Texas residents will likely see skyrocketing energy bills this month. They can partly blame climate change.
Much of the country was in a deep freeze this week as yet another polar vortex pushed its way south from the Arctic, causing temperatures to drop more than 25 degrees Fahrenheit below normal in some states and forcing millions of Americans to crank up their thermostats. In North Dakota, the temperature in some places felt like an astonishing negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit with the added wind chill.
The phenomenon is becoming increasingly common, many scientists now believe, in part because the disproportionately warming Arctic is destabilizing the jet stream, a fast-moving current of air that typically acts like a barrier to prevent frigid polar temperatures from creeping south into warmer latitudes.
“When the Arctic is off-the-charts warm, we’re more likely to see frigid cold invade places like Texas that are ill-equipped to deal with it,” Jennifer Francis, a Woodwell Research Center climate scientist and a top researcher on the Arctic, told the Associated Press this week. “Rapid Arctic warming is one of the clearest symptoms of human-caused climate change, making winter extremes more likely even as the globe warms overall.”
The cold snaps, which have become a nearly annual event in the U.S., are also sparking heated debate in states like Texas regarding renewable energy. In 2021, a polar vortex triggered a brutal winter storm, dubbed Uri, causing widespread power outages in Texas and leading to more than 200 deaths as natural gas lines froze, wind turbines stalled and the state’s energy grid collapsed under surging demand.
Texas leads the nation in clean energy, largely because wind and solar prices have fallen drastically over the years. But Republican lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry have widely blamed clean energy for the debacle, despite an abundance of evidence—including a federal investigation—showing that the power outages were predominantly caused by failing gas equipment.
The debate reignited this week as states, including Texas, strained to keep the power on amid plummeting temperatures and record-high energy demand.
“The success or failure of the Texas power grid when the chips are down is entirely related to the performance not of renewables, but natural gas,” Texas-based energy analyst David Blackmon wrote this week in an op-ed for The Telegraph. “All Texans should be grateful to the thousands of men and women working in the gas industry to make that happen.”
After Uri, Texas energy officials hardened the state’s gas equipment to better insulate it against the cold and prevent it from freezing up. That effort appears to be working, said Blackmon, who pointed to the state’s electricity output data Monday, which showed that at 7:19 a.m., solar, wind and battery storage were altogether contributing less than 8 percent to the grid, while fossil fuels made up nearly 85 percent of the energy mix.
But other analysts pushed back against that narrative.
Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant and author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter, agreed that the hardening efforts appear to be working, and that natural gas clearly played a vital role in maintaining the grid’s stability during Winter Storm Heather this week. But he also said Blackmon’s interpretation didn’t capture the full picture because solar and battery storage contributed plenty of electricity later on.
“I love this, right? It’s like, yes, zero percent before the sun comes up—gotcha,” said Lewin in an interview. “ I mean, this stuff is just silly. And yeah, it’s 7:19 a.m. on a winter morning, and the sun isn’t up.”
Later on Tuesday, for example, as parts of Texas hit a low of negative 1 degree Fahrenheit, solar energy systems deployed nearly 1.5 gigawatts of electricity to the grid, Lewin said. Battery storage, he added, deployed roughly 1.2 gigawatts of electricity that day and at least 2 gigawatts on Wednesday.
A gigawatt of electricity can power more than 150,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“I’m not wanting to say there should be no gas on the system in the next year or two or something like that. Gas does provide a lot of power in the wintertime and we need it to be winterized,” Lewin said. But “we should be diversifying our power sources because we’re too dependent upon gas in the wintertime.”“
Lewin also said that the low amount of wind power—the state’s turbines contributed about 7 percent to the grid earlier in the week—was likely due to bottlenecking on transmission lines.
Transmission line congestion, as it’s known in the energy industry, is when there is too much electricity attempting to run through a power line, which risks frying the wires and overloading the system. When this happens, grid operators will cut power along the line to prevent damage.
That scenario has been a chronic problem in Texas, according to reporting from Texas Public Radio. While South Texas produces a lot of wind energy, that electricity often doesn’t reach places in the state that need it during heat waves and cold snaps due to the lack of transmission line capacity, the news outlet found.
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