Michael Webber PhD: Learning the Right Lessons from Texas Debacle

March 10, 2021

Michael Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources, Author, and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
He is also the Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy & infrastructure services company. 

Michael Webber in Waco Tribune:

This is like a replay of a movie we’ve watched before. And as everyone knows, the sequel is usually worse than the original. The most energy-abundant state in the nation suffered a catastrophic energy shortage. Again.

Almost a decade ago to the day, Texas endured a statewide freeze in February 2011. That cold snap caused some large thermal plants to trip offline, which triggered a cascading series of power plant failures elsewhere, leading to rolling blackouts for millions of people across the state.

Flash forward a decade and it happened again — but worse. There were failures throughout the power sector. Some solar farms were coated in snow and some wind turbines had ice on their blades, reducing renewable output to the grid. More critically, Texas lost more than 30 gigawatts of thermal capacity — natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants — because of frozen equipment, outages and freezes in the natural gas supply system. It’s as if we have not learned a single thing from 2011.

Unfortunately, because of Texas’ independent grid, we also did not have the ability to import power from neighboring states. And, critically, we reject climate science, which means we are not prepared for the reality of changing weather patterns.

What needs to change is that we need to build climate science into our planning so that we’re not building the infrastructure of tomorrow for yesterday’s weather. Scientists have been warning us for years that increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will manifest itself in several ways: ocean acidification, higher sea levels, and warmer air and ocean temperatures — meaning more frequent and intense weather events. Our recent experiences with cold snaps are consistent with a weakening jet stream, which allows cold air from the North Pole to move thousands of miles further south than was typical a few decades ago.

Instead of just pretending we live in a hot state, we need to recognize these arctic fronts are an ongoing part of our future. That means we need to winterize the gas supply and power plants with insulation, heat tracing, temporary or permanent enclosures to keep out wind and precipitation, on-site heaters for thawing equipment, cold climate packages for wind turbines, and snow removal for solar panels.

Texas’ grid should diversify to reduce interdependencies and over-reliance on gas. The natural gas system depends heavily on electricity, and the electricity system depends heavily on gas. In a vicious downward spiral, power constraints inhibit the ability to supply gas and vice versa. Reducing the power sector’s needs for gas lets us continue to prioritize the gas supply for home heating. Adding more sources such as geothermal, wind and solar that do not rely on gas will reduce that vulnerability. Nuclear and coal could be alternatives to gas, but they are much more expensive and have their own reliability problems. In fact, in the 2021 and 2011 storms, several coal plants failed due to the wintry conditions.

We should also implement efficiency and conservation into building codes to reduce the energy we need to heat and cool our homes. That saves consumers money and eases the load on the state’s energy systems. And we should modernize our energy system with distributed energy resources, energy storage and microgrids to improve resilience rather than simply depending on a far-flung system of large, remote power plants and transmission lines that can fail when loaded with ice.

Our biggest risk now is that we’re going to seek the wrong scapegoats and blame the wrong problem — and therefore fail to make the right decisions or implement the proper solutions. That next severe winter storm will come, and power will most likely be lost again. The choices now will dictate how vulnerable we are in the future.

12 Responses to “Michael Webber PhD: Learning the Right Lessons from Texas Debacle”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It’s as if we have not learned a single thing from 2011.

    Did any politicians lose their jobs because of 2011? If not, what was there to learn?

  2. John Oneill Says:

    Michael Webber estimates the cost of the latest Texas outage at $100 billion. The two Vogtle reactors under construction in Georgia are slated at 25 billion, so for the cost of this mess, Texas could have bought 8.8 gigawatts of power with, on average, a year’s worth of fuel already in the reactor at any time. It’s true that one of the four reactors Texas already has had a weather-induced glitch, but weatherising one turbine, which rejects two gigawatts of waste heat anytime it’s running, should be easier than doing the same for hundreds of wind turbines, gas wells and miles of piping. (The plant which failed doesn’t even have an enclosure round the turbine.) Coal can also easily store fuel onsite, but that fuel can freeze solid, and a gigawatt plant needs to restock it with ten thousand tons more every day – about a hundred coal cars. The reactor can do it with one truck, every eighteen months.
    Gas plants in Texas shut down because they couldn’t get enough gas, which, when available, was being snapped up by household heating. Two of the Westinghouse AP1000 plants in China are being used for district heating – the waste heat, instead of being spouted out of a cooling tower, is diverted for heating apartments and factories in the nearby town. ‘With the completion and commissioning of subsequent units at Haiyang, the plant could eventually provide heating to more than 200 million square meters of housing within a 100 kilometre radius, avoiding the use of about 6.62 million tonnes of coal.’

  3. J4Zonian Says:

    On this, the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the ongoing Fukushima disaster, we might reflect on the damage that can be caused by spent fuel rods—and of course by that I mean the human ones pushing a dangerous, destructive, uncompetitive industry.

    Wind and solar power are considerably cheaper than nukes, so even more energy could be built if the $100b had been used on them. Increasingly, it’s cheaper even with storage. Offshore wind power has a high and increasing capacity factor while West Texas, coastal and offshore wind all have different and complementary production curves, as does solar, which Texas needs a lot more of. And of course, storage, which it’s beginning to get with this 100+ MW Tesla battery (the size of the original South Australia Hornsdale Power Reserve, the Tesla Big Battery). https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2021-03-08/tesla-is-plugging-a-secret-mega-battery-into-the-texas-grid

    Like most nuke arguments, Oneill’s is based on conjecture, made up factoids, opinion, and ideology. For example: “should be easier…” means nothing without numbers and is in fact, wrong. Wind turbines produce electricity cheaper than nukes in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, the North Sea, Germany, northern China, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Vermont … That means they’re cheaper including weatherizing and cold maintenance, hot maintenance, and all other eventualities.

    • redskylite Says:

      There maybe locations where nuclear fission can replace fossil fuel burning to produce electricity, places where the wind does not blow, where the sun does not shine, where cheaper, safer, quicker to assemble alternatives are not feasible. My main concern of nuclear fission, apart from disposing waste and maintaining a high degree of safety from the calamitous risks of the world is the considerable cooling overhead as the world heats up. How hot will be cooling waters at the rapidly approaching end of the century ?


      “Climbing without a map: Japan’s nuclear clean-up has no end in sight”

      The job ranks as the most expensive and dangerous nuclear clean-up ever attempted. A decade in, an army of engineers, scientists and 5,000 workers are still mapping out a project many expect will not be completed in their lifetime.


      • John Oneill Says:

        Reactors work on the difference in temperature between the steam at the turbine inlet – usually about 320C – and the cooling water in the condenser. If the ocean, or a river, is used for cooling water, and gets hotter than spec, they can usually still produce power at a reduced rate. The main reason reactors on rivers have been shut in summer is because they don’t want the river to go past a predetermined limit, not because the reactor can’t work. By the end of the century ( assuming we still have a technological society, and it uses nukes ), they’ll probably be using hotter reactor fluids – molten salt or metal, supercritical water or CO2, other gases – which will allow a higher percentage of the heat generated to be turned into electricity, open up other uses such as fuel production, and allow more latitude in the reject heat temperature.
        I don’t think the Fukushima cleanup ranks anywhere near as bad as Chernobyl – or Kyshtym, which was a weapons facility near the Urals.’The mean annual radiation dose rate in 2012 associated with the accident was 0.89–2.51 mSv/y. The mean dose rate estimates in 2022 are comparable with variations of the average 2 mSv/y background radiation exposure from natural radionuclides in Japan. Furthermore, the extra lifetime integrated dose after 2012 is estimated to elevate lifetime risk of cancer incidence by a factor of 1.03 to 1.05 at most, which is unlikely to be epidemiologically detectable.’ Some of the villages evacuated from around Kyshtym had over 500 mSv, forty times as much as the most affected areas in Japan got over a whole year.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          The Fukushima accident continues; there’s no saying how bad the cleanup will be until the accident is over and it becomes even remotely possible to clean it up. That could be decades or centuries.

          Yes, the main reason nukes are shut down for water reasons is the ecological damage they cause, putting the lie to claims by nuke proponents. But play with semantics all you want, reactors are also shut down because water is unavailable or too warm, and both are increasing with climate catastrophe. For this reason and others the ecological damage reactors do is increasing and their capacity factor is decreasing.

          Burning Rivers: How Coal And Nuclear Are Sucking Up Our Fresh Water

          Study: Energy industry water use to double by 2035
          The best way to avoid excess and increasing water use is to switch faster to clean safe renewable energy.

    • redskylite Says:

      Inside Clean Energy: 10 Years After Fukushima, Safety Is Not the Biggest Problem for the US Nuclear Industry

      “The larger problem is economics, and the reality that nuclear power is substantially more expensive than other sources.”


    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Round and round the mulberry bush we go. Renewables are cheap, nukes are expensive and solutions to ‘waste’ are blocked for propaganda. All while the world heats up and time passes. Renewables can not do it alone is so bleedingly obvious that only blind faith can explain this fantastic idea. For the sake of the planet, think it thru and work to solutions.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        There’s no mulberry bush, only denial by people unnaturally attached to a dead industry walking. Doing different but equally bad things with unnecessary waste is something nook boosters consistently refuse to understand. We have better choices.

        Thinking this through is exactly what some have done, as shown by dozens of studies and dozens of countries. As wind, solar and storage all leap ahead by light years, denial becomes ever more untenable and unhinged. Clean safe renewables can provide all the energy the world needs.

        Iceland has the highest per capita electricity use in the world because besides the high quality lives its citizens provide themselves, it uses its cheap rock steady geothermal and hydro—dispatchable renewable energies—to gain foreign exchange by making aluminum, despite a decided lack of bauxite mines. Its grid is 100% renewable and primary energy is 81% RE and rapidly increasing, as its vehicle fleet is now at about 45% EV market share. (Countries with government policies that encourage EVs are advancing so fast now it’s hard to keep track.) That’s just one doubling time from essentially 100% RE market share, which should happen in a year or 2.

        Finland lags a little behind the rest of the Nordic grid (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland; 66%RE grid/33% RE primary energy) but the other countries use a lot of district heating so most of their difficult-to-change primary energy emissions are in transportation. But because of their policies, Norway (98% RE grid/ 40% RE primary energy/ 87% EV market share*) Sweden (60/54/50) Denmark (60/29/20) as part of the Nordic grid (66/33) and other European countries are quickly closing in on 100% clean safe renewable energy societies. Uruguay (95/55) is similarly encouraging EVs. New Zealand (82/40), Nicaragua (51/75) and other countries aren’t far behind. In all, at least 25 countries are at or near 100% clean safe renewable electricity and at least 65 are more than half so. As EVs become more common and renewably-powered mass transit is increased, primary energy will be renewablized astonishingly quickly.

        Brent keeps making this false claim that there’s no evidence for, and enormous piles of incontrovertible evidence against. The only reason to keep pushing this lie about clean safe renewable energy is to try to fool people into accepting nukes. It’s not working; about 90% of people in the US want solar, wind and more money for them while only 45% want nukes, and NIMBYism makes that nuke support drop precipitously any place it actually comes up. The only thing they have left is lies about nukes, which they also tell constantly.

        * Since they’re advancing so quickly, I’m using some monthly market share figures where they’re in keeping with the increase.

    • John Oneill Says:

      You can’t say they’re cheaper including non-hydro, non-fossil backup, because no such grid exists. Solar and wind were producing about as much power during the Texas crisis as anticipated – very little. The biggest demand for power in the US is normally in summer, for air conditioning, but the biggest demand for energy is in winter, for heating- it’s just that a good proportion of that is from gas. If nuclear was given a district heating role as well, it would greatly reduce winter demand for gas, and upend the economic balance between the power sources ( which is already skewed, since Texas makes no provision for capacity payments, ie reliability. )
      The latest figures I could find had nuclear in Texas running at 101% of capacity – the plants are slightly more efficient in cold weather. Wind was making a bit over 50% of it’s capacity, a bit better than average, and solar zero, which is what you expect, more often than not.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        I certainly can say that. And do. The hocketed energy system of wind and solar plus storage are cheaper than nukesper KWh, and are still getting cheaper while nukes continue to get more expensive. Wind and solar plus storage are cheaper than nukes.

        Wind and solar plus storage are cheaper than nukes.
        Nuclear failed during the cold snap. Wind performed above expectations, even with the criminal neglect of the Texans hampering it. Wind in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Sweden, the North Sea, the Baltic, Antarctica, performed just fine, because they were adequately maintained. And I already explained the weaponized projection trick you just tried to use. Again. Stunting the growth of clean safe renewable energy through dishonest politics (aka lying, cheating, and stealing) and then complaining that there’s not enough clean safe renewable energy is perhaps the single most despicable thing of the many extremely despicable things you spent fuel rod ARFs do.

        I meet your dubious district heating bid (nukes close enough to use it on inhabited areas are waaaaaaaay too close to inhabited areas) and raise you a buncha clothesline paradox energy—solar gain in passive and active solar space and water heating and cooling for example (and other applications) that once built, disappears from energy statistics. A lot of it’s already contributing and a lot more can be built. It comes with its own built-in storage, so it removes demand from the grid often at the times most needed to reduce generating capacity needs, and it provides living space. If done right, as the New Alchemists did, it also provides beauty and food. Solar panels can collect water in distributed energy systems and as pointed out at this site, provide shade in agroelectric systems.

        The power and capacity factor of solar panels is being improved with 2-direction tracking and even better cheaper types (thin film and other technologies), capturing the power of rain falling on the panels, continuing to quickly improve wind power with the 12 and 13 MW Haliade turbines going in off the US east coast and Dogger Bank and other European wind farms, and the even bigger turbines (14-16 MW) expected in the next 2 years with even higher capacity factors than the current cutting edge of 63%.

        Solar, wind, and hydro complement each other with different rhythms of production. Hydro, CSP, clothesline energy, and geothermal are expanding to provide dispatchable power.

        Nukes are horrifically underinsured in the US, the country formerly known as USSR, Japan, and undoubtedly everywhere; it’s a taxpayer subsidy of billions, and when the next accident happens it will be trillions, like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

        Nuclear reactors are dangerous. They destroy democracy, worsen inequality, and are worse-than-useless expensive, inflexible centralized power incompatible with a grid dominated by clean safe renewable energy. It’s more and more obvious the only way they’ve lasted this long is the lying and political machinations and corruption involved; Illinois and Ohio are only the most recent and most blatant examples.

        The answers to the climate crisis are obvious, too: build more clean safe renewable energy, accelerate efficientizing and wising up energy use, equalize politically and economically, build more storage, and continue to improve the capacity, capacity factor, EROEI, safety and health of RE.

  4. redskylite Says:

    Interesting & worth a read from the Earth Institute on the evolution of the grid in these times of Climate Change and the need to stop or contain fossil fuel emissions. . .
    “Now the grid needs to change, to accommodate renewable energy sources that are more dispersed.


    “That plan will include a “three-legged stool” system of generation that can create strong reliability for the grid.


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