Like Shelly Aldean, my heart goes out to the Texans who suffered during the recent big freeze in their state. However, I was disappointed in her recent column blaming renewable energy, because it mischaracterizes the root cause of the Texas power and water outages and makes a number of other misleading arguments for not reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which are undeniably the main cause of a warming Earth.
So why was the Texas electricity grid not able to handle several days of cold weather? There are two main reasons. First, Texas has a deregulated power market where power utilities purchase energy from in-state power generators. The Texas power grid is isolated from the rest of the country, so when the power generators cannot produce enough electricity (for whatever reason) then the power utilities cannot draw on power from outside the state.
Most of the Texas grid has an independent system operator, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). According to ERCOT, Texas gets about 47% of its electricity from natural gas, 20% from coal, and 20% from wind. Most of the rest is nuclear.
Texas had a big freeze in 1989 and another one in 2011. Electricity supplies were interrupted, people were cold, and industry was impacted. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation analyzed why and issued a report that offered recommendations for winterizing the system so that it would operate in colder temperatures like utilities in colder parts of the country.
But the Texas electricity generators and ERCOT chose not to do this. And that is the second main reason why Texans froze — because the gas power plants and gas distribution lines could not operate in the cold weather. And how did the ERCOT and the governor spin this? They blamed wind turbines — not their mismanagement of the electrical system. And without power the water treatment and distribution systems (also not resilient to cold temps) could not operate.
The nominal cost of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost to society — particularly to those living next door to the production facilities. The Harvard School of Medicine estimates that the annual cost of healthcare due to mining and burning coal is $75 billion. Wind and solar impact nearby communities far less. You can run a cattle ranch and grow wheat in a wind farm. And increasingly wind facilities are being located offshore. Both Denmark and Scotland get about half their electricity from wind. Solar farms do not cause lung cancer or black lung disease.
The transition to renewable energy will require better storage and currently there is extensive research into storage systems — whether that is battery storage or other storage systems like pump-storage of water. The cost of battery storage is decreasing rapidly as production is ramped up.
The impact of energy prices on poorer communities in our country (and world-wide) is indeed a concern. But the solution is not to delay implementation of renewable energy — it is to speed it up. The newest wind and solar installations with battery storage are cheaper than gas-generated electricity and much cheaper than coal. If we continue to commission more gas-fired plants or build pipelines to transport dirty, carbon-intense oil across the county we’ll be locking ourselves into more expensive electricity.
The real question that needs to be addressed is not whether we should transition to renewable energy — that is going to happen anyway because of economics: it is how are we going to manage the transition? How do we make it as equitable as possible? How do we do it quickly enough?
There are a number of ways to address these issues. Some people and politicians do not favor a regulatory approach, though some regulations definitely help the consumer and the environment. New skills development and job training will certainly be necessary as we transition from fossil fuels to renewables.
However, the most effective action would be to put a price on burning carbon-based fossil fuels that reflects their true cost to society. Currently, we taxpayers pay for the external costs of burning fossil fuels – increased healthcare to treat respiratory and other diseases caused by air pollution; the cost of mopping up after more intense fires and floods made worse by a warming climate; and for mitigating intensifying coastal flooding and erosion due to rising sea levels.
Economists overwhelmingly agree the quickest and most effective way to reduce GHG emissions and slow global warming is to place a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels at their source (coal mine, oil refinery, etc.) and return all the money collected to the American people in equal shares. This concept is known as Carbon Fee and Dividend.
It will give us a fighting chance to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It is revenue neutral, good for the economy and our health, effective and fair. Please encourage Rep. Amodei and Sens. Cortez Masto and Rosen to support this proposal when it is reintroduced in Congress later this year.
Chas Macquarie is a member of the Carson City Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.