Fact Check: Renewable Energy Sources Are NOT The Leading Cause Of Blackouts Amid Deadly Winter Storm

Fact Check

  • by: Dana Ford
Fact Check: Renewable Energy Sources Are NOT The Leading Cause Of Blackouts Amid Deadly Winter Storm System Failure

Are renewable energy sources the main reason for blackouts amid a deadly winter storm? No, that's not true: Renewables like wind and solar continue to produce, according to power grid officials, and are not the leading cause of the blackouts. Experts consulted by Lead Stories generally agreed that if any one source was most to blame it would be natural gas, but the failure is much larger than just one generation technology. It's system-wide.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) published on February 16, 2021. The post read:

Rolling blackouts now in 13 states. Windmills are frozen. Electrical grids crippled. No solar. No wind. No hydro. A literal perfect storm to test if an all-renewable energy plan would work. Judging how we fared without being all renewable, I'd say killing fossil fuels is a short-sighted idea at best. Just because green energy sounds good on paper, in practice, it failed.

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Feb 17 21:40:27 2021 UTC)

The post, which did not cite any source, was referring to a deadly winter storm system that's gripped parts of the United States in mid-February 2021. In a bid "to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole," the Southwest Power Pool, on February 16, 2021, ordered rolling blackouts in 14 states, including Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.

The post is correct on that point, but it is not correct in putting the blame for the blackouts primarily on renewable energy sources. To understand why, let's consider the case of Texas, which was hardest hit by the storm and where millions of people lost power.

According to the a statement from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), dated February 18, 2021, roughly 40,000 megawatts of generation remained on "forced outage," and 23,500 megawatts of that was thermal generation -- which means 58% of the outages were natural gas, coal and nuclear energy, while about 42% would be wind and solar. In other words, renewable energy sources are not the main reason for the blackouts.

Also, contrary to what the post claimed, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, continued to produce. In a tweet, dated February 16, 2021, Jesse Jenkins, an engineering professor at Princeton University, said that wind was producing roughly two-thirds of what ERCOT had forecast, while solar was exceeding expectations. The main story, he wrote, "continues to be the failure of thermal power plants."

That isn't to say that renewables haven't also been challenged as a result of the extreme weather. Erik Olson, a climate and energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center, acknowledged the outsized impact of gas, while noting that no single factor or energy source is the cause of the blackouts per se. In an email, dated February 17, 2021, he wrote to Lead Stories:

Natural gas electricity has failed the most in terms of electricity capacity, but coal, nuclear, and wind energy have all had issues as well. Because Texas's electricity grid is powered by a plurality of natural gas, it naturally follows that natural gas related failures have had the largest impact. That being said, it isn't the 'fault' of natural gas or any single factor.
Asked about the post's claim regarding renewables, Olson described it as "deeply misleading at best and demonstrably false on most of its substance." He wrote:
Renewables are certainly not responsible for the blackout in Texas or anywhere else. Severe cold weather has challenged the entire Texas electricity system because (as you might imagine) Texas's grid reliability plans did not properly prepare for (it) -- hence the failures from multiple generation technologies.
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar can operate in cold weather, as Lead Stories has reported, but typically require some special equipment or preparation. During the storm, some wind turbines had icing, according to Daniel Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. But like the other experts in this fact-check, he played down the effect that renewables had as compared to other energy sources, looking at their output in Gigawatts, or "GW". In an email to Lead Stories, dated February 17, 2021, he wrote:
The shortfall between wind + solar and what ERCOT expected for a peak event was 2 GW, compared to 1 GW nuclear, a few GW coal, and around 30 GW of natural gas that went down.
On Twitter, Cohan chastised those who have blamed renewable energy sources as being the main culprit of the blackouts, stressing that the problem is much larger and system-wide.
In sum, blackouts are real, but renewable energy sources are not the primary cause. Despite some very real challenges, they have continued to produce, exceeding expectations in some instances.

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  Dana Ford

Dana Ford is an Atlanta-based reporter and editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at Atlanta Magazine Custom Media and as a writer/ editor for CNN Digital. Ford has more than a decade of news experience, including several years spent working in Latin America.

Read more about or contact Dana Ford

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