A massive extreme winter weather pattern this week plunged arctic air deep into the Southern USA. There is snow on the beaches in Florida, and cities all across the deep south are struggling to handle icy conditions they rarely see. In Texas, most of the state is without power either natural gas or electricity. People have died from the cold, and warming centers are overflowing in the middle of a pandemic where we’re admonished from gathering in crowded enclosed spaces.
Without missing a beat, the Conservative Press launched into another Big Lie, this time that wind turbines and solar power does not work in such weather, and that the Texas power grid failed as a result. Chris Hayes (MSNBC) on Feb 16, 2021, showed clips of several Fox News commentators making those claims.
The reality is that the Texas power grid went down due to a natural gas shortage, and frozen equipment in the natural gas system. That resulted in weak natural gas pressure in delivery pipelines, that wasn’t sufficient to match the demand for natural gas. Further, the “controls” at natural gas and nuclear power plants froze and those plants had to shut down. As for wind turbines, they produced more electricity than expected. In other words, wind turbines made up for some of the failings of natural gas or nuclear power plants.
The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is the governing authority in Texas, and on Feb 11, 2021 ERCOT issued an alert. The forecast was for historically cold weather on the 15th, and ERCOT ordered the grid operators to take measures such as ensuring adequate fuel supplies. In other words, officials in Texas knew a problem was coming.
Indeed, an historically extreme weather event hit the USA.
On Feb 14, ERCOT issued an alert to electricity/gas customers across Texas to institute conservation measures. Reducing electricity and gas use reduces demand peaks and might have been enough for Texas to make it through the cold weather event from Feb 14-16, 2021. On Feb 15, rotating power outages began at 1:25 AM, and by daytime over 30,000 MegaWatts of electricity capacity was forced offline. Later on Feb 15, ERCOT announced it had restored some power, and noted that the vast majority of electricity generators forced offline were natural gas powered. On Feb 17, ERCOT announced it had restored more power, but that a significant amount of electricity generation was still offline.
The claim by Conservatives is that “frozen wind turbines” was the cause of this problem. Instead ERCOT named issues with all forms of electricity generation. Wind and solar outages predated the Feb 15 storm, and were not the result of the storm. Further, outages of “thermal” sources (natural gas, coal, driving turbines) far outstripped wind and solar outages.
- One of the Feb 15 announcements noted that they were already dealing with “frozen wind turbines” and “limited gas supplies” before Feb 14. Therefore that issue predated the Feb 15 arrival of the storm.
- Factors noted on Feb 17 included “frozen wind turbines, limited gas supplies, low gas pressure and frozen instrumentation”.
- Further, “approximately 46,000 MW of generation” was forced offline due to the extreme cold weather event, of which “28,000 MW is thermal and 18,000 MW is wind and solar”. Thermal in this case means steam powered turbines powered by natural gas, coal, and the like.
Bloomberg News noted that this isn’t the first time Texas has suffered power outages due to cold weather. Instead cold snaps in 2011 and 1989 prompted ERCOT to issue warnings to electricity grid operators to winterize their systems. But regulations in Texas did not give proper incentives for operators to do so. Bloomberg reports that a 2011 ERCOT report said “Many generators failed to adequately apply and institutionalize knowledge and recommendations from previous severe winter weather events, especially as to winterization of generation and plant auxiliary equipment.” Surely there will be a 2021 report that says largely the same.
Another Bloomberg News report talks about Conservative commentators, such as the Governor of Texas, blaming renewable energy as the source for this problem. But as the report notes, Pres. Biden talked repeatedly during his campaign of the potential to build more renewable energy resources, to improve the electricity grid with more long distance electricity transmission lines, and more.
For example, energy storage boxes (Tesla Powerwall and the like) would help considerably in this crisis. There could be power storage units either attached to each home, or at a neighborhood level, that for 99% of the year provide ancillary grid services, but in a crisis would help us sail through power outages.
We can build systems that withstand weather events like this. Proper energy storage systems, and better electricity grid control systems, would improve grid reliability.
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