Extreme winter storms wreaked havoc across the United States over the weekend, causing widespread power outages in Texas. As many people are wondering why the largest energy-producing state in the country is facing widespread power failures amid below-freezing temperatures, Fox News’ answer is to blame the state’s reliance on wind energy. But while renewable energy sources such as wind are a familiar and convenient scapegoat for Fox -- allowing the network to feed fears about clean energy and the Green New Deal that it has long nurtured -- this narrative is flat wrong.
Fox’s big frozen “windmill” lie
On the February 15 edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight, the host not only suggested that the freezing temperatures that hit Texas bring into question the very existence of global warming, but he also claimed that the state’s inability to keep the lights on was due to its “reckless reliance on windmills,” which he even acknowledged account for only “a quarter of the energy” makeup in Texas (with the majority of power coming from natural gas and coal). To discuss the outages, host Tucker Carlson invited climate denier and frequent Fox guest Marc Morano, who once claimed CO2 is not pollution because we exhale it.
Fox’s morning opinion- and so-called “news”-side shows picked up on Carlson’s misleading narrative -- pinning the Texas outages exclusively on wind energy while largely failing to acknowledge that the state is overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels.
Coverage of the outages during the February 16 edition of Fox & Friends First ran under the chyron “Texas Power Issues Blamed on Frozen Wind Turbines.” Fox & Friends framed discussion of the outages around the question of whether this is “what America would look like under the Green New Deal” and enlisted climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg to respond. Lomborg, who is part of the Koch network and has long been a proponent of fossil fuels, spewed outdated and false information about the reliability of renewable energy.
America's Newsroom’s anchor Dana Perino similarly framed a discussion of the outages with Fox contributor and Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn around “raising questions about the Lone Star State’s increasing reliance on renewable energy.” Perino went on to read extensively from the Journal’s February 16 editorial, which similarly blamed the outages on green energy and baselessly fearmongered that “the Biden Administration’s plan to banish fossil fuels is a greater existential threat to Americans than climate change.”
On The Faulkner Focus, anchor Harris Faulkner explicitly tied the outages to President Joe Biden’s climate proposal, claiming, “Texas, for example, is shifting toward renewables and being called into question along with the Biden administration’s climate plan.” Faulkner’s segment on the outages also leaned on the misleading and agenda-driven arguments of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and Tucker Carlson.
Long-standing issues with Texas’ energy grid, not frozen wind turbines, are the main culprits behind the state’s wave of power outages
In addition to his February 15 segment, Carlson penned an opinion piece for the Fox New website framed around the easily disprovable statement: “The Green New Deal has come, believe it or not, to the state of Texas.” Carlson asserted in the piece that the state’s power grid failed because “the windmills froze,” a claim that has been repeated and amplified by Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and fringe elements of the right-wing media echosphere.
But what really happened in Texas was easily foreseeable by those who follow the state’s energy sector and has been discussed at length by local news outlets and public officials, including Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
The historic, devastating winter storm did freeze wind turbine blades, but as Bloomberg noted, “the region’s grid operator made clear that power plants -- across all resources -- had tripped offline. And in fact, data from the grid operator shows generation from wind farms has actually been exceeding the agency’s forecasts in recent days.” The Washington Post’s Energy 202 blog reported that Carlson and the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s blaming wind energy for the grid’s failure “is misleading,” adding: “While Texas's capacity to generate energy from the wind is down with some turbines seized up, most of the power generation offline during the cold spell was supposed to come from traditional thermal plants, Texas's grid operator said Monday.”
Local Texas energy experts were even more vociferous in their criticism of the state’s grid failure, placing most of the blame on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). As an energy fellow at the University of Houston told the Houston Chronicle, the grid “limped along on underinvestment and neglect until it finally broke under predictable circumstances.”
This criticism was echoed by David Tuttle, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. Tuttle noted that Texas’ electric generating plants never winterized, despite recommendations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation that were issued following an investigation of the blackouts that occurred during a devastating ice storm in 2011. By never mandating these winterization recommendations, Texas public officials increased the likelihood of this unfortunate history repeating itself.
Summarizing the problems faced by the power grid in Texas during the winter storm and the way forward in its wake, TechCrunch author Jonathan Shieber wrote:
The current blackouts have nothing to do with renewables and everything to do with cold weather slowing down natural gas production because of freeze-offs and spiking demand for heating at the same time.
As Dr. Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and, by courtesy, of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, noted, the problem is more of a total systems issue than one associated with renewable power.
“Let us be absolutely clear: if there are grid failures today, it shows the existing (largely fossil-based) system cannot handle these conditions either,” Grubert wrote on Twitter. “These are scary, climate change-affected conditions that pose extreme challenges to the grid. We are likely to continue to see situations like this where our existing system cannot easily handle them. Any electricity system needs to make massive adaptive improvements.
The inconvenient truth about Texas' power outage
The outages in Texas highlight how the changing climate is poised to test our power sector and the assumptions that underpin it -- both in Texas and throughout the rest of the country.
While it’s true that human-caused climate change is making extreme cold events less likely overall, it is also increasing average air temperatures and thus the amount of moisture the air can hold, which means prolonged cold can yield even greater snowfall. And as Climate Signals notes, “Climate change is also linked to the destabilization of the jet stream, which can lead to outbreaks of Arctic air.”
CBS This Morning’s meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli explained this relationship between climate change and the Texas storm on the program this morning.
But right-wing media and their political allies would be remiss if they let the truth interfere with their efforts to propagate a lie against green energy and climate policies.
In its coverage of the Texas power outages, Fox is deliberately attempting to steer the conversation away from climate change and the shortcomings of our reliance on fossil fuels -- in this case, it’s using a well-worn and bogus script against renewable energy to erode support for the Biden administration’s plan to transition to a clean energy economy. These efforts to ignore our climate reality are especially dangerous as science predicts more frequent and devastating aberrant and extreme weather events are yet to come.