Building Back Better Means Blackouts and Fragile Grids

February 28, 2021 Updated: February 28, 2021

Commentary

South Australia in 2016; California last year; now, Texas. The recent blackout is a terrible ordeal for Texans but a political disaster for the Biden administration. The president had just signed an executive order making climate change the organizing principle of his administration. All coal and natural gas power stations are to be taken off the grid by 2035. To solve the climate crisis, America is to be powered almost exclusively by wind and solar, with a smattering of nuclear and hydropower.

As temperatures across Texas plunged, demand for heating surged. At 4 p.m. on Feb. 14, Texas, with the most installed wind capacity of any state, was producing 9,101 megawatts (MW) of power. By 8 p.m. the following day, wind output was just 649 MW, a fall of 92.9 percent. Nuclear, coal, and gas generation fell too, but the wind drop-off was the largest in absolute terms and, with the exception of solar, in relative terms as well. As shown in the table, the drop in wind output accounted for 41.5 percent of the total fall.

Epoch Times Photo
Source: EIA hourly grid monitor

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that increasing dependence on weather-dependent, weather-exposed power generation is a formula for grid unreliability and blackouts. As analysts at Life:Powered point out, since 2015, Texas has been relying entirely on wind and solar to meet demand growth and now has less gas and coal generation than five years ago. The catastrophic system failure this month was a disaster waiting to happen. The greater the reliance on wind, the more devastating will be the consequences of the weather not being right when demand surges.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates argues that the solution is to weatherize wind turbines against the cold and to connect the Texas grid to the rest of the nation. But weatherizing wind turbines doesn’t make the wind blow when there isn’t any. Grid interconnectors are a sensible way for neighboring systems to trade electricity with one another, but they can also be used by countries with large amounts of wind and solar, such as Germany, to dump their balancing problems onto their neighbors. In response, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands have phase-shifting transformers to control unwanted power surges from Germany.

Interconnectors are no lifeline during times of acute grid stress. Like Texas, the state of South Australia relies heavily on wind power. In September 2016, a severe storm knocked out some transmission towers and forced six wind farms to curtail their output. The interconnector with neighboring Victoria was already over its safety limit. Within seconds it tripped, and much of the state was plunged into darkness.

The ability of the grid to cope with sudden supply-demand imbalances and maintain frequency is determined by the inertia in the system. Grid managers must also keep grid frequency within tight limits. The 600-ton turbines of coal-fired power stations spin at 3,000 rpm, generating synchronous power and providing system inertia. Think of it as maintaining balance on a moving bicycle. It comes naturally. Now imagine Bill Gates trying to balance on a stationary bicycle without his feet touching the ground—that’s wind and solar. They are non-synchronous, as are interconnectors, with low-to-zero physical inertia.

Having lots of renewable capacity makes for a less stable grid. It doesn’t take exceptional weather to cause blackouts. In August 2019, large parts of southern England saw their power cut off during a period when a record 67 percent of electricity demand was being met by wind. A sudden loss of generating capacity, thought to be caused by a lightning strike, was followed by a sharp drop in grid frequency that led grid managers to initiate a cascade of disconnections to restore grid stability.

Britain provides a textbook example of decarbonizing the grid and the distortions caused by renewable energy subsidies. Wind and solar have high fixed costs but close to zero variable costs, as the energy inputs from wind and sun are “free.” That means coal and gas can’t compete when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. In the four years before 2016, the economically destructive effect of subsidizing zero-marginal-cost output saw Britain’s Big Six energy companies rack up cumulative losses of £2,096.4m ($2,945.4m) from their coal- and gas-fired power stations.

These losses led them to run down their thermal assets, and three of the Big Six exited thermal generation altogether. In the next three years, losses narrowed to £22.6m ($31.7m). Over the same period, the Big Six’s renewable portfolio generated profits of £2,782.0m ($3,897.6m), despite generating less than one-third of the electricity compared to the output of their coal and gas power stations. In 2019, the Big Six obtained an average wholesale price of £116.64 ($163.41) per megawatt hour (MWh) for renewable electricity—58 percent more than the £73.58 ($103.09) per MWh they received for electricity generated by their thermal-power stations, which are critical for keeping the lights on and the grid stable. Consumers bore the burden of the renewable subsidies. In those three years, Big Six residential customers saw the average price of electricity rise by 27.7 percent, to 18.08p (25.33 cents) per kilowatt hour (kWh), leading them to cut their electricity consumption by 12.1 percent.

Gates and others blame the Texas blackout on the failure of power-station owners to weatherize their plants. But these owners have little incentive to invest in their plants when faced with falling load factors brought about by the growth of wind output—and now with an administration that wants to push them off the grid altogether. Some climate scientists see the Texas freeze as evidence of climate change, as does the president’s climate envoy John Kerry. If man-made climate change is predicted to cause more extreme weather, then it is perverse to increase the vulnerability of the electrical grid to severe weather and make the amount of electricity available at any given moment even more dependent on changing weather conditions.

Texans would be better off if the state had no investment in wind power; its grid would be more resilient, and investment in thermal generation plants would have been stronger. Instead, the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate agreement is a prelude to more draconian climate policies than envisaged under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Although the Paris Agreement speaks of achieving net zero “in the second half of this century,” the Biden administration is bringing forward the net zero deadline to 2050—vastly increasing the speed, cost, and disruption of decarbonization.

The preamble of the Paris Agreement contains a much-overlooked recital that provides context on how the agreement should be interpreted—recognizing, it says, “that parties may be affected not only by climate change, but also by the impacts of the measures taken in response to it.” Scientists are divided as to whether Texans are suffering from the effects of man-made climate change. But there can be little doubt that they are suffering from the destructive effects of climate-change policies. Republicans should require the Biden administration to demonstrate the cure is less harmful than the disease. Texas is a warning.

From RealClearWire.

Rupert Darwall is a senior fellow of the RealClear Foundation and author of “Green Tyranny: Exposing the Totalitarian Roots of the Climate Industrial Complex” and the report “The Climate Noose: Business, Net Zero, and the IPCC’s Anti-Capitalism.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.