We must be careful that the rush to decarbonise doesn’t mean you can no longer keep the lights on
If you are going to call your quango the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, it is not a good sign when your website goes down. Contacting electricity providers is just one of the problems that the people of the second most populous US state have had to contend with in the past week as blackouts followed record cold temperatures. At one point on Tuesday, half the state’s normal power capacity was out of action.
Predictably enough, Texas’s frosted landscape has become a battleground between climate change sceptics, who blame iced-up wind farms for the power outages and say the cold weather disproves theories of a warming climate, and the green brigade, who point out that the greater part of the problem this week has been frozen gas infrastructure, and claim that freezing temperatures are actually evidence of an overheating Earth.
Yet the real lesson of the Texas big freeze isn’t really about climate change. In fact, it’s far more limited: that Texas doesn’t have a reliable and weather-proof energy infrastructure. All sorts of equipment collapsed: wind turbines, gas plants, power lines. Moreover, they did so at time when, thanks to the cold, demand for energy soared. At one point wholesale energy prices hit $900 (£642) per MWh compared with the normal $25 per MWh.
In America as in Britain, debate is becoming fixated on decarbonising energy without thinking enough about resilience. We have targets for closing coal-fired power stations and for achieving net zero; we spend rather less time thinking about how to keep the lights on during times of stress, whether it be through natural or man-made disaster. We invest in more and more intermittent forms of energy such as wind and solar while the provision of energy storage lags well behind, resulting in several close shaves recently as the wind dropped and the sun went down….
Texas, which produces more electricity than other US state, has shown that nobody can be blasé about the risk of blackouts. We should take it as a warning and make energy resilience at least as much a priority as eliminating carbon emissions.