Politics, Not Climate Change, Is Behind Texas’s Electric Power Problems

The idea that the electric grid can rely on green energy to keep the lights on isn’t just a pipedream, it’s an increasingly expensive nightmare.
Politics, Not Climate Change, Is Behind Texas’s Electric Power Problems
Power lines in Dallas on June 12, 2022. (Shelby Tauber/Reuters)
H. Sterling Burnett
10/6/2023
Updated:
10/11/2023
0:00
Commentary

The manager of the vast majority of Texas’s power grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), sent out multiple “voluntary conservation notice(s)” this summer—more than I can ever remember, and I’m a native Texan, having lived here for 53 of my 60 years on Earth.

Even on days when ERCOT didn’t send out official notices requesting people to conserve power, television and online news outlets almost daily admonished their audiences to turn their thermostats up and their lights and unused electronics off, and not to use appliances during peak periods, because ERCOT was warning that Texas’s spare electric power capacity was thin and outages were a possibility.

It’s universally true that summers are hot in Texas. But this summer was hotter than most—not the hottest in history, but hot nevertheless. For instance, Dallas County, where I live, experienced 55 days this summer when temperatures were 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, 2023 ranks fourth for the number of 100-degree days in Dallas since consistent records have been kept. Some daily records were broken for Dallas and the state, but the overall state record of 120 degrees F, set in the tiny town of Seymour in 1920 and tied in the only slightly larger town of Monahans in 1994, remains intact.

However, in 2011, 1980, and 1998, despite experiencing more 100-degree days than in 2023, Texas didn’t experience the kind of systemwide threats to its electric power grid that it did this year. Nor did Texas ever experience the kind of winter power outage that it did in 2021, when the power for more than 4 million people across the state was out for the most part of three full days and more than 700 people perished from the cold.

I believe that climate policies, specifically restrictions (or threats of restrictions) on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and mandates and subsidies for wind and solar power, are responsible for Texas’s present power woes.

Wind and solar power profiteers have claimed that the 2021 winter collapse of the Texas electric grid had nothing to do with their technologies’ failure to perform, but that’s a lie. The collapse of wind and solar power output during the winter storm, the prior closure of baseload coal plants, and poor power routing decisions by ERCOT combined to produce Texas’s deadly winter outage.

ERCOT data showed that four days before the first snowflake fell, wind and solar were providing 58 percent of the electric power used in Texas. Fortuitously, the sun had been shining and the wind blowing. These conditions ended, and within a matter of hours, more than 13,000 megawatts of wind and solar power went offline. The wind died off, turbines froze, and winter storm clouds blocked the sun.

That winter storm, although severe, wasn’t unprecedented, but the widespread power outage during winter was.

Historically, Texas has had a safe margin of power to meet residents’ and businesses’ needs, even during peak summer demand. That margin has declined sharply in the past 17 years, as wind and, increasingly, solar power have grown to account for a greater share of Texas’s electric power capacity. The two sources of power now account for more than coal, nuclear, and hydropower combined.

This increase wasn’t driven by market demand but by politics. Legislators required a set minimum amount of power sold on the Texas power market to come from wind or solar power, regardless of the costs and the intermittency problems that it introduced into the grid. On top of that, federal, state, and local subsidies and tax abatements have encouraged wind and solar to grow beyond the minimum amount set by the state.

The result has been seen in Texas this summer, with near-daily warnings of imminent power failures during the heat. As the Texas Tribune noted in mid-August in the midst of the streak of 100-degree days:

“Electricity users have exceeded the record for power demand on the state’s main grid 10 times so far this summer,” according to ERCOT data.

“... A significant increase in solar farms built in recent years in Texas has helped meet increasing demand. Texas can also produce the most wind power of any state. But solar power declines as the sun sets. And on Thursday [Aug. 17], ERCOT cited low wind power generation as an additional cause for concern.”

Although most of those days were blue-bird sunny, the extreme heat even dampened solar power’s efforts to keep the lights on and air conditioners cycling, because, as EcoFlow explains, the efficiency of photovoltaic cells declines by 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent for every degree that temperatures rise above 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

So when temperatures were above 100 degrees F for weeks on end this summer and were well above 90 degrees F for the remainder of the past 4 1/2 months, solar panels were producing much less power than promised. How is more solar supposed to help out in the predicted warmer world?

Fortunately, ERCOT provides a portal where one can track power demand and supply in Texas and what sources are supplying power. Periodically throughout this summer’s heat wave, I checked it, as I’m checking it now, and the story it told was almost always the same: relatively low wind and solar output compared to rated capacity, and near maximal production from nuclear, natural gas, and the state’s remaining coal power plants.

As I write, with the temperature at 95 degrees F, wind, the second-largest source of electric power in the state behind only natural gas, accounting for more than 25 percent of the state’s electric power capacity, is currently satisfying just 3.4 percent of the state’s power demand. Wind doesn’t blow very well in the summer in West Texas, where most of the turbines take up space.

Solar power, the third-largest generating source in Texas by capacity, is operating at just 57 percent capacity on a clear sunny day, meeting just 14.7 percent of the state’s demand—2 percent less than coal, despite coal having only 65 percent of solar’s generating capacity. And, of course, as common sense tells us and ERCOT’s monitor confirms, solar’s capacity drops to zero or near zero as night falls, regardless of the demand for power.

The idea that the electric grid can rely on green energy to keep the lights on isn’t just a pipedream, it’s an increasingly expensive nightmare. That’s true not only in Texas. Independent system operators across the country are increasingly warning that adding more intermittent power to the grid and prematurely closing coal power plants is a recipe for a power supply disaster—outages and blackouts have already begun trending upward, coinciding with the renewable energy mandates and subsidies.

And despite all of this, carbon dioxide emissions trend ever upward on growth in China and developing countries, which are using coal to power economic progress, meaning, if one believes, as I do not, that carbon dioxide is driving dangerous climate change, there’s no climate benefit.

Politically connected green energy elites and politicians beholden to them are profiting handsomely from this green energy boondoggle, while average folks are alternately sweltering or shivering in the dark as President Joe Biden’s net-zero goals move forward.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow on environmental policy at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
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