The stretch of cold weather we've experienced has kept many Minnesotans cozy indoors. We've been fortunate that our electric and gas infrastructure have performed well to heat our homes. Not so for our Texan friends down Interstate 35.
The situation in Texas has been heartbreaking, with 4 million households losing power. Multiple people have died and hundreds have been injured from carbon monoxide poisoning while running cars or generators indoors to keep warm.
Many have been quick to put a political lens on Texas's problem, blaming renewable energy and questioning the energy transition that is underway, driven by cheaper wind and solar prices. But the facts tell a different story.
It was historically cold across the entire center of the country in recent days. Louisiana and Oklahoma saw electricity outages too. But Texas's unique approach to energy led to by far the biggest consequences.
First, Texas has a deregulated energy market where it has underinvested in both energy capacity and its electric infrastructure for years. The common practice across the U.S. is to pay energy producers to hold reserves — a buffer of excess capacity for situations exactly like this. Texas has not sufficiently planned or invested, and it has not sufficiently weatherized its gas wells, pipelines and power generation for the winter. They have scrimped to keep rates low, but this tragedy shows that Texas lacks the energy infrastructure necessary in a crisis.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has done this planning and made smart investments in our infrastructure, resulting in a far more reliable grid.
Second, Texas is an energy island. It is the only state in the country to have its own grid. If it were connected to other states, this would lessen its reliability problems.
In an event like this, where cold weather strikes everywhere, the flexibility to import power might not have solved the problem entirely, but it would no doubt have helped.
Minnesota, by comparison, is part of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which connects energy systems from Canada to Alabama.
The wrong lesson to take from the Texas power crisis is that this is somehow about renewable energy. Sure, some wind turbines froze and were unavailable (this risk can be minimized by weatherizing, as we do in the Upper Midwest). But less than 13% of the outages were due to wind. Five to six times more of the outages were due to coal, gas and nuclear plants going down.
No energy source does well in cold weather. Coal piles and gas pipes froze, and so did nuclear plant equipment. Gas was prioritized for heating, making it unavailable for electricity.
Energy systems rely on good planning. We know that in Minnesota; we can plan for the clean energy transition and do it well. Great River Energy — Minnesota's second largest utility — is showing the way as they move off coal to cheaper renewable energy sources by piloting a first-in-the-nation long-term battery storage technology.
We can also improve our demand response capabilities so that we can reduce our energy load in smart ways when demand peaks in cold weather events. And unlike Texas, we can lean on our neighbors to help support us during demand spikes.
We also know that climate change may make extreme winter weather like we've seen this week more common as the Arctic warms, in addition to the heat waves we saw in the West this summer. These are powerful reminders that moving off carbon-polluting energy resources is necessary.
In the short term, Texas would do well to learn lessons from Minnesota about investing in infrastructure and looking to neighbors for help. To avoid tragedies in the long-term with more extreme weather events, the answer is passing our bill for 100% clean energy by 2040, not retreating from cheaper, cleaner renewable energy.
Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, is chair of the Climate and Energy Committee in the Minnesota House. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, is ranking minority member of the Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee in the Minnesota Senate.