On Sunday, the Texas electric grid operator, ERCOT, requested that consumers conserve energy on Monday for fear that the electric grid would not be able to meet the demand during an extremely hot day. In doing so, ERCOT downplayed the fact that “dispatchable” coal and gas were offline and suggested that wind energy “not showing up” was part of the problem. Perpetuating myths about renewables and reliability is a dangerous game when what we actually need to do is double down on more flexible renewable energy to ensure grid reliability.
Doubling Down on Fossil Fuels Is a Costly Mistake
The major heat wave in Texas this week, which is contributing to record-setting demand for electricity in the state, is just the latest extreme weather event to strain the Texas grid. Just last year, Texas suffered a catastrophic power grid failure, leading to widespread, long-lasting customer outages as well as the tragic loss of at least 246 lives.
In response, regulators in the state implemented a “solution” to pay operators of old, inefficient, inflexible gas and coal plants to turn those power plants on, even when they aren’t needed to meet demand for electricity. Regulators are also considering relaxing enforcement of state regulations on pollution. The idea was that these power plants could sit around like an idling car, kept at the ready if an emergency arose.
Unfortunately, this has proved to be an expensive endeavor with a number of unintended consequences. The independent market monitor in Texas says that the new procedure has already cost households and consumers $1 billion and that the total bill could exceed $2 billion by year’s end. There is also a growing concern among industry experts that diverting billions of dollars toward these old, dirty power plants is making the entire Texas market less competitive and could discourage investment in new resources down the road. What’s most disturbing is that the companies operating these power plants have raised concerns that the new procedures are causing accelerated wear and tear and will soon result in unexpected outages.
Fossil Fuels Got Us into This Mess. They Aren’t Going to Get Us out of It
Extreme weather like heat waves, hurricanes, and “polar vortex” events are a major root cause of increased grid reliability concerns, and those events are being driven by climate change — in other words, they are fueled by the burning of coal, oil, and gas. Burning more fossil fuels is not the solution to this problem. Doing so would only perpetuate more extreme weather and events that threaten reliability.
The United States can effectively confront this challenge by aggressively building a resilient, carbon-free electricity system that includes massive deployment of solar, wind, transmission, electricity storage, and other flexible grid resources. Right now, we have a trillion dollars of renewables projects and batteries sitting in interconnection queues, waiting to get built. Unlocking even a small fraction of these projects would increase system reliability over the coming summers.
Another important solution is unlocking more local resources and “virtual power plants” made up of small-scale resources like home batteries, EVs, thermostats, and water heaters. These systems improve system reliability by using software to better integrate electricity assets we’ve already paid for with the grid. Federal energy regulators have already told grid operators that they need to create systems to allow these distributed resources to participate in the power market. The faster we do so, the more reliable the grid will become.
During Emergencies, It’s Better to Rely on Renewables, not Fossil Fuels
Renewables are often criticized for being “variable,” but their variability is predictable. Fossil fuel resources, in contrast, often have unexpected outages, which pose a greater risk to the grid. Grid operators know when the sun will set — but they don’t know when a critical component might break at a gas or coal power plant.
In Texas in 2021 and in California in 2020, fossil fuel infrastructure failures were the proximal cause of major outages, resulting from cold- and heat-related failures. In Texas, 40 percent of coal and gas plants were offline due to equipment failures or fuel supply issues at the height of the crisis. And in the mid-Atlantic, the grid operator there overestimated the share of fossil power that will be available in extreme conditions by as much as 25 percent, a recent study showed.
The unreliability of fossil fuel power assets stands in stark contrast to more predictable renewables like wind and solar, as well as the emerging capabilities of battery storage and other advanced technologies. California is a leader in using renewables, storage, and technologies like demand flexibility to support system reliability. Grid operators in that state are successfully using batteries to store solar power during the day and provide valuable energy as the sun sets but temperatures remain high, avoiding blackouts even as demand soars.
Battery storage, in particular, is an essential tool in the quest for a more reliable electric grid, with the potential to revolutionize the grid the same way refrigeration revolutionized the food industry — moving from a just-in-time delivery system for low-cost energy to a system that can flexibly store and release power when needed. California has added over 2 GW of electricity storage in the past few years, and essentially all new large-scale solar projects include storage.
More to Come
Climate change is here, and as extreme weather sweeps across the nation, electric grid operators and regulators are focused on keeping the lights on. As the electricity industry and its customers have painfully learned over the past few years, fossil fuel-based power generation is vulnerable to extreme weather and catastrophic outages. Doubling down on those technologies is a mistake when we have alternatives like renewables, storage, and flexible demand that can help ensure reliability while also addressing the underlying problem of climate change.