The current cold snap that has sent below freezing temperatures and a blanket of snow across nearly three-quarters of the continental U.S. has taught us a few lessons.
One of them is that far from being the problem, good government can be the solution, and in some cases the only solution.
Another is that climate change is real and its impact is being felt right now.
A third is that some politicians will lie and dissemble in order to use a disaster for their own purposes, as if the last four years of stoking the base with divisive politics, conspiracy theories and corruption in office have taught us nothing.
Texas is a case study for all three lessons.
Unlike almost all of the other states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada, Texas has privatized its electrical grid and has declined to connect it to any of the regional electrical compacts managed across multiple jurisdictions. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is a public-private entity which manages the state’s grid, and lets electricity prices fluctuate on the basis of demand.
Minnesota’s electrical grid, on the other hand, is operated in coordination with other systems throughout the upper Midwest and eastern U.S. That stabilizes prices throughout the region, and allows power shortages or generation failures to be covered by excess supply elsewhere in the region.
Texas chose not to link to other states in order to avoid federal regulation, which requires building a certain amount of redundancy into the system to cover just such an emergency as occurred in the past week. As a result, electricity prices spiked, Texans suffered rolling blackouts, lost power and their water supply was threatened because purification and pumping stations lost power as well. It’s interesting that the two parts of Texas that are not part of ERCOT – Beaumont and El Paso – suffered relatively little disruption.
The California wildfires that occurred last summer and this winter’s big freeze in Texas are both the result of shifting climate patterns. Meteorologists agree that the current extremely cold weather is caused by warming in the Arctic, which has driven the jet stream further south and brought sub-zero temperatures to parts of the country that rarely experience them. And, scientists agree that we must become much better at planning for storms, heat waves and cold weather as weather patterns continue to shift. It’s clear that we must “harden the grid” to withstand high demand and increase capacity to make up for the gap between supply and demand during extreme weather. The most efficient way to do that is to create a national grid and upgrade transmission lines to bring power to where it’s needed from states and provinces where it’s not. That requires coordination on a national, and perhaps continental level. Fortunately, President Biden’s team is developing just such a nationwide infrastructure plan right now.
Finally, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott used the crisis to deny climate science and blame the power failures on frozen wind turbines. He said on Fox News, “It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure we will be able to heat our homes in the winter times and cool our homes in the summer times.”
A variety of other conservative talk-show hosts picked up the theme, but the truth is that a vicious cycle of frozen pumps and power blackouts stalled natural gas production. Natural gas-fired power plants produce the vast majority of Texas’ electricity. It is true that some Texas wind turbines were not properly insulated and stopped producing, but wind power accounts for less than seven percent of the state’s power generation this time of year. By the way, wind turbines in Minnesota and the Dakotas continue to produce at temperatures far below those reached in Texas.
So, the upshot is that good government and honest politicians are going to be ever more important if we are to face the looming climate crisis. We are fortunate that here in Minnesota most of our statewide offices are occupied by honest politicians who accept the science and are seeking real solutions to the real problems we face, including a shifting climate, a global pandemic, income inequality and equal justice.
But, unfortunately, northern Minnesota is not so well represented either in the state legislature or the Congress. Some of our representatives continue to deny the science, promote unfounded conspiracy theories and promote divisive policies intended to stir up an unthinking base. It is time for all of us to replace them with people who will represent us, our needs and our future aspirations.
Editor’s note: Both the Hubbard County DFL and Hubbard County Republicans are invited to write columns for the Enterprise’s Opinion page.