Why Divesting From Fossil Fuels Wouldn’t Have Prevented the Texas Blackouts

Solar farm in Calhoun county, MI; photo from mLive.com

I’ve been seeing a lot of people on Twitter dot com the last couple of days who firmly believe that divesting from fossil fuels would have prevented the blackouts that are currently happening in Texas, and that the oil and gas industries are responsible. While I agree that fossil fuels are “bad” and that the fossil fuel industry’s profit-driven agenda certainly does not prioritize climate change, I do not think that the system is the only problem here, it’s also the science.

Natural gas has been particularly under attack by Twitter users in my circle, since it accounts for most of the energy losses that Texas has experienced in the last few days, especially compared to solar and wind. The first thing people need to understand about this is that natural gas has water in it, and will freeze if the temperature is low enough, which is why natural gas supply has been such an issue. Granted, other states seeing this extreme cold have had less issues, but this kind of weather is expected and prepared for in states like Michigan. However, when you look at the data, the Texas power grid is largely sustained by electricity production via natural gas burning. In 2018, natural gas made up about 40% of electric power consumption in Texas, where renewable energy makes up about 20% (not to mention, renewable energy includes solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, and wood/waste energy). When you think about the massive natural gas energy losses people talk about, it makes sense, since natural gas makes up a massive portion of the market.

Ok, so natural gas is unreliable in the cold, why didn’t the government or the fossil fuel industry transition to using more renewable energy to deal with it? Well, let’s look at solar energy as an example.

First of all, solar panels can’t operate when there is snow and/or ice on the panels. Now I don’t live in Texas, but if Dallas really did get 7 inches of snow like the news said, then solar was producing little to no energy unless the snow melted or someone went and manually scraped the snow off of the panels. It is fact that solar panels do not work when they are covered in snow or ice. If the Texas grid was more reliant on solar, we would still have seen an energy shortage because of this weather. Even if the whole state wasn’t covered in snow, solar could not have kept up with the energy demand from this week. Winter isn’t a peak energy demand in Texas because the weather is usually pretty mild. The people who run the grid know this and prepare accordingly.

Another issue with solar is that we don’t have the technology to store it efficiently. Residential sized batteries are being developed for solar energy storage in home systems, but they only have a capacity of about 8 hours of energy for one household, not to mention, they’re pricey. We flat out do not have the technological ability to store a state’s worth of energy for more than a few hours, if at all. That kind of technology is incredibly complicated, if it’s even possible. I think part of this disconnect for people is that many of us just expect technology to work how we want because that’s what we’re used to. In this case, we can’t expect R&D teams to whip battery technology of that scale up on a whim, and honestly, it’s kind of unfair for us to expect them to do so. Battery technology works on the atomic scale, and is really hard to understand and develop, at least in my opinion (as someone whose field is a pipeline to the battery industry).

Before I continue, I want to reiterate, there is no reason people should be freezing in their homes like this. The power sector should be more prepared for inclement weather. However, I truly don’t think solar power is the solution to this specific issue. It may reduce emissions, but we would still be seeing energy shortages across the country. Solar is not the be all end all solution to the energy problems in the United States.

As for wind turbines, the issue here is that wind turbines in Texas aren’t built with deicing equipped. In northern areas, wind turbines are better able to deal with cold weather when it comes. Since it isn’t usually cold in Texas, deicing capability isn’t usually needed.

Texas certainly has the infrastructural capability to generate more wind power than it is this month, considering peak wind speeds in Texas happen in late March/early April. However, even if it was operating at 100% capacity, without deicing equipped, this weather would have caused losses. Same deal as solar, not the solution.

Let’s look at California as an example. Renewables make up something like 30% of their energy consumption, whereas we know that renewables make up a smaller fraction of Texas’ market. California has rolling blackouts in the summer (when solar operates most efficiently) because they cannot keep up with the energy demand with the energy portfolio that they have.

So I suppose long story short is that a lot of people are misdirecting their anger at the energy industry for not divesting from fossil fuels, when it should be directed at the state’s lack of preparedness for disaster. And don’t get me wrong, the energy industry isn’t free from fault. They could have done more to be prepared, like integrating deicing technology into their wind turbine design to be more prepared for our changing climate. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is really important, it’s just that lack of divestment from them is not why Texas is experiencing these blackouts.

I don’t usually write opinion pieces like this, but while I’m at it, I’d like to propose a solution. I am a BIG fan of nuclear power. Nuclear is a scary word for a lot of people, which is understandable. However, nuclear power plants are relatively safe. Nuclear power is essentially emission-less after upstream processes (uranium mining, plant construction) are accounted for, and while technically it isn’t “renewable” (uranium is a finite resource), it is sustainable. They can run year round and in cold temperatures. Unfortunately, the general public has a “not in my backyard” attitude about nuclear power plants, which creates both political and economic barriers to implementation.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert. I am an undergraduate student studying Materials Engineering, focusing on sustainability. Most of my knowledge on these topics comes from my education in this field.

I am a senior studying Materials Engineering with a specialized study in Sustainable Engineering at the University of Michigan. All opinions are my own.

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