A Last Word On Electricity In Texas

The Texas blackout is over, and water has also been restored. It didn’t get as much press as the loss of electricity, but water pipes froze and broke across a wide swath of the state, causing inconvenience that for many was greater than the power outage. The ultimate source of both problems was the same: the relevant authorities failed to anticipate record-breaking cold.

One question that I have not seen asked is this: why didn’t the relevant authorities–the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and whatever municipal governments and private contractors have been responsible for water pipes–anticipate a “worst case” cold snap such as what actually happened?

One obvious possibility is that they were so deluged with propaganda about “climate change,” which just means global warming, that they took elaborate precautions against record-breaking heat, but it didn’t occur to them to guard against unprecedented cold. Is this what happened? I don’t know, but back in the days when we had people known as “investigative reporters,” someone might have looked into it.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board weighed in on the subject. The editorial is behind a paywall, so here are some excerpts:

Regulators have been warning for years that the grid is becoming shakier as cheap natural gas and heavily subsidized renewables replace steady coal and nuclear baseload power. “The nation’s power grid will be stressed in ways never before experienced” due to “an unprecedented resource-mix change,” the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) warned in 2011.

It added: “Environmental regulations are shown to be the number one risk to reliability over the next one to five years.” But the Obama Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) refused to consider how climate policies would affect reliability.

There is an enormous difference between energy sources that are reliable and can produce electricity on demand–coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro–and those that are weather-dependent and therefore unreliable–wind and solar. If we want the lights to go on every time we flip the switch, we need to have enough reliable (not “Green”) electricity sources to meet peak electricity demand. This is not rocket science, but it is news, apparently, to “Green” activists, a category that now includes the entire Democratic Party.

[T]he Southwest Power Pool, north of Texas, and the Midwest power grid—both of which rely heavily on wind backed by gas—also experienced power outages last week due to surging demand, declining wind production and gas shortages. California relies on gas and imports to back up its solar power. But last summer California couldn’t get enough power from its neighbors amid a heat wave that strained the entire Western grid.

If we increase our reliance on wind power in the years to come, blackouts will become a common feature of American life. For policy purposes, the most immediately relevant takeaway from Texas’s electricity fiasco is that wind energy failed to show up for work. I am pleased that the Journal’s Editorial Board relied on data from my organization, the nation’s cutting-edge source on energy policy:

The wind lobby says Texas should have required thermal (nuclear, gas, coal) plants to be weatherized to withstand single-digit temperatures. Perhaps, but wind still performed the worst during the blackout, generating power at 12% of its capacity compared to 76% for nuclear, 39% for coal, and 38% for gas, according to a data analysis by the Center of the American Experiment.

How are liberals trying to defend the abysmal performance of wind turbines during Texas’s energy crisis? Absurdly, they argue that wind turbines “outperformed the forecast” and therefore can’t be blamed for the fiasco. This is an astonishingly dumb argument. First of all, what “forecast” are they talking about? ERCOT issues a forecast, every day, for electricity production from the various elements–coal, gas, wind, etc.–the following day. Why is this a “forecast” rather than a plan, as it would be in a state that gets its electricity from reliable sources? Because it depends in considerable part on the weather.

When the weather forecast says it will be windy, ERCOT’s daily forecast predicts a lot of electricity coming from wind turbines and less from conventional (i.e., reliable) sources. Conversely, when the weather forecast says there will be little or no wind, ERCOT predicts little electricity from wind turbines and more from coal and natural gas.

What happened during Texas’s energy crisis is that the weather forecast predicted almost no wind, and therefore hardly any contribution from wind turbines, exactly when the state needed electricity the most. What occurred instead is that a little bit of wind blew, so that electricity production from the turbines that didn’t freeze up, while pathetic, was a bit above the forecast. This chart, from my colleague Mitch Rolling, shows how minimal wind turbines’ contribution to Texas’s energy needs was:

Far from proving the merit of wind energy, Texas’s experience precisely illustrates why wind and solar energy, which are weather-dependent and therefore unreliable, are essentially worthless in any time of crisis. To depend on unreliable sources of energy when the grid is stressed and reliability is imperative is a recipe for disaster, as Texas has learned. Let’s hope the rest of the country takes away the right lesson.