In the midst of a record cold snap where Texas’ grid has failed to meet demand, misinformation is running rampant. Among the most pernicious memes propagating online are that Texas’ wind turbines have frozen and that that has led to the blackout.
Conservatives have zoomed in on a particular idea that helicopters are being dispatched to de-ice turbines to “prove” wind turbines are not clean energy. The meme been shared everywhere from a prominent Texas oil and gas consultant who racked up more than 32,000 retweets as of Tuesday morning sharing an image of a helicopter de-icing a turbine and Rep. Lauren Boebert, the gun-wielding member of Congress from Colorado, who urged her half-million followers to “Keep that in mind when thinking how ‘green’ windmills are.” They are both, however, completely false and misleading.
Let’s start with the viral image of a turbine being de-iced by a helicopter. It’s akin to the shark swimming on the freeway inevitably shared during a hurricane, regularly appearing whenever cold weather hits and power goes out. While it’s true helicopters and even drones can be used to de-ice wind turbines, the image being shared comes from a 2014 test in Sweden, not present-day Texas. It rose to prominence in conservative media and meme-makers after hitting Watts Up With That, a climate science denial blog with a rabid following, in 2016, and has propagated outward since. Ketan Joshi, a clean energy analyst, highlighted that 2016 rise to prominence and the meme’s reappearance earlier this month when it went viral due to a random tweet.
The image is from Alpine Helicopters, a Swedish company, that does everything from giving people a lift to heli skiing to working on power lines. In 2014, the group began working on de-icing wind turbines, according to a white paper authored by the company’s CEO for Swedish energy consultancy, Energiforsk. The project relied on spraying turbines with hot water scooped up from a boiler truck on the ground in temperatures as low as minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-20 degrees Celsius). The goal was to be cost-effective and relatively quick. Though the report doesn’t include the image, a company slide deck as well as article about the process does. The company also released a video of the process at dusk (or perhaps dawn) set to an incredibly epic soundtrack.
Now, though, the image is being used to argue against clean energy in the U.S. It’s a rather silly claim. As Joshi noted in his 2016 debunk, the carbon emissions used to de-ice a turbine using a helicopter are dwarfed by the carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants. By his calculations, the carbon emissions from de-icing a turbine actually saves two days-worth of emissions compared to coal-fired power. The report by Alpine Helicopters found a similar climate benefit. De-icing a 3 megawatt wind turbine was a “better option than not doing anything at all. This is both from a financial and environmental perspective.” The energy used to de-ice the turbine using a helicopter was recouped in just over four hours.
Those calculations don’t even take into account the other forms of pollution spewed by coal plants, including soot and mercury, that can poison people, waterways, and the soil. There is simply no comparison between which mode of generating electricity is better for the planet and people.
In a Twitter DM, he noted that most wind farm operators will just wait for turbines to thaw to save a few bucks. Beyond drones, there are even more high-tech solutions to remove ice, including systems that can heat the blades to keep them spinning in sub-zero temperatures. Joshi noted, though, that “systems inside the blade are fancy but sometimes not worth it, because blade icing is pretty rare.” Researchers from Iowa State to MIT are also working on developing other cost effective technologies that can prevent ice from building up on turbines.
That type of work and serious conversations about how to end our grids’ reliance on fossil fuels—which, just to be clear, are severely underperforming during the Texas blackout—are vital moving forward. Misinformation and whataboutism to score lazy political points as a humanitarian emergency unfolds are not.
Earther has reached out to ERCOT, the group that manages most of Texas’ grid, to see what, if any, de-icing technology it’s using.