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What Really Caused The Texas Power Shortage?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this winter morning, millions of people in Texas remain without power, without clean water or both. It's an occasion for millions to struggle to keep friends and families safe. And for some political leaders, it is also an opportunity to spread misinformation. What really led to the Texas power crisis? Whether you get the truth or the trolling, depends on which channel you watch. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Earlier this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott appeared on a Dallas TV station. And he didn't blame any one power source for this crisis. He noted natural gas was affected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: It's just frozen right now. It's frozen in the pipeline.

DOMONOSKE: But then Abbott went on Fox News. And he said, actually, renewable energy was to blame

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ABBOTT: Wind and our solar got shut down. And they were, collectively, more than 10% of our power grid. And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power in a statewide basis.

DOMONOSKE: He said this showed how the green New Deal would be deadly. But the fact is that Abbott was right the first time. This storm, it pummeled the entire power generation system.

BILL MAGNESS: Really, it was across the board. We saw coal plants, gas plants, wind, solar, just all sorts of our resources trip off and not be able to perform.

DOMONOSKE: Bill Magness is the president and CEO of ERCOT - or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas - which manages the state electric grid. These frigid temperatures had people across Texas plugging in electric heaters all at once.

MAGNESS: Fundamentally, it is a historic storm that drove electric demand higher than we've ever seen by far.

DOMONOSKE: And at the exact same time, the supply of electricity went down. Wind turbines did freeze, so did natural gas wells and pipelines and water pipes at coal and nuclear plants. All of this frozen equipment meant power plants couldn't function. There simply wasn't enough electricity to go around.

JOSHUA RHODES: All types of generation, you know, have had issues.

DOMONOSKE: Joshua Rhodes is a research associate at UT Austin's Webber Energy Group. He's staying with a friend near Austin because his house doesn't have power. And he says this weather was just beyond what the entire system was ever designed to handle. It's like New England grappling with 105 degree temperatures.

RHODES: I mean, having more natural gas power plants wouldn't have helped us because we can't get gas to the ones we have right now.

DOMONOSKE: After a freeze a decade ago, the state recommended that power plants prepare for freak cold weather. But those measures are expensive and were never made mandatory. Texas also doesn't share electricity with nearby states in order to avoid federal regulations. Investigations into this disaster may well find blame to go around. But the data right now shows this was a system-wide failure caused by a storm much worse than the state was ready to handle.

LORI BIRD: I think the key point here is that we need to be prepared for these extreme events - right? - today and in the future, no matter what the generation source is because I think this event shows that all generation sources are vulnerable to these extreme events.

DOMONOSKE: Lori Bird directs the U.S. energy program at the World Resources Institute. She says the blame thrown at wind and solar is politics. And what's really needed is more preparation.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.