperatures.
“It’s actually pretty straightforward: These temperatures in Texas are not typical temperatures,” said John Naughton, director of the University of Wyoming’s Wind Energy Research Center.
Temperatures across swaths of Texas were more than 25 degrees below normal, according to the National Weather Service.
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While turbines built in colder climates are “winterized” to handle extreme low temperatures, those built in Texas would have been built to handle the typical weather for the region because preparing them for an unlikely dip in temperature carries an additional cost, he said.
“They’re way out of the normal temperature range,” Naughton said. “Wind turbines, like other things, have fluids and air conditioning and heating all included inside them. But they’re designed for the environment.”
About half of the state’s wind capacity was offline Sunday because of turbines that had frozen in west Texas, according to the Austin American-Statesman, but high winds from the winter storm were spinning coastal turbines faster and generating more power to offset those losses.
Our rating: Missing context
The claim that frozen wind turbines are to blame for blackouts in Texas is MISSING CONTEXT. While some wind production is offline in the state, it is losing far more generation from thermal sources that produce the majority of power in Texas. Some wind turbines are frozen, but that is because turbines in Texas aren’t built to withstand unusually cold temperatures, as are turbines in colder climates where wind production is used.
Our fact-check sources:
- The Washington Post, Feb. 17: “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott blames wind turbines, Green New Deal policies for outages. Critics call that ‘a lie.'”
- Fox News, Feb. 16: “Tucker Carlson: The great Texas climate catastrophe is heading your way”
- Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Nov. 5, 2020: “Seasonal assessments show sufficient generation for winter and spring”
- Facebook, Feb. 16: Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller post
- The Texas Tribune, Feb. 16: “No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages”
- Electric Reliability Council of Texas, accessed Feb. 17: Generation data and reports
- The Texas Tribune, Feb. 16: “Texas largely relies on natural gas for power. It wasn’t ready for the extreme cold”
- Twitter, Feb. 17: Jesse Jenkins, Princeton University professor
- University of Wyoming, accessed Feb. 17: Biography for John Naughton, director of the Wind Energy Research Center
- National Weather Service, accessed Feb. 17: Temperature departure from average last seven days map
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