Gov. Ricketts’ statement blaming wind energy for electric outages was misleading and his proposed solution of reliance on coal profoundly misguided. It would ultimately worsen the problem.
We all agree that electric outages are unacceptable. But to prevent them, we need to understand what caused them.
We are part of the Southwest Power Pool, which manages the grid from North Dakota to Oklahoma and a small slice of Texas. There was a significant loss of generation in its southern region, hit by the coldest temperatures in 70 years.
Wind was not the primary problem, though some southern wind turbines were shut down due to icing. Outages of natural gas generation were four times greater, as unweatherized southern gas wells stopped operating.
Wind turbines to the north continued generating because they were weatherized and precipitation came as snow rather than ice. Anti-icing technology is available for wind turbines in areas prone to icing. But the southern plains is not accustomed to or prepared for such weather.
Contrary to the governor’s assertion, coal did not consistently outperform intermittent renewable generation. There were no solar outages. And though coal generation held up relatively well on our grid, it dropped sharply in most of Texas because plants were not weatherized and water lines froze.
The core problem is the increase in extreme weather caused by climate change, which is fueled by burning more coal. The impact of coal on climate is a matter of high consensus among scientists who study climate. Ninety-seven percent agree that burning fossil fuels is changing our climate, according to peer-reviewed research.
There is also strong scientific consensus that climate change increases the likelihood and severity of extreme weather. A National Academy of Sciences report by a panel of leading climate scientists stated with “high scientific confidence” that climate change contributes to extreme cold events, as well as extreme heat. Rising temperatures in the Arctic can weaken the jet stream, delivering the polar vortex to our door steps.
The cost of inaction on climate is high. Nebraskans know that from the 2019 floods. Texans are now facing estimated costs of as much as $50 billion. In both instances, lives were lost. And going forward, climate change will impose a growing cost on our state’s agriculture. We’ll face hotter summers, more frequent and severe droughts and a greater share of our rain in heavy downpours.
I do agree with the governor that we can benefit from continued operation of our current nuclear generation. It is a carbon-free source of electricity. But he is wrong about renewable generation. It’s growing for good reason. The cost is low, corporate customers are demanding it and it addresses the threat and cost of climate change.
Nebraska utilities and the Southwest Power Pool manage renewables well. Solar offsets wind by their tendency to generate at different times. Transmission lines move electricity from states where wind is blowing to states where it is not. Batteries and other electric storage are playing a growing role.
And sufficient backup generation is maintained. Quick revving peaking plants play a key role fueled by natural gas, with zero-carbon hydrogen fuels on the horizon. With continued technological innovation, increasing levels of renewables become increasingly practical.
It’s fiscally responsible and better overall to invest in preventing problems rather than living for the moment and paying the cost down the road. Our ancestors rejected the “live for today” mentality to leave us something better. We should do the same.
We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors and future generations to make responsible investments in renewable energy now, to prevent more frequent, severe and costly calamities in the future.
Chuck Hassebrook, of Lincoln, works in solar power development and is a former regent of the University of Nebraska.