Texas. It is the number one energy-producing state in the United States. It is both the largest producer of oil, and the largest producer of natural gas, and has been for decades.
Texas also has abundant coal reserves. It has been ground zero of the fracking revolution, which has revolutionized oil and gas production, vastly increased supplies, driven prices down by around two-thirds since 2014, and turned the U.S. into a net energy exporter for the first time in decades.
By all rights, Texas should be the shining beacon of fossil-fuel energy abundance for everyone else to envy.
And yet in Texas this week, there has been a good blast of cold air, accompanied by some meaningful ice and snowstorms, and suddenly Texas finds itself with widespread power blackouts covering much of the state.
Although the levels of cold and ice have been somewhat unusual, they have also been well within the range of historical experience.
Meanwhile, other states farther north have been colder and have had more snow and more ice and yet the power has not gone out. What gives?
The simple answer is that despite its great abundance of fossil fuel energy, Texas nevertheless fell big for the ridiculous scam of trying to produce a high percentage of its electricity from wind.
Yes, the story is somewhat more complicated than that, as stories always are. But not much more complicated. Basically, with its grid stressed in many ways in the past week, the wind was useless to carry the load that needed to be carried.
The Wall Street Journal in an editorial today collects some basic data from Texas as to electricity supply capacity and usage.
The total winter generation capacity for the state is about 83 GW, while peak winter usage is about 57 GW. That’s a margin of over 45% of capacity over peak usage.
In a fossil-fuel-only or fossil-fuel-plus-nuclear system, where all sources of power are dispatchable, a margin of 20% would be considered normal, and 30% would be luxurious. This margin is well more than that. How could that not be sufficient?
The answer is that Texas has gone crazy for wind. About 30 GW of the 83 GW of capacity is wind. That means that even if all the fossil fuel and nuclear facilities are running at full tilt, you still need at least some wind at all times.
And the fossil-fuel and nuclear facilities are not going to run all the time at full tilt. You are going to have scheduled outages, and also breakdowns from time to time.
That’s why you would like to have a margin of up to 30%. It turns out that the cold weather and icy conditions brought some serious breakdowns on the fossil fuel side.
So how did the wind do at covering the gaps? The answer is, it’s completely useless. From the WSJ:
Winds this past month have generated between about 600 and 22,500 MW. Regulators don’t count on wind to provide much more than 10% or so of the grid’s total capacity since they can’t command turbines to increase power like they can coal and gas plants.
Yes, sometimes the wind turbines only generate at a rate of 600 MW — which is about 2% of their capacity. And you never know when that’s going to be.
Texas has its own electrical grid, run by something called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT of course is probably the single most responsible entity for Texas getting into a situation of great over-reliance on intermittent wind energy.
Thus it is not surprising that ERCOT is spinning like a top to try to make it look like its own bad bet on wind energy has not been the main cause of the current disaster.
The official line is that the “great majority” of power facility “outages” in Texas over the past week have been other than wind facilities.
For example, here we have an article from Renewable Energy Magazine today with the headline “ERCOT finds that frozen wind turbines were the least significant factor in Texas blackouts.”
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has released data showing that the vast majority of power plant outages in Texas were gas-fired generators. As multiple experts have documented, the vast majority of power plant capacity outages in Texas are at gas generators.
Got it? The wind facilities are not having an “outage” (except some that are frozen solid, but that’s a small percent); it’s just that the wind doesn’t blow when you need it. Somehow, that doesn’t count against wind turbines.
There’s no avoiding the basic defect here, which is that they have peak usage of 57 GW and only 53 GW of dispatchable capacity. The right way to look at this is that for 57 GW of peak usage you need 70 or so GW of dispatchable capacity to cover outages, planned and unplanned.
The wind turbines? They are just for decoration. If you are going to go with only 53 GW of dispatchable capacity, then you are counting on 15 or even 20 GW of wind capacity to come online when things go wrong.
Otherwise, the investment in wind power is just wasted money. In the case of Texas, that’s many tens of billions of dollars.
You might also be interested in how the New York Times today is spinning this story. Here is an excerpt from their front-page piece today:
[A]s climate change accelerates, many electric grids will face extreme weather events that go far beyond the historical conditions those systems were designed for, putting them at risk of catastrophic failure.
Their narrative is not disturbed at all by the fact that this was a cold versus warm weather event. It’s climate change!
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