Fate of the Texas Power Grid Depends on Daily Whims of the Wind

Source: By Naureen S Malik, E&E News • Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2022

Wind energy is crucial in whether the Lone Star State’s stressed grid can avoid blackouts during blistering heatwaves.

Wind turbines in Taft, Texas.

Wind turbines in Taft, Texas. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America

The ability of Texas—America’s oil and natural gas hub—to avoid blackoutsduring this summer’s punishing heatwaves is hinging largely on a different source of energy: wind power.

On breezy days, Texas has plenty of electricity to spare—even as demand surges to unprecedented levels. On Wednesday, for instance, power use skyrocketed to a record 79.8 gigawatts. But officials didn’t even ask for conservation, thanks to vast wind farms in the Texas Panhandle and along the Gulf Coast that at time can supply about half of the grid’s needs.

State power supplies become crunched when wind generation drops off

When the wind ebbs, however, it’s an entirely different story. Take last week. Demand for power topped out at about 78 gigawatts. Yet, the grid operator had to beg residents and businesses to reduce power use because wind was sluggish.

Those wide swings underscore the challenge of managing a grid heavily reliant on power sources subject to changing weather. Yes, coal and natural gas plants can unexpectedly break down, which was another reason officials needed to ask for conservation last week. But time and again, wind has been a crucial factor in whether Texas has enough power this summer.

“Whether or not Texas is short on resources is largely dependent on the wind,” John Moura, director of reliability assessment and performance analysis at the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a regulatory body that oversees grid stability, said during a briefing Wednesday.

Wind has become especially politicized in Texas in the aftermath of a winter storm last year that caused deadly blackouts. While critics of the resource blamed frozen wind turbines, failures at gas-fired plants were the bigger culprit. (Wind last year constituted 24% of energy use, according to Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator. Natural gas made up 42% and coal 19%).

Texas relies almost exclusively on market forces to determine what power plants are built in the state. For at least a decade, turbines have been among the cheapest facilities to build—a big reason why Texas is the biggest wind state. Most days, that’s fine. But when gusts fade, temperatures soar and fossil-fuel plants are shut, the state’s power grid can find itself in a pinch.

Developers are installing big batteries on the Texas grid, which help make up the shortfalls for when wind slacks. Eventually, they could smooth the ebbs and flows from intermittent renewable power. But the grid doesn’t have enough of them yet.

— With assistance by Brian K Sullivan

(Updates with impact of deadly 2021 winter storm in the sixth paragraph.)