Archive of October 2021

Causal story: Renewable energy destabilizes the electric grid.

Originally written for Politics of Policymaking Fall 2021 at Columbia SIPA

Over the last 20 years, a dramatic increase in renewable energy has provided real hope in the fight to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Along the way, one key success story has been the ability of grid operators to integrate ever-larger amounts of wind and solar power into the grid without affecting reliability of electric service. Yet in February, 2021, when a wave of freezing cold temperatures brought the Texas grid crashing down, anyone watching the news or reading social media would have heard a very different story.

Even as energy experts scrambled for clues to the grid’s implosion, Republicans and allies of the fossil fuel industry lept into action with their own story of what happened. Their story was this: Wind turbines that now supply nearly 20% of Texas power had frozen in the extreme cold, leaving Texans stranded. Tucker Carlson was one of those spouting this story, claiming that “a reckless reliance on windmills is the cause of this disaster.”

As the cold snap continued, politicians and industry flacks quickly pivoted from casting blame to advocating for policy. Texas Governor Greg Abbot told Fox News that the Texas power outage “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” U.S. Senator Steve Daines of Montana tweeted that Texas was the “perfect example” for why we need to continue reliance on fossil fuels - and why Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior was a mistake.

The story was almost entirely inaccurate. There is no evidence that renewable energy has affected grid reliability, and wind power has proven wildly successful in places that routinely see sub-freezing temperatures, like Montana and the Dakotas. Indeed, when the dust finally settled, the problem in Texas turned out not to be an inherent problem with wind power, but rather the failure of state regulators to ensure adequate investment in grid resilience, leading to extensive problems with both fossil fuel and renewable infrastructure.

But despite, or maybe because of its inaccuracy, this is a great example of a causal story. As Deborah Stone writes in “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas,” a key function of any causal story is “pushing responsibility onto someone else.” The “blame wind” story did exactly this. As millions of Texans suffered, Republicans saw an opportunity to shift the story from, in Stone’s typology, one with an “accidental cause” to one with actors to blame: “reckless” environmentalists and Democrats. The complexity of and initial confusion over underlying causes made the task of shifting blame even easier.

The story also had key elements that Stone declares as important to success. It had backers with high levels of media access -- including, as noted above, Tucker Carlson, the Texas Governor, and Republican US senators. The story also supported the status quo, and did not entail any “radical redistribution of power or wealth.” Americans depend on having reliable energy, and the causal story was able to portray renewable energy as a source of radical change threatening stability.

For these reasons, the “blame wind” story proved immediately effective. It garnered national and even international media attention, with countless news stories with headlines like “Are frozen wind turbines to blame for power cuts?” These headlines alone -- nuances in story content aside -- were a messaging victory for the fossil fuel industry, sparking uncertainty over clean energy. Google Trends shows a dramatic national spike in interest in wind power from February 2021, with four times the number of searches that month as in any other over the last 12 months. The top related topic for wind power? “Freezing.”

Google Trends shows a spike in interest for wind power during the Texas cold snap, with the top associated topic being “freezing.”

In the weeks following the Texas cold snap, news reports began to report the real story of what happened. But major interest had already ended, and it is likely that many Americans continue to believe that wind power -- not the incompetence of Texas regulators -- is to blame for the disaster.

This provides a lesson in the power of causal stories, and shows how dangerous they can be when put to nefarious use. In the case of clean energy, the lesson is that a successful transition will won’t just entail deploying new technology. It will also take real work to counter misinformation, educate the public, and aggressively react to energy news stories to ensure that, in any media frenzy, the truth comes out.