The Great Texas Power Crash

Everybody’s got a self-serving explanation of what happened in Texas, but there’s no convenient narrative here.

Photo Credit: Getty

In the Japanese classic movie Rashomon, three witnesses to a murder give earnest but conflicting accounts of what happened. In the end, the audience is left wondering.

Those hoping to understand what happened to the Texas electricity grid last week know the feeling. Commentators all see proof of their preconceived notions in the disaster. Those on the right blame renewables, those on the left blame fossil fuels. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But ignorance of evidence is sometimes evidence of ignorance.

Over at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes, “The crisis in Texas was preceded by more than a decade of Republican control of state government, as politicians focused on culture-war grievances rather than the nuts and bolts of governance.”

In fact, Texas state government has been a model of “nuts and bolts of governance” during several decades of Republican control. That is why nearly a million Californians have moved there, many of them poor people fleeing that state’s smothering safety net for the opportunity to make it in Texas.

Since the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s, Texas has emerged as the industrial engine of America’s economy, leading the country in virtually every sector, from energy and petrochemicals to heavy-machine tools and manufacturing. During much of the Obama presidency, Texas accounted for more than half of all the jobs created in the United States.

The chief reason is that Texas officials have managed to deliver to their citizens a good mix of services at half the cost per person of many other states, while keeping regulations relatively low. Another reason is that, for many years, Texas has had one of the world’s most efficient systems for the production and distribution of electricity. Electricity in Texas is so much cheaper than in California that California pushed the Obama administration to impose California’s system on everybody else, chiefly to eliminate the competitive advantage of states such as Texas. That was the basic idea of Obama’s “Clean Power Plan.”

Texas conservatives have certainly joined the battle on “culture war grievances,” and it is at least a breath of fresh air to hear progressives complaining about people’s grievances rather than fanning them. But the truth of the Texas grid crisis is both more complicated and simpler than most of the explanations you’ve heard — and it consists mostly of “nuts and bolts of governance.”

In rough outline, this is what appears to have happened. As the Texas economy has boomed in the past two decades, the state has struggled to add new electrical capacity. That effort has coincided with a massive shift from coal to natural gas as the “base load” for power generation, in the course of which most of the coal plants in Texas have been shuttered. (“Base load” is the minimum level of demand on a grid over a given time period.) The “supply chain” for gas-fired electricity is more complex and has many more possible points of failure than coal, but the shale boom has made gas America’s cheapest source of electricity — and gas also has the benefit of being far less “carbon intensive” than coal. As a result, Texas almost certainly leads the world in reducing carbon emissions per unit of industrial output.

So new capacity has been desperately needed in order to keep pace with the exploding demand and the retirement of most coal generation. But it has not. Texas has added hardly any new gas-fired electricity since 2015, while wind generation has more than doubled and now accounts for about a third of the total electricity capacity in Texas. Most of the new natural-gas generation of the past decade went to replace the coal that was being retired. So the new capacity required by the Texas’s rapidly expanding economy has come from renewables — chiefly wind.

Read the full article at National Review.