Reporting From Frigid Texas: Wind and Solar Power Fail When You Need Them the Most
Contrary to the claims of green energy profiteers and apologists in the mainstream media, wind and solar power, particularly their absence during a critical, surprising period of peak demand, were largely to blame for the widespread power outages in Texas during the polar freeze that hit the state last week.
Although the depth and length of time of the frigid temperatures for much of Texas were highly unusual, they were not unprecedented. Temperatures have remained below freezing across large parts of Texas for 100 hours consecutively or more at least three times since the 1890s, once even exceeding 200 hours of below-freezing temperatures. Snowfall and ice amounts have actually exceeded what Texas received in mid-February many times in the past. So, although this is hardly a yearly thing as it is across much of the northern tier of the United States, Texas’ electric grid should have been prepared for the rare but not unique polar freeze.
Politicians should never have dictated wind and solar power be incorporated in Texas’ or the nation’s electric power grid. As any engineer would have said openly before the politics of climate alarm and cancel culture raised their ugly heads, wind and solar power are particularly unsuited for a large power grid because they work only when the weather conditions are just right.
A large-scale power grid consists of two segments: baseload power and peaking power. Baseload power is the minimum amount of energy needed for the grid to function properly while delivering power on-demand to every user who needs it during a normal day. For the grid to function, it needs a fairly constant flow of power. Coal, nuclear, and to a lesser extent natural gas have satisfied Texas’ and the nation’s baseload demand for the past century because they operate full-time, with onsite backup (usually in the form of diesel boilers) to provide power during routine maintenance or breakdowns.
Peaking power is the additional power needed when the system is faced with unusual amounts of demand, usually in July and August in Texas and the rest of the South when air-conditioner use soars along with summer temperatures, and from December through February during the cold winters in northern states. Natural gas has commonly served to provide peaking power because natural gas plants can be built to scale, fuel can usually be delivered as needed, and facilities can be cycled on and off quickly as needed.
Neither wind nor solar can be relied on for either baseload or peaking power. Wind turbines generate power only when the wind blows between certain speeds, and the power they generate fluctuates constantly with wind gusts. Solar provides no power at night or when the cells are covered by snow, ice, or soot, and it provides reduced power on cloudy days and during storms. Except on completely cloudless days with clear skies, the power generated by solar panels fluctuates second-by-second with the passage of clouds.
Both solar and wind require backup power constantly, with fossil fuel power plants operating at inefficient, less-than-peak levels, to regulate the flow of fluctuating power delivered to the grid from turbines and solar panels when they are operating and to take up the slack during periods when either or both sources of weather-dependent power shut down. A power system that depends on the weather cooperating is a poor choice, yet it is the one dim-bulb politicians in multiple states, sadly including Texas, have made.
Over the past 15 years, wind, and more recently solar power, have grown to account for a greater portion of Texas’ electric power capacity. The two sources of power now account for more than 28 percent of the capacity of Texas’ electric power supply—even more than coal.
This increase was not driven by market demand but by politics. Legislators required a set minimum amount of power sold on the Texas power market to come from wind or solar power, regardless of the costs and the reliability and redundancy problems it introduced into the grid. On top of that, federal, state, and local subsidies encouraged wind and solar to grow beyond the minimum amount set by the state. School districts have gotten in on the boondoggle, issuing property tax abatements to build wind and rooftop solar so they could teach their students the virtues of going green, even as they cried poverty and continued to plead with Austin and local property tax auditors for ever-more money. As a result, Texas now produces more wind power than any other state, even climate-crazy California.
The subsidies, tax credits, and tax abatements allowed wind and solar generators to sell power into the Texas market at prices below what it costs them to produce and deliver the power to users. With taxpayers and ratepayers picking up more than 50 percent of the cost of producing and delivering renewable energy, on top of what they pay in their monthly bills, wind and solar producers often sell power into Texas’ market at a price most coal power plants and even some natural gas plants can’t match.
After Democrats and moderate Republicans in the legislature rejected a bill to make wind and solar companies pay to sustain at least a minimum of coal capacity to supplement, regulate, and provide a backstop against power losses from the intermittent, variable power the turbines and panels provide, utilities closed multiple coal-fueled power plants accounting for thousands of megawatts of electric power capacity. You can’t just flick a switch and turn on a coal plant once it has gone offline. Even if there is still a stockpile of coal sitting around to be fed into the boilers (there isn’t), it takes boilers time to heat up, and the machinery must be kept in good working order while mothballed (it hasn’t been because that costs money and no one is paying).
Which leads us to Texas’ power failure. Some reports have indicated wind and solar power can’t be blamed for the widespread power outages that occurred during the recent polar freeze. They point to the fact that on Sunday evening and early Monday morning when the power first began to fail, only a small percentage of wind and solar production went offline. That is true, but it is taken out of context.
Data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas show four days before the first snowflake fell, wind and solar were providing 58 percent of the electric power used in Texas. Fortuitously, the sun had been shining and the wind blowing. These conditions ended, and within a matter of hours, more than 13,000 megawatts of wind and solar power went offline. The wind died off and the turbines began to freeze, and winter storm clouds blocked the sun.
As always, natural gas, coal, and nuclear facilities ramped up production when wind and solar failed. Then the storm hit. Even as the wind picked up, ice had formed on the turbines, keeping them offline, and snow and ice coated solar panels, preventing them from generating power. More wind and solar failed, and the cold had a cascading effect on coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Some gas lines froze, other gas, due to contracts, was being shipped out of state, some equipment failed, and some powerlines snapped and transformers broke. More coal, natural gas, and nuclear failed during the storm than wind and solar, but only because wind and solar had failed even before the storm hit. What power remained during the crisis was delivered almost entirely by natural gas, coal, and nuclear. Wind and solar power remained almost wholly offline for the duration.
The result: more than eight million Texans (including me), in more than four million homes, lost lights, power, and heat. Temperatures in my house fell into the 40s, and within the first night, I went through all the heating oil in the old-fashioned lamps I keep for outages caused by periodic tornados. For some (not me, fortunately), the problems were even worse. Water-treatment plants lost power, meaning thousands of people lost access to clean water even if their pipes did not freeze. Widespread “boil water” orders were issued, but of course, you can’t boil water during a power outage if your stove is electric.
To sum up, political interference in energy markets, driven by climate alarmism, resulted in a huge increase in volatile, intermittent wind and solar power being forced and incentivized into Texas’ power system, undermining the reliability of the state’s electric grid. When that went offline, even before cold temperatures reached their peak, gas, what little coal remains, and nuclear, which faced their own problems, couldn’t cover renewable power’s ongoing shortfall throughout the entire period of extreme winter weather. Had winter demand not peaked, most people would have remained blissfully unaware of the limited power wind and solar are often able to provide to Texas homes and businesses, but weather, like wind and solar power, is fickle. Because of that, no large-scale power system should ever rely on wind and solar power for a substantial part of its electric power supply. As Texas showed this past week, and California demonstrates every summer, to do so is to court catastrophic, potentially deadly, failure.
Imagine how much worse Texas’ situation would have been if everyone relied on electric vehicles and the state prevented people from hooking natural gas up to their homes for cooking, heating, and water heating—policies climate activists commonly advocate. Mandating more reliance on electric power for transportation and basic necessities, as some localities, states, and the federal government is doing or considering doing, even as they further increase the amounts of unreliable wind and solar power on the grid, is a guaranteed recipe for large-scale power disasters to become common.
This article first appeared on February 25, 2021 and is reproduced with permission granted by the Heartland Institute.
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