Publications

- April 1, 2021: Vol. 8, Number 4

When Mother Nature messed with Texas: Lessons learned from the Lone Star State

by Ben Webb

It’s a well-known fact here in the western hemisphere that one does not mess with Texas. Unless, of course, you are Mother Nature, who delivered a crippling snowstorm in February that brought the electrical grid in Texas to the brink of collapse. In what is destined to become a Gerard Butler movie, Texas was a mere 4 minutes and 37 seconds from a full shutdown of the grid, from which it would have taken weeks, if not months, to recover. Instead, rolling blackouts and voluntary shutdowns lowered the load on the grid enough to allow recovery.

As soon as Texas began to thaw, people went to work assigning blame. Most point to Texas’s decision to deregulate electricity, while others point to its lack of desire to integrate with other states, maintaining its independence from federal oversight. Others still point to untested renewable energy in the form of frozen windmills. As with most mishaps, it was a mixture of issues.

If electricity providers in Texas were forced to protect their equipment against the cold to the same standards as Alaska, yes, that would have helped. If Texas had integrated its grid with Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana, yes, that would have helped. If windmills in Texas were built to the same standards as those in North Dakota, yes, that would have helped.

These critiques focus on the faults in the electrical grid rather than the true takeaways:

Energy diversification held Texas back from full on collapse. While coal, natural gas and wind were failing, solar power was performing just fine, providing much needed power to the grid. This energy diversification and leadership in renewable energy was made possible by Texas’s deregulation and freedom from federal oversight. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Texas leads the United States with 91 gigawatt hours of renewable energy, more than the bottom 23 states combined. Texas is the largest producer of electricity from wind power in the United States, and the fifth-largest solar power generator.

Hard lessons are necessary as humans learn and plan for the global transition away from fossil fuel dependency. This transition will require massive investment from the private sector, states and countries that are willing to take risks, and the willingness to learn from those taking risks.

Failures often lay the groundwork for progress. Though adopting new technology can feel risky, amenities we take for granted today would never have happened without our predecessors taking on risk. For example, in 1882, Pearl Street Station was built as the first modern power plant, delivering DC current to light parts of New York with the newly invented Edison bulb. Eight years later it burned to the ground and was finally decommissioned in 1895. That failure laid the groundwork to where we are today, where we rarely question if the light is going to come on each time we flip the switch.

I do not know what the future of renewable energy is, but I do know that we are going to need it, and we are going to need those who pave the road to get there. Regulators would be wise to acknowledge this and be slow in “messing with Texas,” or focusing on failures rather than opportunities for innovation. The global transition will require this type of bravery. Stifling innovation now would set us all up poorly for the coming storm.

 

Ben Webb is director of manager selection and implementation at Balentine. He is also a member of the Real Assets Adviser editorial advisory board.

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