The Renewable Energy Limits

I love Texas. If we had spent our winter getaways in Texas rather than Arizona we would be living northwest of Dallas today instead of Phoenix. So when the latest kerfuffleI over the beloved green, renewable energy collapsed much of the Texas power grid, my normal mirth over such mishaps was greatly reduced. In this case it was the beloved wind energy that left Texas high, dry and colder than Hillary Clinton’s heart.

Texans know that during the winter months Texas can be, and regularly is, cold. Cold enough to cause black ice. Cold enough to snow. Cold enough to last for short periods. And apparently cold enough to freeze wind generators. Well, not all Texans. There is a coven of liberals/progressives centered in Austin (the state capital for those of your forced to endure a teachers union led education in the Portland public schools) who, like their brethren elsewhere, regularly reject established facts in preference to “politically correct” thought – green energy over common sense.

In this case, it is the Texas Public Utility Commission which sets rates and requirements for public utilities for power production and distribution. It is the Texas Public Utility Commission that has imposed the requirement to utilize renewable energy sources (wind and solar) without regard to whether they are reliable, inexpensive or regularly available. But the Texas Public Utility Commission does not stand alone.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is a non-profit corporation and managed by a board consisting of suppliers and users of electricity and subject to oversight by the Texas Public Utility Commission. Almost all electricity generated and consumed by Texans passes through the ERCOT grid, which charges about 55.5 cents per megawatt hour for the use of the grid. My understanding is this agency contracts with generator companies on the basis of the price of electricity delivered but does not require these generator companies to deliver any particular quantity of electricity. It is in essence a bastardized form of a “free market” with multiple sellers but only one buyer.

And the Texas legislature has aided and abetted this by granting generous tax incentives (deductions and credits) for renewable energy production, distribution and use.

This means when the wind generators failed because some moron didn’t ask whether they were winterized, there was insufficient back up service that could be accessed on demand. Only a government could design a system with such a gigantic hole in it. But the point is made best in an article in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, February 17, 2021:

“The problem is Texas’s overreliance on wind power that has left the grid more vulnerable to bad weather. Half of wind turbines froze last week, causing wind’s share of electricity to plunge to 8% from 42%. Power prices in the wholesale market spiked, and grid regulators on Friday warned of rolling blackouts. Natural gas and coal generators ramped up to cover the supply gap but couldn’t meet the surging demand for electricity—which half of households rely on for heating—even as many families powered up their gas furnaces. Then some gas wells and pipelines froze.

“In short, there wasn’t sufficient baseload power from coal and nuclear to support the grid. Baseload power is needed to stabilize grid frequency amid changes in demand and supply. When there’s not enough baseload power, the grid gets unbalanced and power sources can fail. The more the grid relies on intermittent renewables like wind and solar, the more baseload power is needed to back them up.

“But politicians don’t care about grid reliability until the power goes out. And for three decades politicians from both parties have pushed subsidies for renewables that have made the grid less stable.”

As usual there are age-old lessons to be learned from these catastrophes.

1. California is moving towards banning coal, oil and natural gas for heating. It does so in deference to the renewable energy lobby and its woke concern with carbon emissions. It will suffer the same fate as Texas, as will other states yielding to the renewable energy lobby without regard to a sufficient and efficient baseload power supply from hydro, natural gas, coal or nuclear power sources.
2. Among the several alternative carbon free powers sources, wind generation is the least reliable but seemingly the most frequently used. Wind generators require high maintenance in remote areas. Drive by a wind farm like the pass between Palm Springs and Riverside and on any given day you may see half of the wind generators idled or under repair – massive blades made of concrete can be regularly seen littering the ground. There are areas in the United States where the wind reliably blows. It is seldom near the major power grids and the same people who are pushing for renewable power sources are the same people who are objecting to the construction of additional power lines to bring the power from where it is generated to where it is used. And where the wind is intermittent at best you will see large swaths idled or abandoned but still creating an ugly car against the skyline and the otherwise pristine wild.
3. Solar energy is proving to be more and more reliable and cost effective but it only works if the sun shines – that leaves out places like the Willamette Valley, Washington west of the Cascades and virtually all of New England and the Upper Great Lakes where the clouds cover the sky for much of the late fall, winter and early spring.
4. Nuclear energy is the red-headed stepchild. Nuclear power is a “for profit” business and, therefore, draws the ire of the liberal/progressives despite the fact that it is virtually carbon free generation. The American public remains skeptical because of events like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A part of the problem is that nuclear power plants are constructed for gigantic operations and utilize a one-off designed which means that access to spare parts is neither timely nor inexpensive. In contrast France uses basically the same design for each power plant and parts are easily and regularly interchangeable. Portland has one of the oldest and safest nuclear power plants housed at Reed College smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood populated by one of the most liberal bodies of students, teachers, and residents in Oregon. A press release from Oregon State University championed a new style of nuclear reactors which have gained federal approval:

“Over the last decade, Oregon State University and NuScale Power™ have worked together to tackle an important challenge: developing the next generation of nuclear reactors. Clean, reliable and economical nuclear power generation can replace coal power plants, reduce carbon emissions and meet rising demand for electricity in the U.S. and around the world.

“In the early 2000s, scientists at Oregon State developed passive safety systems that use natural circulation to provide cooling for a nuclear reactor. Their design for a scalable, modular nuclear reactor led to the launch of NuScale Power, with Oregon State granting the spinoff company the exclusive license to commercialize the technology through what is now the Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development (OCCD). The university and NuScale have continued to use Oregon State’s one-third-scale electrically-heated version of the reactor as a test facility.

“The reactor — specifically known as a Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor (MASLWR) — offers several advantages over conventional nuclear power that also make it cost competitive with other sources of baseload electricity generation. The NuScale reactor is far less complex, reducing the costs to fabricate, install, operate and maintain. Passive safety features allow the reactor to shut down automatically through gravity and convection, with no operator action, no AC or DC power and no external water required. These features are designed to ensure the plant can withstand incidents like the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima, Japan.”

But the biggest lesson is simply a reminder – government is the least efficient decision maker precisely because it shifts and changes based on a whole lot of factors that ignore economic reality. In the Texas case government subsidies tied to “green politics” drove decisions that ignored both the reliability of wind generators and the over dependency on them. If energy production is intermittent, you need to seriously pay attention to baseload requirements and they did not. Who suffered? Not the decisions makers but rather the taxpayers of Texas. It is always the same.