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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Texas blackouts fuel false claims about renewable energy

Winter storm in US leads to political clashes over climate change

With millions of Texas residents still without power on Tuesday amid frigid temperatures, conservative commentators presented a false narrative that wind turbines and solar energy were primarily to blame.

“We should never build another wind turbine in Texas,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Facebook. “The experiment failed big time.”

“This is a perfect example of the need for reliable energy sources like natural gas and coal,” tweeted Senator Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, on Tuesday.

In reality, failures in natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems were responsible for nearly twice as many power cuts as frozen wind turbines and solar panels, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which operates the state’s power grid, said on Tuesday.

Still, misleading claims about renewable energy spread on social media, with wind turbines and the Green New Deal getting much of the attention.

A photograph of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine was shared with claims it showed a chemical solution being applied to one of the enormous massive wind generators in Texas. The only problem? The photo was taken in Sweden years ago, not in the US in 2021. And the helicopter was spraying hot water on to the wind turbine, not chemicals.

Other social media users, including Republican Lauren Boebert of Colorado, puzzlingly labelled the Green New Deal as the culprit. Ms Boebert tweeted on Monday that the proposal was “proven unsustainable as renewables are clearly unreliable”.

But the Green New Deal is irrelevant, because no version of it exists in Texas or nationwide, said Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Programme and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

“It’s really natural gas and coal and nuclear that are providing the bulk of the electricity and that’s the bulk of the cause of the blackouts,” Mr Jacobson told Associated Press.

Ercot said on Tuesday that of the 45,000 total megawatts of power that were offline statewide, about 30,000 consisted of thermal sources – gas, coal and nuclear plants – while 16,000 were from renewable sources.

On top of that, while Texas has generated more wind energy in recent years, the state still relies on wind power for about 25 per cent of its total electricity, according to Ercot data.

“It’s not like we were relying on it to ride us through this event,” Joshua Rhodes, a research associate at the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin, told AP. “Nor would it have been able to save us even if it were operating at 100 per cent capacity right now. We just don’t have enough of it.”

The agency confirmed that wellhead freezes and other issues curtailing supply in natural gas systems were primarily to blame for new blackouts on Tuesday, after severe winter weather caused failures across various fuel types in recent days.

Renewable energy is a popular scapegoat for new problems as more frequent extreme weather events strain infrastructure, said Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“It’s easy to focus on the thing that you can see changing as the source of why an outcome is changing,” Ms Grubert told AP. “The reality is that managing our systems is becoming more difficult. And that’s something that is easy to blame on the reaction to it, but it’s not actually the root cause.”

The big freeze has also brought operations to a halt at the Houston Ship channel, while some of the biggest oil refineries remained offline in the nation's largest crude-producing state.

"A lot of terminals are closed. That is mostly keeping employees out of the roads," said a pilot dispatcher of the Houston Pilots Association, which guides vessels in and out of the channel, a 85 kilometre waterway connecting the busiest US petrochemical port with the Gulf of Mexico.

About 13 vessels are waiting to depart, while 18 are in a queue to come into the waterway, the dispatcher said.

The cold snap has shut off some of the biggest refineries in the Gulf Coast, contributing to a rally in oil prices to near 13-month highs.

Valero Energy Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp, Total SE, Motiva Enterprises had halted operations at their Texas plants by Monday.

About 807,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude processing was offline in the Corpus Christi area, while 1.2 million bpd was out in the Beaumont, Nederland and Port Arthur regions, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said.

About 1.3-1.8 million bpd remained offline in Houston, Wood Mackenzie said.

"The combination of increasing demand of heating fuels and refinery outages are likely to trigger a spike in prices across the suite of refined products from diesel to propane," Rystad Energy's vice president for oil markets Paola Rodriguez Masiu said in a note.

"The new outages will tighten supply for refined fuels as over 3 million barrels of capacity have been now hit."

Updated: February 18, 2021 06:51 AM

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