Feb 17, 2021

The Texas power failure.

The Texas power failure.

Is it renewables, or something else?

I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

The energy crisis in Texas, a reader question about “censures,” and some cool recognition from Forbes. Tomorrow, we’ll be covering Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 response.

A series of windmills in Texas. Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay

Thank you.

Yesterday, I was recognized in the Forbes #Next1000 entrepreneurs list for building Tangle. Forbes says they are honoring “1,000 bold and inspiring entrepreneurs on their way to breakthrough success” and I am thrilled and humbled to make the list. Most of all, I’m grateful for all of you, who read and subscribe and have truly made this possible. Thank you. My social media manager Magdalena has forced me to include this graphic (she also told me I need a new headshot, which is true):

Magdalena Bokowa

25 hours.

On the same day Forbes recognized me for my brilliant entrepreneurship, many of you were writing in to let me know that I wrote there were “25 hours” in a day in yesterday’s newsletter. Thank you for keeping me humble. Per my correction tracker rules, this is going down as a typo, not a correction, but to answer many of your sarcastic questions about my fat fingers: no, there are not 25 hours a day in Canada.

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden held a CNN town hall last night where he shot down the idea of forgiving $50,000 in student debt (CNN), said vaccines would be available to all by July (The New York Times, subscription) and that he’s open to negotiations on a $15 minimum wage (The Washington Post, subscription).
  2. Former President Trump released a scathing statement about Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling him “a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack,” and wrote that “if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again. He will never do what needs to be done, or what is right for our Country.” (Politico)
  3. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) announced that they were teaming up on legislation to both raise the minimum wage and reduce the number of undocumented immigrants working in America. (The New York Post)
  4. President Biden will meet with labor union leaders today at the White House to discuss a federal commitment to a massive infrastructure project. (The Wall Street Journal, subscription)
  5. President Biden and Democrats are preparing the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which will provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and boost technology for border security. (CNN)

A year ago today…

We were talking about Michael Bloomberg taking over the spotlight, the possibility he might win the Democratic nomination and the fact that he had spent $400 million on advertisements. Boy, does that seem like ancient history or what?

What D.C. is talking about.

Texas. One of my favorite states in America is suddenly in the national spotlight after millions of people were left without power this week (and hundreds of thousands still are) as a result of a once in a lifetime snowstorm. The situation is increasingly dire in certain parts of the state: freezing temperatures are lingering, and controlled, rolling blackouts are moving across the state in an effort to keep the power outages from getting out of control. The result is that some families are left desperate. Take this lede from a recent Texas Tribune article:

A grandmother slept in her car. Parents who ran out of firewood burned belongings to keep their children warm. A Richardson resident watched the battery level of her partner's oxygen machine drain away and desperately sought help to have it recharged.

As Texas utility operators and politicians squabbled over responsibility for "load shedding" and "rolling blackouts" Tuesday, many residents scrambled simply to stay warm and alive.

Millions are hunkered down as grocery stores shutter and widespread outages continue through the week. As far away as Denver, Colorado, people are being asked to preserve their power to help support the grid in Texas. 10 deaths have already been linked to the storm and the state is trying to direct the homeless to life-saving shelters.

Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 40,000 Texans and cost thousands of jobs, the massive power outages have “sapped what mental reserves they had left,” The Texas Tribune said. The outages have also set off a fiery debate about the cause of the blackouts, which have been blamed on everything from renewable energy to frozen windmills to government failures and the storage capacities of batteries.

And, perhaps predictably, the arguments have broken along party lines. Today, we’re going to explore what the right and left are saying about this issue.

What the right is saying.

The right has mostly pointed at the renewable energy space, warning that more “green energy” would lead to more failures like this, and that the state needs to keep increasing its supply of nuclear, natural gas and coal power.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said “the problem is Texas’s overreliance on wind power that has left the grid more vulnerable to bad weather.”

“Half of wind turbines froze last week, causing wind’s share of electricity to plunge to 8% from 42%,” the board wrote. “Power prices in the wholesale market spiked, and grid regulators on Friday warned of rolling blackouts. Natural gas and coal generators ramped up to cover the supply gap but couldn’t meet the surging demand for electricity—which half of households rely on for heating—even as many families powered up their gas furnaces. Then some gas wells and pipelines froze.

“In short, there wasn’t sufficient baseload power from coal and nuclear to support the grid,” the board added. “Baseload power is needed to stabilize grid frequency amid changes in demand and supply. When there’s not enough baseload power, the grid gets unbalanced and power sources can fail. The more the grid relies on intermittent renewables like wind and solar, the more baseload power is needed to back them up. But politicians don’t care about grid reliability until the power goes out. And for three decades politicians from both parties have pushed subsidies for renewables that have made the grid less stable.”

In City Journal, Jonathan Lesser wrote that “the Lone Star State’s experience with wind turbines is a cautionary tale for the northeast.”

“Texas relies on wind turbines for one-fourth of its electric power,” Lesser summarized. “A brutal winter storm and record cold temperatures had plunged the state into darkness. The problem? Half of the state’s wind turbines were unable to generate electricity because of ice on their blades. Millions of Texans were left without power as the state’s electricity authority ordered rolling blackouts because there wasn’t enough electricity to go around… And yet, the northeast intends to become heavily reliant on offshore wind. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order for at least 9,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2035. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy is calling for 7,500 MW by that same year. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have all proclaimed their goal of 100 percent emissions-free electricity as soon as 2030.”

Holman Jenkins Jr. wrote that the outages are political.

“Wind-power blades aren’t protected against icing,” he said. “Coal, nuclear and gas-fired power plants in Texas are designed to shed heat rather than to protect against rare episodes of extreme cold. Winterization is the term for the investments politicians, operators and ratepayers have been reluctant to make because they are seldom needed… Texas is the victim this time. New England, whose politicians have consistently resisted new pipelines even as reliance on gas has grown willy-nilly, is one polar vortex away from outages that could drag on for weeks.”

What the left is saying.

The left is arguing that renewables are not to blame, but Texas’s reluctance to weatherize its power grid is.

In The Texas Tribune, Erin Douglas and Ross Ramsey wrote that frozen wind turbines “are not the main culprit for Texas’ power outages.”

“Frozen wind turbines in Texas caused some conservative state politicians to declare Tuesday that the state was relying too much on renewable energy,” they wrote. “But in reality, the lost wind power makes up only a fraction of the reduction in power-generating capacity that has brought outages to millions of Texans across the state during a major winter storm. An official with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas said Tuesday afternoon that 16 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, mostly wind generation, was offline. Nearly double that, 30 gigawatts, had been lost from thermal sources, which includes gas, coal and nuclear energy.”

“While wind power skeptics claimed the week's freeze means wind power can't be relied upon, wind turbines — like natural gas plants — can be ‘winterized’ or modified to operate during very low temperatures,” they added. “Experts say that many of Texas' power generators have not made those investments necessary to prevent disruptions to equipment since the state does not regularly experience extreme winter storms.”

In The Washington Post, Will Englund pointed to “a financial structure for power generation that offers no incentives to power plant operators to prepare for winter.”

“The immediate question facing the Texas power sector is whether its participants are willing to pay for the sort of winterization measures that are common farther north, even for a once-in-a-decade spell of weather,” he wrote. “Fossil fuel groups and their Republican allies blamed the power failures on frozen wind turbines and warned against the supposed dangers of alternative power sources. Some turbines did in fact freeze — though Greenland and other northern outposts are able to keep theirs going through the winter.”

On his MSNBC show, Chris Hayes said “it is just a lie that wind turbines, green energy, are the root causes of the problems in Texas right now.”

“This is probably as consequential a lie as any about the election because energy and how we produce it is the single biggest issue this country will face in the medium term,” he said. “Republicans and right-wing media want to take every policy issue and turn it into some painful culture war idiocy, and there is an interest to do it… we have an opportunity, we have a choice collectively as a country… we can create a modern energy infrastructure that is more resilient to climate change, and also cheaper, and also serves people better, and also can withstand extreme weather events and also doesn’t heat the planet until we are in dire straits.”

My take.

I don’t often find myself aligned with Chris Hayes (or any television news anchor for that matter), but I have to say that I think he’s on point here: it’s just a lie.

What happened in Texas is not a huge mystery; it’s happened before, and we know how to track it. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) runs the state’s grid. They have output numbers. There are data. And the data paint a clear picture that the greatest failure isn’t coming from “frozen wind turbines” or renewables that can’t operate in the winter but from natural gas gauges and other instrumentation freezing.

Via the Texas Tribune: “It's estimated that of the grid's total winter capacity, about 80% of it, or 67 gigawatts, could be generated by natural gas, coal and some nuclear power. Only 7% of ERCOT’s forecasted winter capacity, or six gigawatts, was expected to come from various wind power sources across the state.”

If you see a Texas politician or political pundit pointing to frozen wind turbines as the cause, given these data, it is not just misleading. They aren’t fudging or misspeaking, they’re just lying.

During the 2011 polar vortex, Texas experienced similar blackouts. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released a report, which recommended in part that “Balancing Authorities, Reliability Coordinators, Transmission Operators and Generation Owner/Operators in ERCOT and in the southwest regions of WECC should consider preparation for the winter season as critical as preparation for the summer peak season.”

As one reader who works in the energy space wrote to me yesterday, the meaning of that line (in plain language) is “extreme cold weather events can and will happen in Texas and the Southwest, and electricity generation and transmission needs to be adequately weatherized so it can operate during these low temperatures. Instead of this happening, many of the issues during this outage are the exact same ones seen in 2011 (i.e., frozen instrumentation leading to a loss of gas and coal generation).”

Sure enough, ERCOT’s senior director said the same thing this well-versed Tangle reader did in an interview with Bloomberg. He told the paper that the main factors are “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas.” And get this: “Even so, wind generation has actually exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the weekend.” Again: this is not a mystery. The waters are being muddied on something that’s actually crystal clear.

Of course, frozen turbines are a thing — and they are responsible for a small fraction of the crisis in Texas. It’s also true that coal is now supplying much of the power across Texas.

But to blame this event on them in headlines, television soundbites and tweets is a red herring of gargantuan proportions. It’s not a good-faith argument to point to them as the only, or even major, culprit, and I’ve been astonished to see intellectual versions of this argument parrotted in the pages of otherwise reliable sources of information like The Wall Street Journal. While The Journal’s opinion page wrote (emphasis mine) that “half of wind turbines froze last week, causing wind’s share of electricity to plunge to 8% from 42%,” The Journal’s news team reported that “Texas counts on wind to meet only 10% of its winter capacity” and warned readers “Don’t Blame Wind For Texas Electricity Woes.” Those are two different things that can’t coexist, even when editorializing.

ERCOT and FERC will release reports on these blackouts just as they did in 2011, and this will all become formal and obvious. But by then who knows where the news cycle will be. For now, the bottom line does not seem hard to find: diverse sources of energy production are critical to a stable power grid, and Texas has that in spades. This failure is one of government, of not learning from past blackouts and not properly preparing the grid for the kinds of weather we knew would eventually return to the state after a nearly identical event in 2011.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Governments at the local level are using censure more and more to send a message to Republicans “stepping out of line.” But what does it actually do? Seems like nothing.

— Patricia, Chicago, IL

Tangle: The cynic in me says you answered your own question. Censuring members of Congress is not something that is laid out in the Constitution or any congressional rules, so it is a pretty ambiguous process. In fact, to your point, censure carries no clear punishment aside from a chamber stating its displeasure with a member formally and publicly. “Censuring” someone is, practically, no different than a group of colleagues releasing a letter saying “we are upset with this person.”

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen an increase in censures in the home states (by either state parties or legislatures) of the Republican senators and representatives who have bucked Trump. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) was the most recent victim of censure for his vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial. The U.S. Senate defines a censure as “a formal statement of disapproval, however, that can have a powerful psychological effect on a member and his/her relationships in the Senate.”

As of late January, just nine senators and 23 representatives had ever been censured in U.S. history, according to law professor Josh Chafetz; so to see them popping up (even at the state level) so often since Trump lost the election is pretty surprising. And while there is no tangible impact, it is true that politicians’ power often comes from the party — both at the federal and state level. So being censured, in that sense, is no small thing. In the past, censures have also led to fines or removals from committees in Congress, but we aren’t seeing that right now.

A story that matters.

Nearly four million Americans have now been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, according to Axios’s Erica Pandey. Along with looking for work, these Americans are also facing housing insecurity, long lines at the food pantry and a global health crisis. For some, re-entering the workforce is especially difficult in an era where interviews are done almost entirely online — meaning those with broadband access have a major leg up. Pandey explains the situation in a story titled “The perils of prolonged unemployment.”


800 teachers and paraprofessionals/school-related personnel (PSRPs) were interviewed between Feb 4th and 6th of 2021. They were asked “Have you felt/would you feel comfortable returning to work in-person?”

Among those whose schools are already operating in person:

  • 61% of teachers said “yes.”
  • 35% of teachers said “no.”
  • 69% of PSRPs said “yes.”
  • 24% of PSRPs said “no.”

Among those whose schools are operating remotely:

  • 40% of teachers said “yes.”
  • 55% of teachers said “no.”
  • 48% of PSRPs said “yes.”
  • 47% of PSRPs said “no.”

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Have a nice day.

Over the last few months, there has been a disturbing rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Now, a group in Oakland, California, is responding with love. Jacob Azevedo inadvertently started the group when, after hearing about several attacks in the Bay Area, he offered to walk with any Asian American friends if they ever wanted company. His post went viral, and nearly 300 volunteers echoed the offer, which led him to create Compassion In Oakland. The project has since taken off thanks to news reports from CNN, and now a network of solidarity is spreading throughout the Bay Area for residents to accompany Asian Americans who may feel unsafe walking alone in the streets. (CNN)

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