Update: Aside from everything written below, note that 6.5× more natural gas power capacity is offline from the weather than renewable energy capacity.
Frozen wind turbines in Texas are causing a huge dip in the state’s power generation capability, reducing available power by almost half. This comes during a record blast of arctic air, which is causing record electrical demand, resulting in rolling blackouts. People opposed to renewables are sharing this on social media, claiming that it’s proof that wind energy and other renewables are a bad idea.
In reality, though, the rolling blackouts were caused by economics and not renewables.
Some Household Comparisons
I know that household economics aren’t always a good comparison to the budgeting of governments and corporations, but here they are instructive. Imagine that you’re living high in the mountains or someplace very far north. 99.9% of the time, you don’t need an air conditioner. It just doesn’t get hot enough to need one. On the hottest days of most years, opening the windows and maybe running a fan does the job. There are occasionally record heat waves that make things very uncomfortable, but that’s so rare that it’s not worth spending the money on getting AC installed in your house.
Another example of these economics is snow tires in Phoenix, Arizona. Sure, there is some rare snow and ice in a city that’s comparable to Baghdad in climate, but it’s so rare that you wouldn’t go spend $600-1000 for snow tires. Your typical 3-season tires in Salt Lake City or Denver are, in reality, all-season tires in Phoenix. The economics of buying snow tires just doesn’t add up in Phoenix.
The reverse is also true. The person living in a cold climate would definitely want the snow tires, and the guy living in Phoenix would definitely want air conditioning. Being prepared for a problem that happens all the time makes great economic sense. It’s money well spent for comfort and safety.
50 & 100-Year Events
In emergency management, there’s the concept of the “X-year event.” A 50-year flood is expected to happen, on average, every 50 years. You can get two years in a row with 50-year floods, but then go decades before one happens again. In other words, it’s just an average and not a rule. The more years, the more rare an event is, so a 100-year snowstorm is twice as rare as a 50-year storm.
Climate change is upending these statistics in many areas, and that may be the case here, but the idea for this article is to introduce the concept of the “X-year event,” so I’m not going to get into that here.
When planning building codes, infrastructure, flood insurance, and power grids (among many other things), the rarity of natural disasters are factored in. For example, in Florida, homes have to be built to withstand hurricanes better than in other parts of the country. In some parts of California, building codes require earthquake resistance. In other words, standards reflect the rarity of events in a given area so that the enhancements will be made in places where they’re actually needed and money won’t be wasted in places where the problems are far less common.
The power grid in Texas is no exception.
Power Grid Planning
“This is a unique winter storm that’s more widespread with lots of moisture in West Texas, where there’s a lot of times not a lot of moisture,” Dan Woodfin, Senior Director of System Operations for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s certainly more than what we would typically assume.”
In Texas, a southern state that generally doesn’t get these sorts of storms, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend millions or billions of dollars extra for grids to be prepared for them. People in Dallas and San Antonio don’t buy snow tires the way that people in Denver or Anchorage do, so it wouldn’t make sense to expect the equivalent of snow tires on the power grid.
If these storms happened every 3-5 years, you can bet that things would be far different, though.
One way to mitigate the issue would be to have more backup fossil fuel plants that are set up for cold weather. That way, when solar and wind power have issues, you’d be able to fall back on those plants. If they were getting used often, people wouldn’t mind paying a few extra cents per kWh of power, because you don’t want to be losing power every year or two when the cold hits. It wouldn’t make sense to pay extra for power all the time if the plants would only get used roughly every 50 years. Most people would rather have the lower power bill and spend money on other things.
Cold weather issues can also affect fossil fuel power plants, too. For example, a similar arctic blast hit the region around El Paso, Texas in February 2011. Temperatures officially hit zero degrees Fahrenheit in much of the area, but some home thermometers went as much as 10 to 15 degrees below zero. El Paso Electric’s natural gas plants weren’t built to operate below about 10 degrees, so several of them had to shut down, resulting in rolling blackouts to keep the grid stable.
This wasn’t the result of poor planning. The last time the city had seen such weather was more than 50 years prior. In the 1950s, the Texas Highway Department (now called TXDOT) bought Palo Verde trees from Arizona to decorate the medians of some highways around El Paso. They required no water and little maintenance, and seemed like a good fit for the area, despite not natively growing in the area. I know about this because my great-grandfather was one of the first people in El Paso to plant palo verde trees in El Paso, and a friend in the Highway Department got the idea from him.
Unfortunately, both the Highway Department and my family had to cut down dead palo verde trees in 2011, after the storm froze them to death. Now we know why the trees don’t naturally grow in El Paso. Even nature seems to know about 50 and 100-year storms, but trees can’t huddle up under a blanket or install upgrades when things get bad outside.
Fortunately, El Paso Electric decided to go ahead and upgrade its plants to withstand more cold, because it figures that these events may happen more often in the future. It is rolling with the changes.
Renewables Can Withstand The Cold
The other thing to keep in mind is that renewable energy happens in cold places, including wind power, but it costs just a little more.
According to the Canadian government, wind turbines installed in Canada often have “cold weather packages” installed. Heating, water-resistant coatings, and other mitigation measures can be installed on turbines expected to frequently operate in freezing temperatures with moisture to keep the blades turning and keep the power going in temperatures as low as -30 Celsius. Just as in the States, conditions can vary across Canada, with some places experiencing much worse winter weather than others, so how much turbine operators spend on these measures need to be tailored to fit the installation location.
Renewable energy is a viable option in nearly all climates as long as you plan for the unique challenges you’re likely to face. When things go wrong like they did in Texas in the last few days, it’s economics and not renewables that are to blame.
Featured image: Macho Springs Wind and Solar Farm near Nutt, New Mexico. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.