Texas Turbines – Marvelous Machines or Pipeline Dreams?

By: Steven Yannacone

Texas wind made headlines as a cold freeze prevented 16-18 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy, most of it wind, from entering the grid, contributing to statewide blackouts.[1] Wind was far from the only generating source hit by the freeze, with natural gas, coal, and nuclear failing to produce 28-30 GW of planned supply.[2] Numerous left-leaning media outfits such as CNN, CBS, and PolitiFact[3] were quick to assert that the relatively greater hit taken by fossil fuel-derived sources in last month’s storm meant Republicans’ criticisms of the reliability of Texas wind power were unfounded, or as CNN put it, “showed…the problem of alternative realities of information.”[4] However, because only 23% of statewide energy is produced by wind, as compared with 75% from natural gas, coal, and nuclear,[5] overall quantity of energy loss is not a fair metric by which to judge actual comparative reliability of the two power sources. Had all those fossil fuel and nuclear plants been replaced by wind, Texas would actually have been short twice as much energy supply.[6]

So perhaps Texas windmills should take their share of the blame. But is it true that, as Republican Dan Crenshaw stated in broad terms, that “when weather conditions get bad as they did…intermittent renewable energy like wind isn’t there when you need it?”[7]  That is also incorrect. Only 23% of Texas’s grid is wind-powered,[8] yet according to PJM’s 2017 study, wind energy can be accommodated at levels of 25% or more with no drop in reliability as compared with the present-day system,[9] the service territory PJM based that finding on runs from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan,[10] all of which face colder weather on average than Texas.[11] This finding is in agreement with an earlier 2013 ISO New England study showing that wind energy penetration up to 24% is feasible with transmission upgrades.[12]

The factor that caused so many of Texas’ windmills to fail is not a flaw inherent to wind power writ large; rather, it is a factor specific to Texas windmills. Texas’s public utilities are not subject to a special winter-reliability mandate like other parts of the country.[13] Texas, having expected that the state’s usual warm weather would continue without change, failed to install common cold-weather precautions such as heat-creating turbine components and special blade lubricants.[14] Turbines with such technology, by contrast, regularly operate reliably in the Artic regions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and have an operating range down to -4° Fahrenheit.[15]

The applicability of such a weather-related catastrophe to other states is also limited. For one, Texas is unique in that it sports its own energy grid entirely separate from the two other interconnect systems that service the whole rest of the contiguous United States.[16] Had any other state been hit by the storm, other states’ generating capacities potentially could have been put to use to combat blackouts in weather-affected states. The cold weather had also created an unusual overall demand for energy which, renewables or no renewables, Texas had not budgeted for; when the energy infrastructure failed,  Texas was already running at dangerously near full capacity.[17] Because Texas was already dancing at the edge of the reliability cliff, it should come as no surprise that it fell.

Image from StarTribune

[1] Erin Douglas and Ross Ramsey, No, frozen wind turbines aren’t the main culprit for Texas’ power outages, The Texas Tribune (Feb. 17, 2021), https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/16/texas-wind-turbines-frozen/.

[2] Id.

[3] AllSides, Media Bias Ratings, https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-ratings (last visited March 29, 2021).

[4] Alexis Benveniste, As Texas went dark, Fox News blamed windmills, CNN Business (Feb. 21, 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/21/media/fox-news-texas-weather-wind/index.html; Sophie Lewis, Don’t blame wind turbines for Texas’ historic power outages, CBS News (Feb. 18, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/wind-turbines-texas-power-outage-electrical-grid;  Jon Greenberg, Natural gas, not wind turbines, main driver of Texas power shortage, PolitiFact (Feb. 16, 2021), https://www.politifact.com/article/2021/feb/16/natural-gas-not-wind-turbines-main-driver-texas-po.

[5] Ed Browne, Why Did Wind Turbines Freeze in Texas When They Work in the Arctic?, Newsweek (Feb. 18, 2021),  https://www.newsweek.com/texas-wind-turbines-frozen-power-why-arctic-1570173.

[6] Author’s calculations: [18 GW * (75/23)] / 30 GW = 1.96

[7] Lewis, supra note 4.

[8] Browne, supra note 5.

[9] PJM Interconnection, PJM’s Evolving Resource Mix and System Reliability (March 30, 2017).

[10] PJM, PJM Zones, https://www.pjm.com/library/~/media/about-pjm/pjm-zones.ashx (last visited March 30, 2021).

[11] Compare, e.g., Annual Weather Averages Near Charlotte, timeanddate.com https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/charlotte/climate (last visited March 30, 2021); with Annual Weather Averages Near Austin, timeanddate.com https://www.timeanddate.com/weather/usa/austin/climate (last visited March 30, 2021).    

[12] PJM Interconnection, supra note 10.

[13] Rachel Koning Beals, Texas power disaster may be strongest case yet for renewable energy, MarketWatch (Feb. 20, 2021).

[14] Browne, supra note 5.

[15] Id.

[16] EPA, U.S. Electricity Grid and Markets (June 26, 2020), https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/us-electricity-grid-markets.

[17] Richard Axelbaum & Phillip Irace, WashU Expert: ERCOT to blame for Texas blackouts, not renewables or fossil fuels. Wash. U. in St. Louis (March 19, 2021), https://source.wustl.edu/2021/03/washu-expert-ercot-to-blame-for-texas-blackouts-not-renewables-or-fossil-fuels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *