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Renewables are the only reason Texas' power grid hasn't failed during this month's punishing heat wave, a grid expert tells HEATED
As a Californian who’s been through extreme heat waves, I’ve felt a lot of empathy this week for Texas, which is suffering its third week under a deadly heat dome pushing temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).
As one meteorologist put it, Texas is now one of the hottest places on Earth.
I know that, at those temperatures, air conditioning is an absolute necessity. But I also know that, when tens of millions of people turn on their air conditioning at the same time, it can cause a huge strain on the power grid—and, potentially, cause it to fail.
Texans know well the vulnerability of their electric grid to extreme, climate-fueled weather. During Winter Storm Uri, the state made headlines when the power grid failed, killing more than 200 people. Climate change continued to put pressure on the grid into the summer months—including last summer, when the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) repeatedly asked Texans to turn up their thermostats to prevent blackouts as temperatures reached triple-digits.
But this heat wave, something has been different. The Texas power grid is holding, and it’s due in large part to two things: renewable energy and battery storage. This is particularly interesting given the claim Texas politicians often make regarding renewable energy: that it is “unreliable” compared to fossil fuels.
So I spoke with Doug Lewin, an energy expert and president at Stoic Energy, and the author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter, about how battery storage, solar power, and wind energy are the only reason Texans reliably have AC this week. He called me from his car, when the temperature was 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) in the shade.
Here are the 5 most fascinating things I learned:
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Solar and battery storage have been essential to keep Texas from losing power.
Yesterday, Texas broke the record for electricity demand as people ran their air conditioning to survive the heat of the day. According to Lewin, more than one-third of that power—35 to 40 percent—was supplied by solar and wind energy. “I really think solar and storage are really the stories of the summer,” he said.
Giant batteries also stored enough power to stabilize the grid when large gas and coal power plants had power outages. Twice in the past two weeks, battery storage saved the day: once when a nuclear power plant dropped offline, and again when two large coal plants suffered outages.
As of Wednesday, gas and coal plants were responsible for about 8,000 megawatts of power outages—which ERCOT defines as a “high” level of outages. But that didn’t matter, said Lewin, because renewable energy and battery storage were there to fill in the gaps. “That is a very big difference this summer from previous summers,” he said.
Texas is expanding its renewable energy capacity precisely because of its reliability.
Right now, the majority of Texas’ electricity is powered by methane gas. But that’s changing.
Texas led the country in new renewable energy projects and wind power in 2022, and doubled its solar capacity this year. That’s especially helpful during long summer days, when solar power can provide energy until the sun sets around 8:30 pm.
“That is a huge part of the story, to get 12,000 to 13,000 megawatts of solar production in the middle of the day and into the evening,” said Lewin. Texas has also expanded its battery storage to over 3,000 megawatts—enough energy to power the city of Austin during peak energy demand.
While coal and gas plants are still instrumental parts of the grid, said Lewin, it’s a mistake to think that they’re more reliable—or less “intermittent”—than renewable energy. “A definition of intermittent is something that is not constant. Coal and gas plants are not constant. In extreme weather, they break quite often,” he said.
Those thermal power plant outages are sudden and unpredictable, making blackouts more likely. “The interesting thing is that there is a very strong case to be made that solar in particular is far more reliable than coal and gas,” said Lewin. “We know exactly when the Sun is coming up and when it's going down.”
Texas Republicans are still marketing solar and wind as unreliable, even as they save the day.
When the power grid fails, Texas Republicans tend to make a habit of scapegoating renewable energy. After Winter Storm Uri, Senator Ted Cruz spread misinformation about “frozen wind turbines” causing the blackouts that left millions of Texans without heat or power. In reality, ERCOT said gas, coal, and nuclear power plants were responsible for twice as many outages as solar and wind combined.
The state’s Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake also warned in May that intermittent wind power could cause summer power outages, and advocated for more gas power plants and battery storage, reported the Texas Tribune. This wasn’t a new message from public utility officials: Last summer, ERCOT officials pointed the finger at wind power when they called for Texans to conserve energy to avoid blackouts.
During the present heat wave, Texas lawmakers have been silent on renewable energy. But their push for methane gas over renewables is being written into the law. In March, Govenor Greg Abbott declared that renewable energy projects weren’t eligible for economic incentives available to other businesses in the state, including gas and coal. In May, the Texas legislature proposed a bill to put more red tape around permits for wind and solar development. Lawmakers also incentivized the construction of new methane gas power plants because renewables are “intermittent”.
Texas’s pro-oil culture is holding lawmakers back from telling the truth.
“There is a sort of a cultural thing in Texas, which is often irrational, that renewables are bad because they're against oil and gas,” said Lewin. Oil and gas money fuels the state’s budget; Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar wrote in the Austin American Statesman that this year’s surplus revenue was due to “staggering growth from oil and gas severance taxes.”
Texas is the top oil and gas-producing state in the U.S (it also produced 26 percent of the nation’s wind energy last year). That keeps Republicans repeating the same tired talking points about failing wind turbines, even though wind is the state's second-largest power source.
“It should be safe for any elected official to talk about an energy transition, but they don't perceive it that way. And I think that is just a cultural issue,” said Lewin. But the oil and gas industry is investing in renewable energy, and that’s shifting the legislative conversation. “We saw this play out during the session, where some of the oil and gas players were not as full-throated against renewables, and might have even been trying to stop some of the worst attacks on renewables, because they're trying to buy them.”
A culture shift in Texas can have benefits across the country.
The more climate disasters there are, the more people will need reliable, climate-resilient power grids to stay alive. The higher the temperature, the more dangerous it is to have a power outage.
As the climate crisis continues to push temperatures to extremes, Texas’ grid may become a testing ground for the rest of the nation. So how Texas handles its power grid isn’t just a local issue—it’s a global one. “I think we're a postcard from the future,” said Lewin. “The stakes are very, very, very high.”
Despite those high stakes, Lewin doesn’t expect Texas legislators to acknowledge climate change or the part renewable energy played any time soon. "I'm not holding my breath to see the press release this week saying ‘Thank you wind and solar developers for keeping us from being in the dark.’" But a press release like that could go a long way.
“I think a lot of places could learn from Texas from what we do right. The inverse is also true. This is the energy state,” he said, “and we have to get this right.”
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