Expert’s Expert on What Caused Texas Catastrophe

February 18, 2021

Zeke Hausfather is known as the energy expert’s expert.
I interviewed him in San Francisco in 2019, and he spoke about wind energy and Texas.

Zeke Hausfather on Twitter:

There has been a lot of confusion over the drivers of the Texas blackouts. While more will become clear in the coming days, neither renewables nor insufficient gas capacity were the culprits. Rather, it was the lack of resiliency of to extreme cold conditions.

Texas has seen an explosion of cheap wind power in recent years. Wind now produces around 20% of Texas’ electricity. However, at the same time Texas has also been building a lot of gas capacity; gas generally works well with wind, able to quickly ramp up to fill in gaps.

Because it is intermittent, the grid manager @ERCOT_ISO does not rely much on wind to meet extreme demand events such as the one we are experiencing right now. Rather, they have enough gas (and nuclear/coal) capacity on standby just in case high demand coincides with low wind. 

As such, adding more wind to the grid would not have that big an effect on the amount of gas capacity needed for peak demand events. The narrative that the current blackouts are due to over-investment in wind and underinvestment in gas miss this important dynamic.

Texas has plenty of gas capacity to meet current demand. The problem is that around 40% of it went offline, due to a combination of frozen equipment and insufficient gas supply. Supply was low due to lower production (frozen wells) and extreme home heating demand.

Building more gas capacity would not really solve this problem. Rather, what is needed is more resilient gas supplies to ensure that similar shortages do not occur in the future.

Similarly, while frozen wind turbines are a problem (due to not installing deicing technology in Texas wind farms due to infrequency of extreme cold events), intermittent renewables at times over-performed and at times underperformed the (conservative) @ERCOT_ISO assumptions.

So what should we learn from this? Texas needs to make its energy system more resilient to extreme cold events. Its not about building more gas or more wind to solve the problem, its about making sure both technologies (as well as coal and nuclear) don’t fail in extreme cold.

While extreme cold events will likely become less common at the world warms, as we see this year they are still far from impossible. And the jury is still out whether a warming world may lead to the polar vortex occasionally reaching further south.

More below from Zeke, on “What’s Killing Coal?”

7 Responses to “Expert’s Expert on What Caused Texas Catastrophe”

  1. Zeke Hausfather is known as the energy expert’s expert?

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    Fossil fuel shdullps are blaming wind power. Some are blaming old infrastructure and unpreparedness. Someone else blamed “economics”.
    But the Texas blackouts were caused by climate denial.

    Refusal to consider the increasing likelihood of extreme weather and climate events, especially more southern swings of Arctic cold because the jet stream is being destabilized by warming, is a symptom of climate denial (which is a symptom of unbalanced conservatism). People who were above all interested in protecting people and nature would have admitted what was happening, (worked to overcome whatever personal afflictions were getting between them and reality,) figured out what to do, and done it. The state would have abandoned fossil fuels by now, and prepared its infrastructure for cold weather the way wind and solar facilities in Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Antarctica, the Dakotahs and other states…have been prepared. Tens of thousands of wind turbines work perfectly well in those places at -45°F, 35° colder than Texas is seeing now.

    The truth is, far more coal, gas and nuclear capacity failed than wind. But the outages—or outrages—are being caused by fossil and nuclear fuels, and conservatives’ unwillingness to let any light in.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      My sister that’s an industrial process engineer complained to me how frustrated she was that tank vendors (for process or storage) were still using temperature reference tables from the 1950s, and that her complaints to them fell on deaf ears. That leaves it to the system designers to have to defend why they’re ordering equipment beyond traditional specifications. Ugh.

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