Editorial Roundup: When weather attacks and the whole system fails

Published 8:50 pm Friday, February 19, 2021

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The power grid groans down south, but renewable energy isn’t the reason.

The stubborn cold weather of late isn’t out of character for a Minnesota winter, but it’s been a major disruption, and a deadly one, for points south.

Millions are without electricity and heat when they need it most, primarily in Texas, in some cases leading people to dangerous alternatives. This happened not because power lines were down but because there wasn’t enough juice to go around. Texas has shunned federal oversight of its power grid, and its now-awkwardly named Electric Reliability Council was forced to order rolling blackouts to prevent a wider collapse.

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Minnesota experienced something similar in 2019, though not on as broad a scale, when shortages in some areas led Xcel Energy to ask customers elsewhere to dial down indoor temperatures to as low as 60 degrees. Then, as now, there were calls to reconsider a growing emphasis on renewable energy in favor of “reliable” sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear power.

We use the word “reliable” in air quotes not because we fail to see the distinction between always-on and not-always-on energy sources, but because natural gas is actually one of the problems in the Lone Star State. Weather “well beyond the design parameters of an extreme Texas winter” knocked gas-fired power plants offline. The plants use water, and water freezes.

At the same time, so do wind turbines, and that’s been a problem this week in Texas, too — just less of one for a state where gas generates 40% of the electricity and wind 23%, according to the Reliability Council.

Add to that the nature of deregulation, and — according to one observer at the University of Houston — the Texas power grid “collapsed in exactly the same manner as the old Soviet Union. It limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”

Direct lessons for Minnesota are perhaps muted, then, accustomed as we are to both extreme weather and active governance. Still, it’s worth remembering that fossil fuel use leads to climate change leads to weather that exceeds expectations, and also that there’s an impossible-to-ignore chasm in this state between people who’d freeze fossil fuel infrastructure in its tracks and those who are skeptical of climate change and renewable energy.

Somewhere between these extremes, there’s a wide needle to thread.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 16

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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