As millions of people in Texas lost heat and electricity during a historic cold snap early this week, the future of renewable energy in the large-and-growing state and elsewhere drew fresh scrutiny, aided by images of ice-caked wind turbines.
But to blame renewables at a time when they need more, not less, of the nation’s power system to modernize is short-sighted, especially as more extreme weather due to climate change is likely, said energy analysts.
For starters, the blame for the Texas power crunch, at least according to early readouts from Texas utilities officials, and backed by analysts, was multifold. That fact alone should energize the pursuit of a diverse energy portfolio and upgraded grid to help the U.S. rein in emissions contributing to global warming and keep energy relatively low-cost, especially for vulnerable communities.
“The dangerous situations in Texas and Oklahoma underscore the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to make transformational investments in our country’s infrastructure, including the electricity grid,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power. Climate Power, initially called Climate Power 2020 because of its then focus on the 2020 election, is a policy project created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.
Politicians and industry leaders loyal to fossil fuels made their case against renewables this week by leveraging the fact that wind is an energy source, like solar, that requires planning for intermittent generation. Meaning: It’s not entirely reliable, all of the time.
They doubled down on their assertion that fuel sources including natural gas will have to feature alongside wind, solar, nuclear and other options even as the U.S. tackles climate change and as states including Texas embrace more renewables.
Without natural gas NG00, -0.99%, the industry argues, the power grid will risk more frequent rolling blackouts like those gripping Texas and other mostly Plains states. Rolling electricity outages in California last summer were pinned in part on the too-soon retirement of gas plants as the state pursued a clean-energy agenda. In fact, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz saw his tweeted criticism of California resurface this week as over 4 million Texans went powerless.
So which source was behind the mess in Texas?
“The crisis in Texas was not caused by the state’s renewable energy industry. The largest loss of generation came from gas-fired power plants, with the drop-off from wind farms a long way behind,” said Ed Crooks, vice chairman, Americas, with Wood Mackenzie.
Use of natural gas for residential heating competes with its use in generating electricity, and that use was stretched in typically warm Texas. The shortfall may be blamed on extreme weather conditions or may be the first sign that winter planning for a renewable and fossil-fuel mix needs shoring up.
Texas utilities, which lean mostly on natural gas and wind throughout the year, would have already scaled back their planning for wind power before the storm, as they typically do in the winter. Summer is peak energy usage and wind only comprises 25% of the state’s energy mix during winter. Wind power during the ice storm met what is typically required of it this time of year, officials suggested. The majority of outages were at the portions of the Texas grid that rely on natural gas, coal and nuclear, sources that together make up more than two-thirds of power generation during winter.
The cold snap was unique, but so is the Texas utilities grid.
Nearly all of Texas operates as a single electrical grid not integrated with surrounding states. That grid is run by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ERCOT, a nonprofit controlled by the state legislature and free from national regulation. Under the best of times, it creates big swings in prices in both directions; under the worst of times, like this week, homes and businesses go dark and cold.
The American Gas Association said dissecting exactly what went wrong in Texas during the freeze and what takeaways from that experience could inform any change to natural gas use for electricity going forward will take more time.
National data from the AGA showed that as cold covered much of the nation, 151.7 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas was delivered in the U.S. on Feb. 14 and 149.8 Bcf was delivered on Feb. 15. Sunday was the second-highest delivery day ever and the two days combined set a record for the largest demand for a two-day period. The group represents some 200 local energy companies, including some in Texas, that deliver natural gas to utilities. Ultimately, some 71 million customers across the U.S. use the gas from the firms AGA represents.
Discussion in coming days, weeks and months “should include how we utilize and value the role the system plays in the coldest days of the year… accounting for disruption and events of severe weather,” said Richard Meyer, managing director of energy markets, analysis and standards with the AGA.
Renewables need a rethink, too.
“The loss of power has been a warning of the issues that will be raised as the proportion of renewable generation on the grid rises,” said Crooks of Wood Mackenzie.
Generation, transmission and distribution equipment, and the design of the electricity market, will become even more important to cope with the challenges created by a renewables-heavy grid.
“Distributed resources including storage and demand response will also have to play a greater role. Texas renewable capacity would need to increase more than 10-fold to provide the same amount of energy produced by the fossil fuel fleet on Monday, even at reduced levels,” Wood Mackenzie analysts said.
Because this would prove excessive at some times of the year, storage will matter immensely, including batteries, hydrogen or another technology.
Wade Scheur, research director for the Americas at Wood MacKenzie, said there are some specific lessons from Texas. For one thing, the state has several large population centers but renewable energy clusters are far away from major cities, requiring more miles of potentially vulnerable transmission lines.
And there is no winter-reliability mandate for the state-run utilities system like, for instance, in other parts of the regulated U.S.
“There is just little incentive for renewables, or even other sources, to increase capacity. Many energy sources are seasonally mothballed from October to May,” Scheur said. “Maybe capacity and incentives to be able to produce better in winter need additional consideration.”
This could be true in Texas and elsewhere. Weather-related power outages are increasing across the U.S. as climate change produces more extreme storms and temperature swings, writes energy resources professor Michael Webber at the University of Texas at Austin, in a commentary.
“States that design their buildings and infrastructure for hot weather may need to plan for more big chills, and cold-weather states can expect more heat waves,” he said. “As conditions in Texas show, there’s no time to waste in getting more weather-ready.”