As power outages left millions of Texas residents without heat and electricity during a devastating winter storm recently, right-wing social media and conservative politicians blamed the blackouts on frozen wind turbines and other forms of green energy even though natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants were predominantly responsible for the power outages across the state.
Recently, a Facebook user shared an image suggesting that renewable energy deprived half a million homes of power by forcing the shutdown of a coal-powered plant near Pittsburg, Texas.
"Monticello power plant just outside of Pittsburg TX has been closed since 2018 because of renewable energy," the post says. "She alone can produce enough reliable power for over 500,000 homes. How is that green energy working out for y'all?"
Why Did the Monticello Plant Shut Down?
It is true that the Monticello power plant near Pittsburg, Texas, had an operating capacity of 1,880 megawatts, which is sufficient to power as many as 940,000 homes, and was taken offline in January 2018. The state's largest electricity generator, Luminant, announced in October 2017 that it was shutting down the plant
In a statement, the president of Luminant's parent company, Vistra, said "the market's unprecedented low power price environment has profoundly impacted its operating revenues and no longer supports continued investment."
Before the plant went offline, the state's privately-managed main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), had to conduct a reliability review to make sure the plant was no longer needed to supply power to consumers.
According to a Houston Chronicle article, the Monticello was one of the state's largest coal-powered plant and one of the many coal plants that shuttered down "as a glut of cheap natural gas and continued advances in solar and wind energy technology continue to depress wholesale power prices."
A spokesperson for Vistra also told fact-checking website Politifact that when it announced the retirement of Monticello and two other plants, it was because the plants were struggling to cope in a competitive market. "Sustained low wholesale power prices, an oversupplied renewable generation market, and low natural gas prices, along with other factors, have contributed to the decision," she said.
In 2017, another Vistra spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News that the decision was taken in the wake of the market being "flooded with cheap natural gas."
Experts Weigh In
Kenneth Medlock, Center for Energy Studies senior director at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, told Politifact that although renewable sources of energy have put pressure on coal, "they "they are definitely not the sole driver of coal closures."
"Coal is largely being displaced by low-cost natural gas," Medlock said in an emailed statement. "This is just a matter of data, where one can tangibly see the effect of very cheap natural gas on power generation across the U.S., not just in Texas."
According to Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, the price of power in the wholesale market in Texas is determined by the price of natural gas. Therefore, cheap natural gas as well as the rapid growth of wind energy in Texas is what made coal uneconomical.
The image that is being circulated on social media along with claims that the Monticello power plant closed because of renewable energy is misleading. While renewable energy did contribute to the plant's retirement, cheap natural gas was the main reason behind the plant's demise.