In Texas and across much of the South, record-breaking cold temperatures and ice storms trapped millions of people indoors without electricity. People froze to death, and failing water treatment facilities left millions of Texans under boil advisories.
For me, what happened was personal. I lived in Texas for years, and most of my wife's relatives still do. We spent days worrying about them. Thankfully they are all fine now, but most experienced power outages and water shutoffs in bitterly cold weather for which Texas homes aren't designed.
So what happened?
In short, the cold weather caused very high energy usage, even as generating units went offline, because of extreme conditions. Texas's fossil fuel-heavy electric power grid simply couldn't handle the peak load.
Conservative Texas politicians and right-wing media, absurdly, blamed everything from wind power to the Green New Deal for the crisis. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the Texas grid, generating units went offline "across fuel types" — especially natural gas.
Independent experts agree. "Texas is a gas state," said Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. And "gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now."
This isn't surprising. A lot of peak generation capacity, which is brought online only when demand peaks, uses natural gas. What's more, two-thirds of electricity generation in Texas uses fossil fuels, with 47% from natural gas alone. Only one-fifth is from wind energy.
Fossil fuels are also to blame in a larger sense.
Texas and the South are more likely to experience freak cold snaps today because warming planetary surface temperatures are destabilizing the jet stream, causing extremely cold Arctic air masses to flow south.
That's right: global warming makes extreme cold weather events more likely.
So when propagandists spew misinformation about "freezing wind turbines" and advocate more fossil-fuel use, they're actively calling for measures that would make disasters such as the deep freeze in Texas more frequent.
This propaganda isn't new. It's an old, repeatedly debunked claim that wind, solar, and other renewables are less reliable.
Under Rick Perry, the one-time Texas governor and the Trump administration's former secretary of energy, the U.S. Department of Energy produced a highly flawed, politicized 2017 study alleging that renewable sources made the grid unreliable. Professional researchers at Perry's own agency disputed the claim. Now Perry is claiming that Texans would rather freeze to death than endure federal regulation of the state's energy grid.
In truth, the reliability of the nation's grid is improving — even as the share of energy from intermittent renewable sources increases.
So how can we prevent more disasters? For starters, a more decentralized (but interconnected), locally controlled grid with distributed renewable-energy generation and storage would go a long way toward preventing and mitigating such crises.
If the grid is made up of interconnected microgrids, it's easier to isolate breakdowns in the grid so they don't lead to power outages over a vast area. A decentralized grid, powered by locally controlled renewables, would also make it more cost-effective to electrify remote rural communities and reduce reliance on polluting, corporate-controlled power generation.
It's also essential to require utilities to prepare for more weather-related emergencies, which Texas's climate-denialist authorities plainly failed to do. But they're hardly alone. Utility regulators across the country must make sure utilities are better prepared for the disasters we know are coming.
Finally, we must end the era of fossil fuels, which are making disasters such as the Texas freeze more likely.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies (ips-dc.org), a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. He wrote this originally for InsideSources.com.