On Monday, the good people of Texas, many still suffering from ongoing trauma as a result of the February 2021 failure of the state power grid, prepared for bad news. The Texas Electrical Reliability Council, the highly infamous entity that manages Texas’ famously independent network, warned that the situation is dire because of a “projected reserve capacity shortage with no market solution available.” If things get worse, rolling blackouts may be needed. Not great!
Fortunately, the worst did not happen. There are a few reasons why. To reduce demand, many Texans have turned the thermostat to a few degrees to help save power, and ERCOT’s emergency response program has paid some large energy customers to reduce usage during peak times. And significantly, solar energy, which has been the star of the Texas grid so far during this endless summer, has continued to set records for energy production. If your air conditioner has been running steadily throughout the summer, you can appreciate the powerful power of the sun.
“We have twice as much sun as we had last summer, and something about three times as much as we had eighteen months ago,” energy consultant Doug Lewin told me Monday. “We actually set another solar record today, and we set one yesterday. Renewable for most of May and June, because we experienced extreme heat, there really was the difference between [having] a lot of conservation calls and possible outages and not having them. “
The two essential renewable energy sources contributing to the Texas power grid are solar and wind power; solar accounts for about 25 percent of the renewable resources on the grid, while wind accounts for the other three-quarters, according to Andrew Dessler, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M.
It is not so difficult to understand how and why certain energy sources work well under various grid conditions. Is the grid struggling to keep up with the demand for air conditioning? It seems like it’s bright and sunny outside, which explains why solar works well and also why wind would be less productive (go outside at noon on a summer day and want a breeze!). “The good thing about solar is that it really matches AC demand,” Dessler said. “Days that are really hot and sunny are the days you make the most power out of solar energy.”
While wind produced a low amount of energy relative to its total potential on Monday (and ERCOT issued an issue blaming the energy source for the grid’s struggles), both Dessler and Lewin said that was to be expected, and that the amount of electricity being generated by wind was within of state projections for summer day. (Thermal energy sources — gas, coal, and nuclear — also declined Monday.) While West Texas wind turbines don’t generate as much power as we might like on silly summer days, Gulf Coast wind turbines tend to do. well during those hours. “If you went to the beach in the summer, it’s usually a pretty good afternoon breeze,” Lewin said.
You might be forgiven for not realizing how much renewable energy has saved Texans in recent months. In a state where the oil and gas industry carries as much weight as it does in Texas, politicians (including the ERCOT board of directors who are political appointees) tend to downplay the contributions of renewable energy. In February 2021, Texas leaders wanted to blame renewable energy for the blackout – despite the fact that natural gas was the main culprit in the failure, delivering fewer gigawatts of energy than even the lowest ERCOT projections. ERCOT’s press release on Monday also blamed wind. “It would be nice to be able to read a press release from ERCOT and just trust that it’s media information,” Lewin told me.
The rise of solar provides a great opportunity to stabilize the Texas grid. While it’s not a one-stop solution for all of the state’s energy needs— “solar isn’t such a great solution for winter mornings,” Lewin acknowledged — in concert with wind, it goes a long way to ensuring Texans have access to reliable ones. electricity.
Solar has expanded rapidly in the state, but there is still plenty of room for growth, according to Dessler. “Almost anywhere in the U.S. Southwest, starting at I-35 and running west to California, is great for solar, and West Texas is also great for wind,” he said. “Texas could be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy – we got rich by selling hydrocarbons, but for whatever reason, the politicians in Texas don’t want to get rich by selling electrons.”
So far in 2022, renewables – especially solar – have provided a bastion that has kept the lights on and the AC exploding during a particularly miserable summer – and they have done so cheaply, even as natural gas prices rise due to global energy prices. “Those costs are outrageously high,” Lewin told me. “I shudder to think about what this would look like if we didn’t have zero-margin fuel like wind and solar on the system on the scale we do.”