Wobbly Texas Grid has Energy Lessons for All of Us

May 21, 2022

Texans have so far dodged a bullet in this early season heat wave, while weathering the failure of a half dozen gas and coal plants.
Rice University engineer Daniel Cohan has a new book on the grid’s state of Gridlock, which I’m reading – I interviewed him, above, following the Texas blackout of February 2021, and below, on the current state power generation in Texas, and everywhere else.

Daniel Cohan in The Hill:

It’s not even summer yet, but Texans are already being asked to turn up our thermostats and leave appliances off each afternoon amid a heatwave that has driven power demand to springtime records. Meanwhile, our aging coal and gas power plants continue to falter. The largest coal plant near Houston caught fire just days before six gas plants tripped offline.

So far, the lights have stayed on, thanks largely to solar output that doubled yet again this year. But the close calls in May bode poorly for what is forecast to be a hotter than normal summer.

Other Americans may dismiss these woes as a uniquely Texan problem. Texas alone operates its power grid as an island, isolated from the two main grids that span other states. That lets the state skirt federal oversight and prevents us from importing power when we need it most.

But the lessons from this spring’s heatwave extend far beyond our borders. Climate change is straining both supply and demand of electricity not just in Texas but globally. Only by transitioning away from the fossil fuel plants that exacerbate warming can we build back better grids and achieve a more affordable, reliable and resilient power supply than ever before.

Power plants rank just behind transportation as our nation’s biggest source of climate-warming emissions, and rank first globally. Thus, we can’t tackle global warming without cleaning up electricity.

In fact, as I explain in my new book “Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future,” clean electricity is the most crucial pillar for building a clean energy future. That’s because we’ll need clean electricity not only to power the uses of today, but also to electrify vehicles, heating and industry. Even plans to capture carbon from the air or split hydrogen from water depend on clean and affordable electricity.

Fossil fuels still provide more than 60 percent of our nation’s electricity, belching out more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. President Biden issued an executive order to eliminate power plant emissions by 2035, but Congress has yet to pass legislation to achieve that.

Fossil fueled electricity isn’t just damaging our climate, water and air. It’s failing us financially, with prices spiking as natural gas prices soar. And it’s failing to stay reliable, as gas and coal outages drove most of the blackouts in the February 2021 Texas freeze, in which at least 246 people died.

Won’t wind and solar make power even less reliable? As skeptics often remind me, it’s not windy and sunny all the time.

But as research by our group and others has shown, it’s usually windy or sunny somewhere in Texas or beyond. Winds tend to blow most strongly at night across the plains, and with afternoon sea breezes near the coasts or offshore. Pairing wind farms from a variety of locations with solar farms can cover power demand most of the time.

Of course, “most of the time” isn’t good enough when it comes to electricity. Reliable electricity requires balancing supply and demand every second of every day.

Fortunately, there are lots of options to fill in the gaps left by wind and solar — keeping our existing nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams; adding batteries and other storage; making demand more efficient and flexible; as well as developing new sources of power such as enhanced geothermal technologies.

We must also expand transmission, building high-voltage lines within and across our nation’s three grids to better blend wind, solar and other clean sources nationwide. Last week, wholesale power prices in Houston spiked over 100 times as high as in neighboring regions, after a local coal plant failed and transmission was insufficient to bring in wind power from our southConnections to national grids could let Texas import power when we need it most, and export power when it’s windy, sunny and mild here.

Done right, the United States can achieve 90 percent clean electricity by 2035 without adding costs to consumers or impairing reliability, as research by the University of California at Berkeley has shown. That’s because the costs of new transmission lines as well as wind and solar farms can be offset by averting costs for fuel and maintenance at aging coal and gas plants. We can also ease our reliance on coal and gas plants that keep failing when we need them most amid frozen or flooded coal pilesdrought-stricken water supplies, gas shortages, fires and various other causes. A warmer climate will only exacerbate the risk of droughts, floods and wildfires to which fossil power plants are so vulnerable.

Aging power plants also require far more downtime for maintenance than wind and solar farms, in addition to using tremendous amounts of water. As heatwaves expand into the spring and fall months, it will grow increasingly difficult to schedule needed maintenance and maintain water supplies. Over 40 percent of Texas power plants are over 30 years old, yet the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s electricity grid, has repeatedly asked them to defer maintenance amid extreme heat and cold.

Recent woes in Texas are just our latest reminder that fossil-dominated power supplies have failed to be affordable, reliable or resilient to extreme weather, even as they pollute our air and water as well as warm our climate. Built right, a cleaner power supply will be more resilient to heatwaves, floods and droughts and help slow the warming that is making those events more common.

Dave Tuttle PhD in Dallas Morning News:

Electric Reliability Council of Texas interim chief executive Brad Jones said six power generation facilities totaling 2,900 megawatts of capacity tripped offline unexpectedly Friday, just when customers needed the power most to counter hotter weather that arrived earlier in the summer than in the past.

Luckily, when those generators went down, we could rely on the sun. Snapshots from the ERCOT website on May 14th show that the Day Ahead Solar forecasts were very accurate and that the Solar Actual Hourly generation output was very reliable. While large amounts of traditional generator output were tripping offline unexpectedly, Texas solar generators provided predictable and reliable power that helped to keep ERCOT customers from suffering rolling blackouts during the extreme heat.

For the past few years there has been a substantial increase in solar power on the ERCOT grid. Solar plants are sometimes incorrectly called “unreliable” given they only generate when the sun is shining. In reality, solar plant output is variable but it is very reliable. These plants have no fuel supply chain risk or complex mechanical systems that can break down.

Despite criticism by some of renewable generation in Texas, wind and solar producers contribute to increased capacity that can help overall grid reliability, contain cost increases from higher natural gas prices, and reduce environmental impacts. Plus, wind and solar operations do not require water, an ever more precious resource in Texas.

Grid operators like ERCOT value predictability. They can deal with variability more than unpredictability. They know how to plan for the former. Year after year, they deal with load that varies each minute, with generators that need off-line scheduled maintenance, or with generatorsl that chooose to take themselves out of the market if they are not profitable. If a grid operator  knows about the changes to supply of demand with enought lead time, they can generally handle quite a few curve balls thrown at them.

Houston Chronicle:

Scanning weather patterns across the globe provides a glimpse at just how deadly hot the summer months could get. Temperatures in New Delhi hit 116 degrees last week and nearly 124 degrees in Jacobabad, Pakistan. It may be only May, but the mercury hit 99 degrees twice this past week in Austin, and 97 three other days. Yet Abbott and too many other leaders in Texas refuse to even acknowledge climate change is making weather more dangerous in Texas. That’s a perilous oversight.


4 Responses to “Wobbly Texas Grid has Energy Lessons for All of Us”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    (Let’s see if this TX transmission line map is readable.)

  3. jimbills Says:

    Thomas Friedman with a worthwhile opinion piece:
    The New York Times: Opinion | Why Do We Swallow What Big Oil and the Green Movement Tell Us?.

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