You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Conservatives Are Seriously Accusing Wind Turbines of Killing People in the Texas Blackouts

Tucker Carlson and others are using the deadly storm to attack wind power, but the state’s independent, outdated grid and unreliable natural gas generation are to blame.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson gesticulates while speaking at an event.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At least two million people were left without power in Texas as temperatures plummeted and snow piled up on Monday. Wholesale power prices careened toward all-time highs. Worryingly, some 60 percent of homes in Texas get their heat from electricity, with many using heat pumps that can fail in extreme conditions.* Perhaps counterintuitively, those conditions are in part the product of a climate crisis driven by the fossil fuel industry. Warming in the Arctic, research suggests, allows for more cold air to escape farther south. Now fossil fuel backers are spreading misinformation suggesting the blackouts are reason to burn more fossil fuels.

About 90 percent of Texas’s grid is part of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Save for a few lines, ERCOT is largely cut off from power in neighboring states. That’s because back in 1935, the state government was eager to avoid being regulated under the Federal Power Act. The Federal Power Act was passed to regulate interstate electricity sales, in the wake of massive scandals involving utility holding companies. It established what’s known today as the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission. To this day, Texas exists outside of FERC’s jurisdiction.

Grid management is a beast of a planning challenge, requiring different contingencies for turning disparate sources of generation on and off to suit certain conditions. Less important than whether a certain generation source is running at any given point is whether the grid managers expect it to be running. That’s an even bigger challenge for an outmoded grid with fewer tools available. For its winter peaking capacity, Texas relies inordinately on natural gas, which it seemingly assumed would be available around the clock, in the worst of wintry conditions. It wasn’t. And yet already, right-wing pundits are blaming the state’s wind farms for the outages, which incidentally also affected neighboring grids like the Southwest Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

Within a few hours of grid horror stories percolating out beyond the Lone Star state, outlets like Breitbart and the Wall Street Journal began to publish grisly tales of a green revolution: that an abundance of wind turbines in Texas had been rendered practically useless by a chilly day and posed a danger to state residents. “The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died,” said Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. Yet a surprising number of mainstream media outlets also adopted the narrative. Reuters, for example, mentioned offline wind resources in the first lines of its story about the outages—illustrated with a picture showing a field of turbines. “Frozen wind turbines contribute to rolling power blackouts across Texas,” ran CNN’s headline. The New York Times led with it, too.

As of Monday afternoon, 26 of the 34 gigawatts in ERCOT’s grid that had gone offline were from “thermal” sources, meaning gas and coal. The system’s total installed capacity in the system, Power magazine’s Sonal Patel noted, is around 77.2 GW. Wind and solar power, meanwhile, produced near or even above planned capacity, according to energy analyst Jesse Jenkins, as only small amounts of wind and solar are utilized in peaking conditions. Wind turbines did indeed freeze, and did eventually underperform. But so did natural gas infrastructure, and to a far greater degree. That proved to be a much larger problem since it makes up such a huge proportion of the state’s power supply in extreme weather. And frozen power lines and equipment were a far bigger cause of outages than generation shortages.

As Rice University’s Daniel Cohan put it on Twitter, “ERCOT expected to get low capacity factors from wind and solar during winter peak demand. What it didn’t expect is >20 GW of outages from thermal (mostly natural gas) power plants.” Despite these realities, the narrative about the outages thus far has disproportionately focused on turbines underperforming in the cold due to ice on their blades—and barely mentioned failures in the vast majority of the grid powered by fossil fuels.

Events like this are a godsend to fossil fuel interests eager to build more polluting infrastructure. Investor-owned utilities can’t simply raise rates whenever they like. Instead, they have to go to regulators in statewide public service commissions to “rate base” new infrastructure, i.e., pass the cost of things like new polluting “peaker plants” down to customers. Spun the right way, the chaos playing out in Texas could help them make the case for rate hikes and new fossil fuel infrastructure around the country—all the more so if regulators already enjoy a cozy relationship to the power companies they’re supposed to rein in.

Polluters are eager to argue that all other sources of power generation—especially renewables—are fickle and vulnerable to disruption. While serving as energy secretary, Rick Perry repeatedly droned on about the 2014 polar vortex as a reason to bail out flailing coal and nuclear facilities in the name of grid resilience, even though many piles of coal ended up freezing in those winter weather events. A similar situation played out a decade ago. When Texas was hit with a storm and then rolling blackouts in 2011, Rush Limbaugh piled on and the Drudge Report called the outages “a direct consequence of the Obama administration’s agenda to lay siege to the coal industry.” Then—as now—it was overwhelmingly fossil fuel power that underperformed.

This line gets used as a blanket argument for rapid-fire fossil fuel development, casting doubt on the potential of low-carbon power to meet the country’s energy needs. As it happens, the shambolic nature of the shale revolution over the last decade has seen drillers in Texas, in particular, burn off copious amounts of natural gas—$750 billion just in 2018—rather than putting it to work on the grid.

What’s happened to ERCOT should indeed pose a wake-up call, but not the one industry lobbyists have in mind. Climate change will stress energy grids in ways that are all too real, part of a vicious cycle from burning prodigious amounts of fossil fuels. Thanks in no small part to decades of lobbying from fossil fuel interests in shifting the country to the right, federal investment in modernized infrastructure that could better deal with that stress has been severely lacking.

Transforming the grid for the twenty-first century demands exactly the kind of public-serving administrative creativity that fossil fuel political spending has tried to eradicate: not just to transition off fossil fuels—letting power providers accept as well as distribute power, building out transmission lines to get electrons where they’re most needed—but to make cheap and clean power available everywhere in the country. The real message of this week’s episode in Texas is not that renewable power is inherently unreliable. Nor is it that wind can just pull all the weight on a grid (it can’t). The message is that a system that is supposed to be the tip of the spear of decarbonization is buckling under the weight of stresses that will soon look mild, as we see ever-greater changes in weather thanks to global warming.

A greener and more reliable grid is within reach. Obviously loading it up with fossil fuel infrastructure isn’t the answer. But neither is simply flooding it with renewables. Everything from physical infrastructure to energy consumption habits needs to change. For that, we need a plan.

A previous version of this sentence incorrectly implied that heat pumps were more effective in extreme weather.