On the evening of February 3rd, the temperature here in Austin dipped below freezing and reached a low of 21 degrees. In the preceding days, people throughout Texas were terrified there would be rolling blackouts due to power grid failures. Austinites rushed to their local grocery stores to stock up on water, canned goods, and other emergency supplies. It’s clear that last year's winter storm Uri—which left millions of Texans without power or running water for several days—has left its mark on Texans' psyche.
Fortunately, the recent freeze was not devastating. There were localized outages, but nothing systemic. In the lead-up, many partisans were arguing over the resilience of Texas’ natural gas and intermittent renewable sources–particularly wind–to these kinds of shocks.
In the aftermath, some Republicans claimed that the lack of outages is proof that natural gas plant winterization has been sufficient and effective. Some Democrats were likewise singing wind’s praises as Texas’ wind out-performed expectations during the worst of the freeze. All of this is noise.
Frankly, we don’t know if the natural gas winterization would have enabled those plants to maintain output if Texas had been hit by a storm as severe as Uri, and no one should be in a rush to find out the hard way. Although wind energy production did exceed what was estimated by ERCOT’s Resource Power Potential models, the reality is that wind farms’ output remains vulnerable to weather shocks like Uri and this storm was nowhere near that strong.
Texas’ nuclear power generation has been overshadowed by the partisan back-and-forth focusing on gas and wind. It's worth noting that 11 percent of Texas’ energy comes from two nuclear energy plants: South Texas Project and Comanche Peak.
During winter storm Uri, both nuclear plants were at full output, except for 64 hours when South Texas Project’s reactor 1 went offline due to an issue with its feedwater system. At their lowest output during the storm, Texas nuclear plants produced 80 percent of normal output. Both remained online and at full output during this recent storm. While the only way to know how Texas's nuclear plants would do in another storm like Uri is to experience it, the issue with the feedwater system was an isolated event. One of nuclear energy's greatest strengths is that its plants are designed and required to be resilient to all sorts of shocks.
Texans should not need to rush to the grocery store in a panic whenever the temperature may drop below freezing. Nuclear energy can provide the safe, reliable, affordable, and low-carbon energy that Texans want. Texas policymakers who are worried about the grid's fragility should look to expand Texas’ nuclear capacity and ensure the regulatory environment enables them to fairly compete.