In extreme Texas cold, Green New Deal turns into hot potato
Democrats blame climate change for the historic freeze, but Republicans say clean energy worsened the crisis.
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott told Fox News host Sean Hannity during an interview earlier this week.
“Texas is blessed with multiple sources of energy, such as natural gas and nuclear, as well as solar and wind,” the Republican governor continued, blasting the idea of the federal government coordinating a national transition to low-carbon fuels.
Abbott faulted renewable energy sources for Texas’s “situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis”. But climate scientists and environmental policy experts say this read on current events could not be further from the truth, as a large swath of the United States copes with a massive cold snap that brought snow, ice and wind to communities unprepared for the freezing conditions.
Democrats, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the top proponents of the landmark climate resolution, clapped back against Abbott’s assessment of the situation.
Infrastructure weaknesses in the Lone Star State are “quite literally what happens when you don’t pursue a Green New Deal,” Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter.
The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) February 17, 2021
As millions of Americans across Texas and a dozen other states slowly find their electricity turning back on, the debate continues about how best to prevent another such disaster from affecting the electric grid so severely.
“The Green New Deal has nothing to do with our problems in Texas,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of engineering at Rice University. “Wind and solar power came up just a couple of gigawatts short of expectations for a peak winter day.”
He told Al Jazeera that the state had 25 gigawatts of outages at natural gas plants – more than double what grid operators thought possible – along with a few gigawatts of outages from coal and nuclear plants.
“To pretend that the smallest of the gaps is the biggest cause of the problem is deeply deceptive,” Cohan said of attempts to use a political cudgel. “Natural gas systems failed to provide those plants with a reliable supply of fuel.”
Energy infrastructure should be built to withstand a full range of extreme events, added Cohan, suggesting that moving to clean sources could help provide affordable and reliable power throughout the year.
‘Core to the Texas ethos’
Some Texans have been confused about why their governor lashed out against the precursor to national legislation that has yet to pass through Congress in Washington, DC, or in Austin, the state capital.
“There is no Green New Deal in Texas, nor has there ever been,” said Joshua Rhodes, an energy research associate at the University of Texas at Austin. “Any investment in renewables has been because private companies have seen the opportunity to make money, which is core to the Texas ethos.”
Rhodes told Al Jazeera that there have been some problems with “wind farms icing up and going offline [but] the majority of our outages have been from our thermal fleet, the majority of which is natural gas”.
He said that gas supply issues and freezing water pipes appear to be the main issue when it comes to loss of capacity at power plants, and that the recent blackouts are no excuse to question the durability of alternative energy.
Referring to the benefits of a comprehensive national energy policy, Rhodes said that the grid should be able to move bulk amounts of power from regions that have excess to regions that are in need.
The events of the past week have exposed problems with multiple sources of electricity and many types of infrastructure, including water, wastewater, transportation and industry.
John Hall, the director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Al Jazeera, “This storm has shown that our facilities are not ready for the weather we’re experiencing.”
Hall cited the need for a centralised grid with electric vehicles, battery storage and ample solar panels.
Repeating the words of his 84-year-old uncle who lives in a rural area between the cities of Houston and Austin, Hall said that having the whole state under freezing temperatures was a once-in-a-century event witnessed “never before in my life”.
“The challenge is to recognise that we’ve got to move forward by reducing greenhouse gas and methane emissions,” Hall added, before going back to the weatherisation issue. “Build it out in such a way that is resilient.”
Though Texas has the second-largest economy of any state, many sceptics argue that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has not been empowered to impose winterisation or other such regulatory requirements on generating companies.
Governor Abbott, for his part, has called for emergency reforms to how ERCOT works. Abbott said on Thursday that ERCOT had not presented realistic assessments before the inclement weather hit, and he also announced mandatory weatherisation policies.
His lieutenant governor, fellow Republican Dan Patrick, told Fox News on Thursday that the problems were not attributable to green energy.
“We had a breakdown everywhere,” Patrick said, adding that a state senate investigation into the outages will begin in the next week.
‘Stratospheric polar vortex’
In the nation’s capital, climate advocates resist the idea that moving in the direction of the Green New Deal would leave Texas more vulnerable to being stuck in the cold.
Josh Freed, senior vice president for climate and energy at the centre-left think-tank Third Way, believes that big federal spending could rescue many parts of the country from a similar fate that has left Texans without heat in the dead of winter amid a pandemic and a deep recession.
“You can only plan for so much of a natural disaster, but the Republican zeal for deregulation at all costs, and a complete lack of faith in government as a way to help the public, is unfortunately, coming back to bite the citizenry at the worst time possible,” Freed said.
“We had the same problem in Flint [Michigan water crisis], during [Hurricane] Katrina, in California with wildfires, and in a lot of other places,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that Texas last saw a similar cold spell a decade ago.
Freed argues that US President Joe Biden’s much-vaunted infrastructure package could be introduced by summer, presenting a broad vision to restore roads, construct new bridges, build carbon capture systems, fix methane leaks and install broadband for rural areas.
But many sceptics doubt whether the public sector can act quickly and efficiently, with the calibre of costly measures that could realistically guard against Mother Nature’s wrath.
“Variable weather means that when it does rain, the rain is much more severe. And when we have a drought, it’s deeper and more durable,” said Freed. “Temperatures may on average be warmer, but when it gets cold, it seems to get much colder.”
Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, said that Arctic air is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, though is not as cold as it used to be.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t get extremely cold air masses like we have now,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to “disruption of the stratospheric polar vortex”.
“Instead of being strong and circular, sitting over the North Pole, it can drift southward – which is exactly what happened this winter,” Francis said. “There is emerging evidence that these things are happening more often in connection with climate change.”
Francis added: “Cold in Minnesota or Wisconsin is no big deal. But when it ventures way far south, it’s a desperate situation.”
“We saw this outbreak coming two weeks earlier. It shouldn’t have been a surprise,” she said. “They’ve got to spend some money, scratch their heads, and stop ignoring this problem.”