Tomlinson: Fact-checking the GOP’s false claims about wind power as Texans worry about broken grid

Source: By Chris Tomlinson, Houston Chronicle • Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Wind turbines spin Tuesday, March 2, 2021 near Raymondville in the Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas.
Wind turbines spin Tuesday, March 2, 2021 near Raymondville in the Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas. William Luther, Staff / William Luther

The Texas electric grid is broken and undoubtedly needs more generation, but in a bid to boost the fossil fuel industry over renewable sources, Republican officials are employing lies, damned lies and statistics.

The dirty tricks are expected in an election year and when billions of dollars are at stake.

Texans are reminded of the 2021 blackouts every time the Electric Reliability Council of Texas calls for conservation or asks businesses to shut down operations. People are angry that hundreds of people died due to a faulty grid.

No one wants to spend a 105-degree afternoon without air conditioning.

The current forecast suggests the worst is yet to come for the grid, as temps remain high, and generation struggles to keep up. Savvy politicians want to focus the popular anger on their opponents.

GOP elected officials appear determined to make wind energy the bugaboo, while promoting natural gas as a savior. In fact, the opposite is true.

Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Jared Patterson have been declaring wind energy a failure based on how much power they produce on a hot afternoon compared to the nameplate capacity.

For example, last week between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., wind was only expected to produce 12 percent of its installed capacity, compared to thermal sources producing 84 percent of installed capacity.

The fossil fuel industry shills say this demonstrates wind energy’s failure. But this is tantamount to expecting solar power plants to produce electricity at 2 a.m.

People living in West Texas have known for millennia that the air is often still on sunny summer afternoons. No one ever suggested wind would meet peak demand in the summer, but it blows like the dickens at night and the rest of the year.

From January to June, wind provided 30 percent of the state’s power, compared to 38 percent for conventional and combined-cycled natural gas facilities, according to ERCOT data. Coal provided 17 percent, nuclear 10 percent and solar 6 percent.

Do you know what is more reliable and cheaper than a new natural gas power plant in the summer? A solar power plant.

Unlike a natural gas plant, which can generate close to 100 percent of nameplate capacity on demand, no one ever suggested a wind facility would operate at 100 percent. Texas wind generators typically operate at around 40 percent capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. To expect more is to be dishonest.

Disclosure time: I’ve been writing about climate change and clean energy since my undergraduate thesis in 1992. My wife has worked on clean energy for more than 20 years, developing projects of all kinds around the globe. Today, she provides her expertise to an international private equity firm.

I have never, nor will I ever write about a company or project in which my wife or her employer has an interest. If you think my columns about clean energy affect the industry’s profitability more generally, you have an exaggerated sense of my influence.

Texas frequently has excess renewable electricity, and companies are developing new ways to store that energy economically by charging batteries, converting water to hydrogen, lifting weights to use gravity or by compressing air.

Fossil fuel companies know if they don’t get new projects built soon, they will never happen. Energy company employees and political action committees are the biggest donors to Texas Republicans, and they expect protection.

Texas Democrats and environmentalists, meanwhile, exaggerate the short-term potential of clean energy resources and the negative impact of natural gas.

Several studies have shown how ERCOT can add more wind and solar to the grid, but once you get above the 50 percent level, things get complicated. Offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico could provide power on hot summer days, but it remains expensive.

ERCOT does need to add more natural gas power plants for the hours when the wind slows before the sun has fully risen, and when the sun sets while the wind is weak. We also need natural gas backup plants for when it’s still and dark.

Scientists have enough weather data to accurately calculate the right mix. But Texas has chosen to allow supply and demand curves to drive those decisions. We would be wise to draw from both science and market forces to guarantee reliability.

But not as much as some would suggest.

Lastly, Republicans and Democrats are justified in decrying how subsidies distort Texas’s energy market. All forms of generation receive government subsidies, and I’ve frequently called for eliminating all of them.

We need an all-of-the-above strategy informed by climate science and pragmatism. What we don’t need is more disinformation from state officials and politicians designed to benefit their campaign donors.

Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas. Sign up for his new “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at HoustonChronicle.com/TomlinsonNewsletter .