During peak grid events, renewable energy saves Texas
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Solar wins again

Renewable Energy Saves Texas Even As State Legislators Try To Kill It

Daren Wang
August 14, 2023

Texans like to boast about how just about everything is bigger in the Lone Star State, but not many are boasting about how big the heat dome that settled over Texas in the summer of 2023 is. With triple digit temperatures the norm for most of the summer in much of the state, the season has been one of the most brutal in memory.

And with hot temperatures, the demand for electricity soars, setting records that even puts fear into the hearts of energy executives. But amidst the scorching conditions, a surprising hero road in with the sun at its back.

Solar energy in Texas

Even with as much as ten gigawatts of coal and nuclear capacity dropping offline at various times during the heatwave, it was solar energy, supported by recent significant investments in energy storage, that kept Texans in their air conditioning. Today, the Lone Star State generates more energy through wind and solar than the next three states (California, Iowa, and Oklahoma) combined. Last year Texas added more new renewable power generation than the next five states together. Leaders from the American Clean Power Association testified recently that renewables developers have invested over $93 billion in Texas during the past couple of decades and generated $684 million combined in lease payments to landowners and taxes to counties and school districts.

A study for the Texas grid operator (Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT) estimated that solar saved over $11 billion in energy costs for that year. The Blue Wing Solar Project, Texas’ first large solar farm, went online outside of San Antonio in 2010, generating 14 megawatts of power. In 2023, over 12,600 megawatts of industrial solar prop up Texas’ power grid, enough to power 2.5 million homes. In 2022, wind and solar supplied over 30% of the state’s energy needs. Developers expect to add another 7.7 gigawatts of capacity in 2023.

The importance of increasing electrical capacity in Texas cannot be overstated. Although Texas has built its economy on energy, keeping its residents powered up has not been easy.

A long, cold stretch

In February 2021, an intense cold weather event, famously known as “Winter Storm Uri,” triggered a multitude of outages and at electric generating plants scattered across the region. To avert grid collapse, ERCOT implemented 20 gigawatts worth of rolling blackouts. One gigawatt of capacity can power around 875,000 homes. Although a larger collapse didn’t happen, more than 4.5 million Texans were left without power, many for as long as four and a half days. With temperatures falling to as low as -30° Fahrenheit, homes became unlivable, pipes quickly froze, and many Texans struggled to survive. Although the state government announced that the death toll was 278, researchers found the number to be closer to 1,000.

Although government officials were quick to blame renewable energy sources for the problem, a report from federal investigators pointed out that over 75% of the power shortages were from a combination of frozen generation equipment and fuel-supply problems. Solar was responsible for only two percent.

Texas creates its own problem

Understanding Texas’ power problems requires a little lesson in history. In the early 20th century, states recognized that a reliable supply of electricity was going to be crucial for growth. Consequently, they began instituting regulations to ensure equitable energy provision by overseeing companies. These regulations included the authorization of electricity-selling entities and the establishment of pricing boundaries. Those arrangements also included interconnections across state lines. That way, if Pennsylvania needed a little extra juice, Ohio could send it over on high-voltage lines that ran between the state. That kind of transaction was considered interstate commerce, and that meant that the federal government could regulate it.

Texas, however, is the Lone Star State, and wanted nothing to do with federal regulation, so they refused interstate power connections. Over the rest of the twentieth century, Texan power companies consolidated, forming larger entities that shared power internally without crossing state borders.

For the rest of the country, that ability to share electricity across borders continues to make a big difference. When Winter Storm Elliott struck the Eastern United States in December of 2022, the potential for a similar outcome was clear. Frigid temperatures, hurricane force winds, and voluminous snow meant that much of the country was at risk for power outages. But even as the Tennessee Valley Authority was forced to institute rolling blackouts for the first time in its history due to frozen natural gas generators, the outages were kept to much shorter durations. In the end, 109 people lost their lives, many of them from auto accidents on icy roads.

Because Texas is so big and spans two time zones, it has made its go-it-alone plan work until now. Certain regions required peak power an hour later than others, while some adjusted demand an hour earlier. This distinctive situation enabled ERCOT to effectively generate sufficient energy for its consumers. But two trends are throwing a wrench in the works for that plan in the 21st century.

The first is rising demand. The Texas population keeps growing, gaining more than nine million people in the last twenty years. And each of those residents want more and more energy.

The second is climate change itself. The size and the scope of both winter and summer weather phenomena keep setting records. And because those storms are so big, they drive up demand across Texas, not just in one region or another. That means one stressed region can’t borrow from another stressed region. They’re all stressed. Given the importance of renewable energy in building resilience for Texas’ power grid, adding more capacity would be the logical move.

No help for renewable energy

For the 2023 legislative session, Texas lawmakers proposed the most anti-renewable energy collection of bills in its history, including onerous permitting processes, restrictions on grid connections for renewable generators, and more regulation reviews for development. Although the worst of the proposals didn’t pass, the legislature is now openly hostile to renewables while passing subsidies for the types of fossil fuel generators that failed during Winter Storm Uri. The Texas power grid continues to be at risk.

For Texas homeowners, finding ways to be less dependent on local utilities, ERCOT, and the state government for energy may be the wisest choice. Rooftop solar with backup whole-home batteries, small scale geothermal energy, or vehicle to grid charging may be life-saving technologies the next time a winter storm like Uri passes through, or if future heat domes cause rising demand to outstrip supply. But along with deadly blackouts, Texans have suffered wildly fluctuating prices for their electricity through these extreme weather events. Some homeowners came out of Uri with bills in excess of $10,000. OhmConnect Energy’s Flat Rate plan offers Texans a stable cost for electricity through the worst that the state can throw at it, and with a focus on saving energy to boot.

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