Wind and solar power generation in Texas was much lower than its potential during this month's heatwave due to weather patterns, straining the Texas power grid at times of record demand. As Texans crank up air conditioners in the scorching heat, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has asked residents a few times since May to voluntarily conserve energy during peak demand hours in the afternoons and evenings.
But just when Texas needed the most of all its power generation supply, wind and solar power output was well below capacity due to a lack of wind in the high-pressure weather system and cloud cover over much of West Texas. These issues with wind and solar electricity generation highlighted, once again, the dependability of clean energy sources on the whims of weather and the unreliability of consistently dispatching large amounts of power to the grid when consumption hits records.
Battery storage facilities help store the generated energy and dispatch it to the grid when it's needed, but much more battery storage capacity is needed in Texas—and everywhere in the world—to solve the reliability issue of renewables as a growing share of electricity is being generated by clean energy sources.
The Reliability Issue
With two more months until the end of the summer, ERCOT's latest warning from mid-July may not be the last warning of rolling blackouts in Texas or other states across the United States. Grid operators have already warned that the electric grid reliability in some parts of the U.S. could be at risk amid high summer demand and possible supply reductions.
Texas tops the nationwide ranking of installed wind power capacity and is second only to California in operating solar capacity, according to the American Clean Power Association. Texas led the country in clean power installations in 2021, installing 7,690 MW, with California a distant second with 2,852 MW installed. Last year, Texas installed enough clean energy to fully power Delaware and Hawaii combined, the association says in its 2021 Annual Market Report.
In addition, operating wind, solar, and energy storage capacity in Texas ranks first among all U.S. states. A total of 24.6% share of all electricity produced in Texas comes from wind, solar, and energy storage power plants.
In theory, Texas has enormous amounts of wind and solar power capacity installations.
In reality, power generation falters without wind and sunshine, leaving the grid exposed to vulnerability just when it needs those renewables the most. While renewables can help the grid during mild weather and normal operations, renewables sometimes fail during peak demand and heatwaves.
This they did in the middle of July, amid record-setting extreme heat and record power demand in Texas.
Wind And Solar Power Generation Faltering
Wind power generation in Texas—America's number-one wind power state—slumped during the heatwave that began on July 11, as wind speeds typically plunge during hot, high-pressure systems where the air above stifles winds. So the wind turbines in Texas were generating just 8% of their capacity. Meanwhile, power demand was at a record high.
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ERCOT's July 13 appeal to Texans and businesses for energy conservation noted that factors driving the need for the action by customers included: record-high electric demand, low wind generation compared to what is historically generated in this time period, forced outages in thermal generation exceeding ERCOT forecasts, and a developing cloud cover in West Texas that reduced the amount of solar generation.
On July 13, the date of the latest ERCOT call for energy conservation, the percent of dispatchable energy installed on the tightest hour was at 84%, while solar power was at 68%. Wind was at only 12% at the day's tightest hour, per ERCOT data cited by ABC News.
"The challenge in Texas and elsewhere is on the supply side"
"The challenge in Texas and elsewhere is on the supply side," says James Dobson, Energy Sector Strategist, CIO, UBS Americas.
"Electricity supply and demand must be equal to keep the system balanced. That's the root of the issue. Demand is growing, yet coal plants are running less, renewables like wind and solar that can have variable output has grown significantly, so there is more strain on the supply side," Dobson said last week.
"A utility company could invest enough to plan for one hot July day, but customers wouldn't need those resources during other times, and it would be more expensive year round," the strategist noted.
"We want utility companies to continue to invest in their infrastructure and have adequate supplies but there should be a cost-effective balance. Like many energy supplies around the world, there is a need to balance reliability, affordability and decarbonization, simultaneously."
After the hottest June on record in Houston and spells of record-breaking heat across Texas in July, ERCOT's summer troubles are not over because August could be equally hot.
Next month, a storm could change the scorching hot weather in Texas, meteorologist Matt Lanza of Space City Weather told Houston Chronicle.
"There's a saying in Texas that droughts end in floods," Lanza said.
A major storm or a hurricane could pose another set of challenges for ERCOT, the power lines, solar power generation in Texas, and power grid reliability.
By Tsvetana Paraskova for Oilprice.com
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"As Texans crank up air conditioners in the scorching heat...wind and solar power output was well below capacity due to a lack of wind in the high-pressure weather system and cloud cover over much of West Texas".
It needs to be pointed out that the same problem applies at the other end of the scale. In my home country, England, the coldest month tends to be November.
High-pressure weather systems cover the country, bringing clear skies. Cloud acts as a blanket, but when the sky is clear the sun's heat comes in during the day and is radiated out at night.
In November there is roughly three times as much night as day, so the loss of heat is much greater than the gain. Net result: the country gets colder and colder.
Exactly as in Texas, a high-pressure system causes a lack of wind. Simultaneously, with sunlight available for only a quarter of every 24 hours, solar panel output is very low.
In summary, the moment when energy is most needed is also the moment at which renewables are least effective at providing it.
1: We have found that the whole GRID is unstable regardless of the energy source. For example, the recent ice storm was mostly putting fossil fuels offline. Therefore, battery and pumped hydro storage is critical to re-engineering the grid. It has little to do with renewables which just pointed out the problem and intiated work on solutions. As a replacement for 'running reserve', power storage is a major winner.
2: the massive dominance of Wind power and isolation of Texas from the National Grid is the problem here. While Texas was under a high pressure low wind zone, the wind was fine most other places. And if they had invested in solar, they would have had a bumper harvest under such clear skies. The problem is not (as implied) renewables. All energy sources have gaps.
Had TX simply connected to the states around them and in particular the states in the Southwestern US, these issues they keep having would not have occurred. As it is right now, my solar panels are producing 2x the kWs I use and there is plenty of slack throughout the western US to power the whole state of TX. Typical weather patterns, one side of the Rockies has a heat spell, or a cold front, while the other side of the Rockies has the opposite. Same was true in the big freeze of last year.
So the world could continue to ship hydrocarbons thousands of miles at a cost of trillions of dollars until there are no hydrocarbons left, or we can just built out the grid for 1/100th the cost of shipping and storing oil and be done with it. Hopefully, the politicians and regulators will act wisely and get busy. Save some money on energy as my family has already done.
The schadenfreude of "failing" renewables is not advised, given our present conditions.