I’m writing from Texas, so I’ll try to finish this column before the electricity goes out.
As you may have heard, we’ve had an unusually powerful winter storm down here and, in spite of the fact that every third household has a four-wheel-drive super-duty pickup truck, Texas has come to a standstill. When a little bit of ice settled on the freeway, a half a dozen people lost their lives in the ensuing 135-car pileup.
Meanwhile, after years of mocking Californians for their self-imposed energy troubles, Texans are experiencing rolling blackouts — and a whole lot of blackouts that refuse to roll on but instead sit obstinately in place — because our power grid cannot keep up with the spike in demand.
As in California, Texas’s energy scarcity is largely artificial: The state produces an extraordinary amount of natural gas, but there has been a woeful underinvestment in infrastructure ranging from pipelines to winterizing equipment at utilities. You may as well not have the fuel at all if you can’t get it to where it’s needed or use it once it’s there.
What Texas has invested in is renewables, especially wind. These have performed especially poorly: The state’s electric-grid regulator reports that though wind and solar still make up a relatively small share of the state’s overall energy mix, they accounted for 40 percent of the capacity shut down by the storm: Out of the 45 gigawatts that went dark, 18 gigawatts were from wind and solar.
Wind is in many ways a good bet for Texas, especially in the western and northern parts of the state, the Saudi Arabia of gales. The sunny parts of the state also generate a fair bit of solar power, which also is welcome. The problem is that these power sources are unreliable. Solar panels don’t work with a couple of inches of snow on top of them, and an icy storm can cause those massive wind turbines to freeze up and stop working. As of right now, most of those Texas turbines are not functioning power sources — they are modern art.
It may seem perverse to think about global warming when it’s so cold outside, but the situation in Texas speaks directly to that question. There are good-faith disputes to be had about climate policy.
The Left wants to use the threat of climate change as a license to remake the entire economy and government along its preferred lines — energy policy, yes, but also everything from transportation to architecture, and from labor law to foreign relations and trade. The argument for replacing natural-gas electricity with wind and solar is that reducing our use of fossil fuels could, if the practice were widespread enough, help to mitigate the effects of climate change already underway.
But there is another way to look at the question. If the predictions are correct and we are set to experience more extreme weather events, including unusually powerful winter storms, then it may be more advisable to invest in adaptation than in the much more uncertain project of severely limiting greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, a global effort that would require the willing and honest cooperation of countries such as India and China, which are unlikely to comply.
We have a great deal of natural gas in the United States, but we have an infrastructure that is inadequate, which makes much of that fuel useless in a situation such as this one. We need more oil-and-gas pipeline capacity rather than less — an issue the Biden administration is on the wrong side of. Gas-fired electricity plants are much cleaner than coal-fired plants, and they rely on a fuel that we have in abundance. We should be adding gas-fired generating capacity on a large scale. And rather than try to figure out how to run a modern industrial economy on pixie dust and unicorn power, we might invest some of that money in making sure the infrastructure we already have will function in the conditions we can expect.
Of course, we could add a great deal of electricity capacity at a very low carbon cost, if we were so inclined: That means more nuclear power — which, unlike wind and solar, provides a reliable baseline of generation. The new flexible reactors being developed by Bill Gates’ TerraPower could be a game-changer — and the challenges to nuclear power are more a matter of finance and regulation than of science and engineering. Making it easier to bring nuclear power online is something that can be fixed by policy.
Climate change is not, in spite of the insistence of some of my conservative friends, a hoax. But conceding the reality of it is not the same as conceding the Left’s far-reaching schemes, up to and including the so-called Green New Deal. Instead, we should be looking at making intelligent, economical decisions that maximize the use of the desirable resources we already have at our command, balancing environmental concerns with other pressing questions, such as being able to keep Americans’ houses heated and their lights on when a little snow falls in San Antonio.