Factchecking BBC’s Factcheck
FEBRUARY 18, 2021tags: Texas
By Paul Homewood
Unsurprisingly the BBC have tried to minimise the role of wind power in the Texas blackouts:
As freezing temperatures grip the southern United States, there have been major power failures across Texas as increased demand for heating has overwhelmed the energy grid.
Supplies of both electricity and gas have been intermittent, with the authorities saying they need to “safely manage the balance of supply and demand on the grid” to avoid another major power cut.
Republican representatives and media commentators have blamed green energy policies, in particular the increased use of wind turbines.
What went wrong?
The bitingly cold temperatures have caused major problems across the energy sector in Texas.
Wind turbines froze, as well as vital equipment at gas wells and in the nuclear industry.
But because gas and other non-renewable energies contribute far more to the grid than wind power, particularly in winter, these shortages had a far greater impact on the system.
So when critics pointed to a loss of nearly half of Texas’s wind-energy capacity as a result of frozen turbines, they failed to point out double that amount was being lost from gas and other non-renewable supplies such as coal and nuclear.
Texas has promoted the development of wind energy over the past 15 years.
And on average, renewable energy sources – mostly wind – account for about 20% of its electricity supply.
But the largest proportion comes from fossil fuels, as well as 10% from nuclear.
On Tuesday, the state’s principal energy supplier, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), said the freezing conditions had led to:
- 30GW being taken offline from gas, coal and nuclear sources
- a 16GW loss in capacity in wind and other renewable energy supplies
And this, it said, had severely curtailed its ability to satisfy a peak demand of 69GW over the past few days – a surge even greater than anticipated.
But as in true BBC fashion, they have not told the full story.
Firstly let’s consider this chart:
When wind power collapsed suddenly this week, it was reliable gas and coal which filled the gap. Without that, the Texas grid would have disintegrated with devastating consequences.
For various reasons though some gas, coal and nuclear capacity also went offline, meaning that there was not enough to supply the extra demand caused by the cold weather. But it is oversimplistic to “blame” gas, coal and nuclear power.
For a start, some gas and coal plants were tripped when the wind power failed so spectacularly. Large CCGT and coal plants are not designed to be taken off and put back on the system quickly, as they are built for baseload.
Certainly some plants had issues with the extreme cold, but one consequence of this tripping out was that the plants went “cold”, exacerbating problems with frozen pipes and equipment.
Worse still, power blackouts affected gas producers in the Permian Basin, which were then unable to continue providing fuel for the grid, potentially exacerbating the problem.
(There is a very good technical summary of what went wrong here by Jason Isaac, which explores all of these issues).
Another issue is that some gas plants were shut for maintenance, a normal situation in winter when demand is supposed to be low.
We will obviously have to wait for the inevitable official investigation, but it seems that most of the gas and coal plant problems occurred after the trips. And as we know, gas and coal plants can work perfectly well in much colder climates.
But as Isaac comments:
Renewables were the dominant factor in why Texas got into this situation to begin with, which led to the need for action by ERCOT, their resulting mistakes, and the problems with getting coal and gas back online. Just pointing the finger at downed gas plants is a bit like steadily replacing the bricks holding your house up with straw and masking tape, and then blaming the chimney when the whole thing collapses.
Clearly Texas has failed to ensure its grid is fully winterised, but there is a much more fundamental problem – dwindling reserves.
In thee last decade, dispatchable capacity has fallen by 3 GW, all from coal plants. This may not sound much, but crucially demand has risen by 20% in that time.
Consequently, whereas Texas had ample reserve capacity, now, as we have seen, it has none when it is needed.
So why is Texas running low on reserve capacity, ie the difference between peak demand and available generating capacity? It is because ERCOT includes renewable energy in its “available capacity”, as the Texas Public Policy Foundation explain:
This is dangerously similar to the assumptions made by our own National Grid in their forward projections.
Put simply, what Texas needs urgently is some new dispatchable capacity, and not more wind power.
It has been noted that Texas is separate to the rest of the US grid. Loudmouth James O’Brien, of LBC, apparently blamed this on Texas’ dislike of socialism.
In fact, this situation dates back at least to the 1930s, when Roosevelt set up the Federal Power Commission:
The predecessor for ERCOT was formed in the 1930s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with regulating interstate electricity sales.
“Utilities in Texas were smart and made an agreement that no one was going to extend power outside of Texas,” Donna Nelson, who served as chair of the state Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, from 2008 to 2017, said in an ERCOT promotional video about the history of the grid.
“By eschewing transmission across state lines, the Texas utilities retained freedom,” Richard D. Cudahy wrote in a 1995 article. “This policy of isolation avoided regulation by the newly created Federal Power Commission, whose jurisdiction was limited to utilities operating in interstate commerce.”
The result was “an electrical island in the United States,” Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT, said. “That independence has been jealously guarded, I think both by policy makers and the industry.”
Even today ERCOT, which was formed in 1970, remains beyond the reach of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electric transmission.
Being part of a larger grid may not have made much difference anyway, as the Midwest has also been experiencing a power emergency.