Who or What is to Blame for Last Week’s Rolling Blackouts in Texas?

Last week's rolling blackouts have left a lot of people wondering what (or who) exactly is to blame.  While it's clear that incredibly cold weather played a significant role, details have only now begun to trickle out about the root causes of the rolling blackouts – and what helped save Texas from a system wide blackout that would have taken hours, if not days, from which to recover.  That didn't stop a lot of people from throwing out bizarre conspiracy theories, unfounded assertions, or claims about the need to build more fossil fuel plants in Texas, all before the facts were even known. 

Just the Facts, Please

We'll get to that soon enough, but first let's hear from someone who really knows what happened – Trip Doggett, head of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state's electric grid and ordered utilities to begin rolling blackouts to avert a more serious crisis.  In a Texas Tribune interview last week Doggett said: "Our problem was more around the 50 generating units who had issues with their lack of winterization or insufficient winterization efforts that caused the major problem."  50 generating units.  About 7,000 MW of fossil fuel plants, or more than 10% of the supply on the grid, went down last week because of 'insufficient weatherization.'

Sunday's article from The Dallas Morning News has the most in depth rundown of issues leading to the rolling blackouts so far.  The article points to weatherization as the overwhelming problem, mentioning poor coordination in the regulatory vacuum between state gas and electric oversight agencies as an ongoing issue.  Doggett went out of his way to thank the wind industry for helping stave off a statewide blackout: "I would highlight that we put out a special word of thanks to the wind community because they did contribute significantly through this time frame. Wind was blowing, and we had often 3,500 megawatts of wind generation during that morning peak, which certainly helped us in this situation."

Putting Politics Ahead of People

One would hope that both the facts and the severity of the situation would prevent politicians and talking heads from turning this issue into partisan talking points about the need to build more dirty, fossil fuel power plants.  Sadly, we're not so lucky.  It didn't take long for folks with a purely partisan political agenda to try to create a diversion from rolling blackouts, which left thousands without power during one of the coldest days of the year in Texas, as proof of a vast conspiracy.  It apparently all started with the website Prison Planet.tv, which includes among its “weaponized weather” claims the idea that "for decades the US government has had the power to both lessen and increase the severity of adverse weather for their own purposes." Hmmm??? 

Three brand new coal plants were knocked out by the cold weather, but that hasn't stopped people from clamoring for more of the same.  Instead we should be focusing on precautions that would actually help Texas avoid this kind of situation in the future, precautions most homeowners already take like insulating pipes to prevent them from bursting.  Smart planning also includes diversifying our state’s energy portfolio to protect Texans from unexpected situations.  Increasing our wind resources or finally tapping in to Texas' solar powerhouse could have prevented this issue altogether.  But instead we're stuck talking about issues to help people win elections, not to stay warm.

From what I can tell the internet rumors conclude that President Obama is personally responsible for shutting down power plants "from coast to coast" during last week's rolling blackouts in Texas.  They even go so far as to accuse him of treason.  Soon after The Fox Nation, and others like Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, claimed that the Texas blackouts were “a direct consequence of the Obama administration’s agenda to lay siege to the coal industry, launch a takeover of infrastructure under the contrived global warming scam, and help usher in the post-industrial collapse of America.” 

Address the Problem, Not the Diversions

Texas politicians got in the act too: Rep. Louie Gohmert took a break from yelling about terror babies to blame federal environmental regulations on the rolling blackouts.  State lawmakers and regulators were a little more circumspect, probably because they're more involved with the day to day operations of the grid.  Some couldn't resist placing blame on wind generation, but that may have been before the grid operator's very public word of thanks to the wind industry for saving Texas from a statewide blackout.

In the end unfortunately these internet rumors and political posturing are a lot of hot air that risk distracting policy makers from the real issues that need to be addressed to keep Texans warm in the winter and cool in the summer: winterizing power plants and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.  These political diversions also keep us from addressing the real issues like modernizing our antiquated electric grid so that it is better able to detect outages sooner, and pinpoint and fix problems more quickly.  That would probably be asking for too much from Rush Limbaugh, but I hope our state legislators can keep their focus on the facts and not conspiracy theories.

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