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  • April 13, 2021

Exclusive: Texas lawmakers look to dodge blackout responsibility with attacks on state solar and wind plants

 Exclusive: Texas lawmakers look to dodge blackout responsibility with attacks on state solar and wind plants

Financial Times reports on the plans of Texas Republican legislators to respond to February’s mass blackouts by sticking it to wind and solar companies good and hard. New bills would “keep wind turbines at least a mile apart,” require “solar and wind farms to procure back-up power” to cover some of the times when their plants were not generating. The first one would rather obviously make large-scale wind energy plants unviable, even in the great wastelands of rural Texas; the second is both a transparent attempt to raise the costs associated with wind and solar plants and a demand that those plants pay stipends directly to the fossil fuel-using plants they are competing against.

That second one is sponsored by Texas Rep. Cody Vasut, “a lawyer who has represented the oil and gas industry.” Yeah, go figure. It’s also nonsensical, except as pure kickback; having renewable plants contract with fossil fuel plants does nothing to ensure the fossil fuel plants don’t themselves go down, in a crisis, and in a non-crisis fluctuations in wind and solar power are already covered by the state’s other power generators, that being the whole point of an electrical grid.

What does all this have to do with the near-collapse of the state power grid in February? Not much. It is governance by disaster in the now-omnipresent Republican way. Step One: Screw something up in spectacular, history-bending fashion. Step Two: Blame your enemies. Step Three: Demand those enemies be punished. Step Four: Double down on whatever caused the screwup in the first place.

To review, the reasons for the Texas blackouts were well understood from the beginning. Texas is very proud of its near-total isolation from the rest of the nation’s energy grid, an intentional strategy to avoid federal regulation. The state instead has developed a more laissez-faire internal marketplace that prioritizes low prices over high stability—an approach that is much bragged about during the times of low prices, and one that makes everyone involved heroes until Bad Things happen and everyone suddenly gets real quiet.

In February, Texas was hit with unusually cold weather. Natural gas-based generating plants that had chosen to forgo cold-weather protections designed to withstand the dip were knocked offline. Coal plants suffered similarly. Gas pipelines had never been sized to account for record demand that would come with such weather, and homes ran out. None of this is particularly outrageous or unforeseen; the most profitable decision for any of the companies involved is to spend as little money as possible preparing for outlier situations, pocket that money, and accept that in those rare outlier situations your plant will probably have to shut down.

It’s all perfectly rational, but “weather” is something that can affect an entire state at once. When it did, every company making the cheaper-but-more-fragile decision was tested all at once, and the predicted shutoffs happened all at once. Things broke.

We know how to fix this problem, however! Since “unusually cold weather” is a rare but perfectly foreseeable event, governments can mandate a specific level of weatherproofing for power providers that may cost each plant more money to install and maintain, but will prevent widespread system collapse when the rare event happens. We call these rules “regulations,” and individual companies tend to not like them because they add expense and restrict each company’s power to decide for themselves how close to the edge they would prefer to run. Those regulations only pay off when the rare event actually happens, but widespread public catastrophe is prevented.

When dealing with infrastructure as fundamental as heat and electricity, the prolonged absence of which can cause significant damage and death, the free market decision to make as much profit as possible most of the time while leaving the public to their own devices during the unprofitable times is generally thought to need a bit of reining in. Again, the point is not to be great big government jerks. The point is to keep small decisions made by a large number of interconnected but private companies from cascading into an overall system collapse that causes widespread public damage.

So that’s where we are. “Business-friendly” Texas conservatives have rather proudly insisted on choosing the path of cheaper prices and more profit for most consumers most of the time, and sucks to be you during the rare times. It’s a choice, and as long as you are willing to endorse whatever deaths-to-profit ratio you’ve settled on, a perfectly valid one so long as the public genuinely approves of it and has not been snowed into thinking that the ratio is something other than what it is.

The plan was to trade cheap prices for possible widespread damage. It was considered genius up until the widespread damage part actually happened, and the public was faced with bursting water pipes and collapsed ceilings. In the aftermath of that, it’s time for some good ole’ fashioned misdirection. It wasn’t our fault, say the lawmakers willing to take those longterm risks. It was because of the windmills. It was because of liberals. It was because Hunter Biden did a Green New Deal which clogged up our freedom tubes and, um, plugged up the freedom juice.

Yes, it’s corruption and camouflage time in the Republican legislature. A bill has come due and if each lawmaker wants to save their career in the aftermath, it will rely on convincing voters that ’twas the culture wars that froze their pipes and spiked their electricity bills, not decades of willing government complicity in corporate sucks to be you disaster planning.

While the new attempts by Texas Republicans to sabotage their own state’s renewable energy companies might seem extremely odd, and especially odd as a response to power blackouts caused by conservatism’s own insufficient energy regulations, there is nothing odd about Republican officials reacting to a scandal of their own making by hurling conspiracy theories blaming their enemies for their own bumbling. Within the first days of crisis fossil fuel lobbyists and their loyalists told the public that the problem was wind turbines freezing up, not natural gas and coal plants. Now this has morphed into a series of bizarrely premised legislative attacks on renewable energy on behalf of those fossil fuel plants, boosted by the party’s all-consuming contempt for scientists, expertise, and anyone else who might speak poorly of the state’s extra-active industries.

It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s supposed to deflect attention from the true causes of the Texas catastrophe and give Republican-loyal voters something to blame other than the lawmakers and ideologies they voted for. This is a party that genuinely tells their constituents that the “liberals” want to “ban cows.” None of it has to make sense, when you’ve got a base as gullible as the Texas right has cultivated.

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