BISMARCK — It didn’t take long for this week’s massive, region-sprawling power grid failure to be swept into the gears of political rhetoric.
Prominent Republican leaders from Texas to North Dakota were quick to respond to the rolling blackouts plaguing parts of the United States to argue against the expansion of renewable resources like wind and solar power, and to tout the reliability of fossil fuels.
"Gee. Who would have imagined something like this could happen?" tweeted Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., sharing a viral photo of a frozen Texas windmill being thawed by fossil fuel-based chemicals sprayed from a fossil fuel-powered helicopter. "Oh wait, lots of intelligent people who actually understand what reliability means."
Cramer’s tweet, which pointed to the irony of an incapacitated wind resource relying on fossil fuels to get back online, was representative of an argument raised by other North Dakota leaders. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Doug Burgum called the national outages a “wake-up call” that should prompt less investment in renewable resources and funnel more money toward innovating coal power. And in an appearance on Fox News, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., pushed against the transition to green energy. “If we continue down policies that make them baseload power, we are going to see more and more of these events happen,” he said.
The prolonged electricity blackouts in southern states that led to controlled outages in other parts of the country — including the Dakotas and western Minnesota on Tuesday morning — have put a national spotlight back on the debate over the reliability of intermittent renewable power amid a national push to phase out reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels.
But while many government leaders have seized on the week’s blackouts to point to the limitations of wind power, statements from the grid operators have told a different story.
“We had a lot of wind generation that helped and it was being delivered as we had forecasted it to be, and that’s really what’s critical for us,” said Lanny Nickell, executive vice president for Southwest Power Pool (SPP), on a call with reporters on Tuesday. Wind power made up for about 10% of the energy mix on the SPP grid, which serves parts of North Dakota and the western edge of Minnesota, during the recent cold snap, a figure that Mike Ross, the grid operator’s vice president of government affairs, said met or slightly exceeded their forecasts.
“It’s unfortunate that these things get politicized, because really it shouldn’t be a political issue,” said Tony Clark, a former Fargo legislator and state and federal energy regulator who now advises the North Dakota wind industry. Blaming wind power for the mass blackouts, Clark said, offers a neat answer to a more complex problem.
It’s true that some wind turbines in Texas froze over, as documented in the photo Cramer shared. But grid operators in Texas said the failures of renewable generation amounted to the least significant factor in the state’s ongoing blackouts. Clark said the more substantial issue, both in Texas and southern states on the SPP grid, was a lack of production from fossil fuel resources like coal and natural gas, whose production was hampered considerably in a region where the infrastructure wasn't winterized to handle this week's intense cold.
And Clark said that grid planners account for the low productivity of wind in these weather conditions. “The lack of wind is not unexpected,” he said.
While the country has launched into a vigorous debate over grid reliability this week, the conversation has been front-and-center in North Dakota for much of the last year. Lawmakers in the North Dakota Capitol have debated legislation aimed at subsidizing the state’s declining coal industry, sometimes at the expense of renewable power. If North Dakota forsakes coal for intermittent wind power, many state officials have argued, it will run the risk of brownouts and blackouts like those that have plagued California for years and that hit Texas this week.
But even though residents in the Dakotas and western Minnesota experienced rolling blackouts this week, representatives from the utility industry said those outages were not a symptom of any problems in the North Dakota grid.
“The bottom line is the grid in North Dakota did what the grid in North Dakota was supposed to do,” said Carlee McLeod, president of Utility Shareholders of North Dakota. In North Dakota, unlike in southern states unprepared for the frigid conditions, coal, natural gas and wind power generation all came in as expected this week in North Dakota. And McLeod said North Dakota residents experienced temporary outages because their power was being funneled to other states to mitigate their crisis. “Unfortunately, it means that they took power from us to make up for failures down south,” she said.
Still, Clark stressed that the need for back-up power sources for renewable resources is “a very real issue” that underscores the importance of finding a healthy energy mix.
If there's a lesson that comes out of this week's blackouts, he said, it should be in the necessity of maintaining "resource adequacy," or finding the right distribution of the various energy resources, fossil fuels as well as wind. "But you can’t also say that it’s renewables, or that it’s wind that’s causing the challenges.”
Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.