Clean energy proponents are touting the use of solar and wind power in oil-rich Texas, but a summer heat wave is showing the limits of renewables in sustaining a major power grid.
Temperatures have climbed above 100 degrees this month, and Texas energy companies are warning customers of rolling blackouts. They also are asking customers to conserve energy by raising thermostat settings, cutting back on dishwasher and washing machine use and limiting electric vehicle charging.
Energy Texas, one of 150 retail electricity providers in the state, blamed the looming threat of power outages on “triple-digit temperatures and low wind generation.”
Despite producing more oil than almost anywhere else in the world, Texas falls far behind many other parts of the country when it comes to the reliability of its energy grid.
Critics blame a system rigged around the inconsistent performance of renewables, mainly wind, which have been increasingly woven into the Texas grid, causing instability during extreme weather events, including this month’s triple-digit heat wave.
“This is driven by the unreliability of wind and solar because, like it or not, you cannot predict day-to-day wind output and sun output and how many megawatts they will generate,” said Daniel Turner, executive director of Power the Future, a group that advocates for fossil fuels and energy industry workers. “Texas is always finding themselves in this scramble because they are using what is not reliable and expecting it to perform like it is reliable.”
Windmills were partly to blame when the state’s power grid failed spectacularly in February 2021 after a historic winter storm that covered much of the state in snow and ice.
The weather froze wind turbines and natural gas lines, triggering a massive electrical grid failure and resulting in 57 deaths and $195 billion in property damage.
The disaster sparked changes to make the state’s unique, independent energy grid more resilient to extreme weather. It prompted a debate over the role of renewables.
Still, Texas has no plans to reduce its use of wind and solar energy.
The state ranks fourth in the world in oil production, behind Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. But the push for renewables in Texas over the past decade has made the state the U.S. leader in wind energy, producing more than a quarter of the nation’s total in 2021.
Renewable energy, mostly from wind, provided a quarter of the net generation of electricity in Texas last year.
The state has spent tens of billions of dollars implementing renewable energy into the grid, most of it on windmills.
Depressed wind speeds this month cut output to less than 10% of the state’s wind generating capacity, officials at the U.S. Energy Information Administration told The Washington Times.
Solar has helped make up for some of the absent wind power but not enough to stave off the threat of outages when coupled with record-high demand during the heat wave.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s flow of electric power, is asking customers to conserve electricity each day from 2-8 p.m.
“Conservation is a reliability tool ERCOT has deployed more than four dozen times since 2008 to successfully manage grid operations,” ERCOT officials said in a statement.
Critics say a state flush with oil shouldn’t have to unplug appliances and raise thermostats in a heat wave, but renewable energy proponents say critics are wrong to blame the threatened outages on windmills.
Many point to the frozen gas lines in 2021, which were more to blame for the outages than windmills because they account for a larger part of the energy grid.
This summer, the grid has been strained by several outages at coal and gas plants. Traditional fossil fuel output was operating at 85% capacity on July 11.
“The idea that fossil generation, like natural gas and coal, is consistently 100% reliable in these situations is not true,” said Emily A. Beagle, a research associate with the Weber energy group at the University of Texas at Austin.
Ms. Beagle expects Texas will add more wind and solar to the grid, which she said will save money and increase reliability over time.
“Wind and solar are sort of the cheapest new generations to bring onto a system, and so just the economics of it are going to drive expansion of those technologies,” Ms. Beagle said.
In the current heat wave, though, it’s mostly fossil fuels that are keeping the lights on in Texas.
According to ERCOT, at peak hours on July 11, wind was generating only 2,600 megawatts — far below its capacity to produce more than 35,000 megawatts of power. Solar was producing 9,500 megawatts, while a combination of natural gas, coal and nuclear was producing nearly 68,000 megawatts of power.
With a demand of 80,000 megawatts, the state remains on the brink of blackouts.
“For Texas to be telling Texans to not live the 2022 life of a Texan because the grid can’t compete is not progress,” Mr. Turner said. “This is regressing into a worse state of living. And that’s not something to be proud of.”