There are several “narratives” circulating regarding the failures in the Texas power grid during the deep freeze. So, let’s separate fact from political narrative.
There are 5 main sources for electricity generation in Texas: Wind, Solar, Natural Gas, Coal and Nuclear. So, who did what during the Big Texas Deep Freeze? According to ERCOT (Non-Profit Organization, Electric Reliability Council of Texas) Electricity Generation By Energy Source data:
WHAT HAPPENED TO TEXAS POWER?
Feb. 4th, 2021: Over half of the electric generation in Texas was coming from wind, about 20,000 MWh. While roughly 15,000 MWh was coming from nuclear, natural gas and coal COMBINED.
Feb. 8th, 2021:More than a third of the continental US records below-zero temperatures. Snow, icy roads and power outages are beginning to paralyze cities across the country, sparking emergency declarations in several states.
Among them, Texas, which is beginning to feel the first impacts of what will be a brutal week. After Feb. 8th, wind produced very little electricity, bottoming out on the 15th, when it was needed most.
Natural Gas, on the other hand, went from less than 5,000 MWh electric generation to over 30,000 MWh of generation in that same time period. At its peak, on the Feb. 15, Natural Gas was operating at 125% of their stated capacity. Coal powered electric generation doubled its output and nuclear power generation remained steady throughout. Natural Gas electric generation increased by about 600%, Coal increased by about 100%, Nuclear remained steady and wind generation TANKED by about 95-97%. Solar was never more than a fractional generator electricity throughout.
The rolling blackouts were instituted to reduce demand on a system that was operating at or ABOVE capacity. Despite its rapid ramp up, Natural Gas power plants were suffering from supply chain issues, ie. getting ENOUGH natural gas to keep up that pace. The extremely cold and icy conditions resulted in wells being shut in, truck unable to pick up and deliver, etc. So, the Natural Gas plants were limited to what they could get via pipeline, Yes PIPELINE.
WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
In a nutshell, the WHY comes down to GOVERNMENT FAILURES on multiple levels. The weather itself had less to do with the tragedy in Texas than government, “fossil fuel” regulations, restrictions, “green” federal subsidies and incentives. Obviously, there were winterization issues, or the lack thereof, but those can be blamed on the government as well, both State and Federal.
First, some perspective… Wind, is fickle by nature, even though Texas has THREE of the largest wind farms in the world and the largest wind power generation infrastructure in the country. You get what you get, period. There is no storage, no scalability and no ramp up to meet high demand.
Natural Gas, as they demonstrated during the deep freeze, can scale up and ramp up to meet high demand as needed, but… is subject to supply chain issues and winterization issues. Of the “fossil fuels” it is the cleanest and greenest.
Coal, the “fossil fuel” black sheep, is the most stable, easily stockpiled in large quantity, able to ramp up to meet demand and less susceptible to “winterization” issues. BUT… it’s COAL. *Dramatically offended gasp*
Then there is the “red-headed stepchild” of energy production, the crazy aunt that nobody talks about… NUCLEAR. It’s self contained, unphased by weather conditions, no supply chain dependency, steady, reliable, safe and GREEN! But, But, But… 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima…
Now that we know the players, what happened? The government and rabid environmentalism happened. In Texas, there is a multi-layered structure for regulating public utilities. There is a three member Public Utility Commission (PUC) appointed by the Governor. They oversee ERCOT, the Electric Reliability Council, a non-profit organization that operates the Texas electrical grid and Texas Interconnection with neighboring states. Yes, the Texas grid is independent, but they do have power sharing agreements with neighboring states, as well. ERCOT is a membership-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation, and its members include consumers, electric cooperatives, generators, power marketers, retail electric providers, investor-owned electric utilities (transmission and distribution providers), and municipally owned electric utilities.
In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm, leaving nearly 3.5 million people without power. Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing” of power infrastructure was necessary, according to a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. A decade later, about 4.5 million people were without power for the same reasons.
But winterization wasn’t the only issue. Since 2011, at least six coal-fired power plants have been mothballed, scheduled for retirement or closed altogether in Texas. Partly due to expense to operate, environmental issues and declining efficiency, but definitely casualties of the “green” movement, federal environment regulation and federal subsidies for renewable energies, like wind and solar. Compared to just 3 years ago, coal power has been reduced by 37%. Old reliable, scalable, stable coal has been systematically replaced by inconsistent, unscalable, unstorable, fickle wind and solar.
Natural Gas, being “cleaner and greener” than coal, wasn’t hurt as badly by federal regulation… YET. In order to counterbalance the increase in unreliable power generation sources (wind and solar), the demand for natural gas powered plants grew. However, even natural gas plants have trouble competing in the electricity market due to the heavy subsidized low rates for wind and solar. As coal plants continue to disappear, natural gas plants will likely be the next casualty of the green movement and are already at a distinct disadvantage, despite their necessity in order to meet demand variability and peaks.
WHAT TEXAS NEEDS TO DO?
For starters, WINTERIZE THE DAMN GRID!
Then, we need to be HONEST about supply, demand and the capabilities and limitations of each of the power sources available. 100% Renewable Energy WILL NOT be achievable any time in the near future. It is too unreliable and unable to be increased to meet demand, especially at critical times when lives literally depend on it.
For renewable energy sources to be viable on any large scale will require MASSIVE battery storage capability that can be tapped into to maintain consistent supply and meet peak demands. All of which will have its own environmental impact, both in land usage for huge battery, wind and solar farms, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable materials, raw material mining for batteries, etc and so on.
Renewable Energy is NOT competitive in a free market, so it is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer. Your electric bill may be lower, but your tax bill is likely to go up to cover the difference, and then some.
Like all things AMERICAN, individual responsibility will ALWAYS be the right answer. Obviously, we will have to rely on some type of centralized power generation and transmission, that dependence will inevitably fail at some point. So, as Texans, and Americans as a whole, WE need to be prepared for those failures. Whether that is adding solar panels and/or a wind turbine to your own house, or having a generator, or even just a fireplace or wood burning stove. Or all of the above.
We should also pay attention to our government, at all levels, much more closely. Like ERCOT in Texas, who oversaw the grid, whose officers paid over $122 MILLION in salaries, pensions and benefits in 2018 alone. Whose members weren’t even residents of Texas in many cases, of the 12 person Board of Directors, 5 were out-of-state members, and 4 were from cold climate areas (MI, ME, IL, and Toronto) who definitely should have understood the importance of winterization.
We need to pay attention to how political regulations, subsidies and incentives affect the free market and how those things can, and will, affect our lives, jobs and cost of living. In short, this was a “perfect storm” of record breaking bad weather, governmental failure to heed past warnings, a manipulated energy market that sacrificed reliability for unreliable political pet projects.
There is a lot more going on here than the competing political “narratives” will ever tell you. Yes, wind power failed. Yes, coal and natural gas had winterizing issues as well, but still rose to meet the demand. Yes, the Texas grid is independent, but still connected to neighboring states for power sharing. Unfortunately, THEY were experiencing the same extreme weather and high demands. Yes, federal subsidies and regulations have unbalanced the Texas power generation base and Yes, local Texas governing bodies failed to heed past warnings and act accordingly.
There is no official death toll from the cold spell which paralyzed much of Texas, and the country, but according to the Washington Post at least 30 people have died due to causes related to the weather and power outages.