Texas Republicans make renewable energy a political punching bag
Texas is on a roll, meaning energy consumption. This week, amid sweltering temperatures, demand for electricity on the state grid soared to a all-time high Wednesday, reaching 80,000 megawatts of demand. This marks the eleventh times this demand record has been broken this year alone.
Consumers in Texas were allowed to keep their air conditioners running this week. But last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which operates the grid, asked consumers in both Monday and Wednesday conserve energy during another intense heat wave.
As the grate creaks and groans under the pressure, and as the widespread and deadly system failures during a freeze in February 2021 are fresh in everyone’s mind, renewable energy has once again become a political hot spot in this contentious election year. Texas Republicans, aided and abetted by the conservative media, are quick to blame renewable energy for Texas’ problems whenever practice. Last week, as ERCOT struggled for power amid light winds, conservative outlets like the washington time and Fox trumpeted how the “wind-dependent power grid” was “constrained[ing].” An editorial from the Wall Street Journal last Friday declared sufficient that “unreliable renewable energy [is leading] power outages” in Texas.
It’s hard to pin down the role of solar and wind in the Texas energy mix. Some days the wind and sun seem to save the network, while light wind and cloud cover on others means the network is failing. Will the blackouts this summer be the fault of renewable energies?
Regardless of what Republicans may say, wind and solar are doing a great job of delivering power to ERCOT this summer as planned. In the first six months of this year, wind and solar provided a high 36% power to the network. A particularly hot day in mid-June saw almost 40% of the state’s energy mix from wind. Solar has seen a particularly robust growth spurt in Texas in recent months: THere now three more time solar capacity on the ground this summer since there were 18 months ago. And these energies are often complementary to each other, activating when the other is down.
“When the wind drops during the day, that’s when the sun produces the most energy,” said Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin’s Energy Institute. Renewables providing so much power, Rhodes said, also helps offset the astronomical gas prices that energy providers are experiencing around the world and keep prices in Texas lower than they otherwise would be.
The challenges of renewable energies on the grid are nothing new. “Sometimes wind and solar are the workhorses of the grid and they produce a lot of power, but sometimes the wind dies,” Rhodes said. ” We know it—we have had wind at ERCOT for more than 20 years. It’s not like it’s a surprise.
A healthy grid system would be able to meet demand when wind and solar are offline. This means providing reliable basic power like natural gas, nuclear or coal. (There’s also the promise of batteries to store all that extra renewable juice: California made some incredible gains by adding large-scale batteries to its network this year.) But there are deep problems with the Texas grid in particular that predate the renewable energy explosion.
First, the state is not giving any break to its aging electric fleet. texan power plants, which have already suffered from years of underinvestment, are being told to operate essentially non-stop this summer to meet demand, provideing operators little ability to carry out repairs.
“Like the rest of the United States, we have an aging power plant fleet,” Rhodes said. “They are a bit like humans – they need time to rest. If you just sprint, you’re going to run out of energy at some point, compared to running at a more moderate pace or taking an occasional break. We don’t let them do that.
We’ve seen what happens when extreme weather hits a stressed grid particularly hard, albeit at much colder temperatures than what Texas is currently experiencing. In 2021, a winter storm caused a veritable perfect storm of freak weather and grid outages, as electricity demand soared far beyond expectations and the aging and stressed grid struggled through the cold. (republicans tried to blame wind power also at the time – despite the widespread natural gas failure during the storm.) Following this disaster, Texas lawmakers passed narrow reforms to the ERCOT system, including preparing power generators and transmission lines for the cold and shaking up the ERCOT board. Abbot thereafter declared that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas”.
But the legislator ended up leaving a plot of possible solutions on the table that could have made real progress in sorting Grid problems. For example, lawmakers could have mandated the construction of more backup power plants or allowed the grid to buy energy.rgy of other states during peak demand. ERCOT is also what is called an energy-only market, which means that electricity generators are only paid for the energy they supply on a day-to-day basis.rather than capacity markets, which pay resources just to be available; ERCOT’s switch to a capacity market model was also on the agenda for legislative consideration in the wake of last year’s storm.
There’s “not a lot of transparency” about the quality of the reforms that were actually made in the wake of the storm, said Ed Hirs, a professor of energy economics at the University of Houston. “That much, everyone is politically appointed, and every meeting of the public utility commission with the CEO of ERCOT sounds like a stump speech. The governor is obviously very concerned about a blackout impacting his re-election.
This could explain the right’s eagerness to cast renewable energy as the villain rather than confront it the complexities of Texas’ failing network. Abbott faces a heated gubernatorial run this fall, and opponent Beto O’Rourke has already seized on grid issues as a key talking point, vowing to make serious changes at Ercot. Meanwhile, Abbott took a few intense Heat pissed off Texans who were asked to conserve energy during the high temperatures of the past week.
There is a chance that the grid makes throughout the summer very well, economy Abbott a political crisis. But as temperatures remain high and may continue to rise, say Hirs and Rhodes everything can happen.
“It’s not hard to imagine a hurricane hitting, cloud cover coming, even – God forbid – wildfire smoke could knock down solar energy and disrupt winds,” Hirs said.
All this hype about which technologies work exactly as intended and help the grid survive isn’t just an illustration of how energy can be a political weapon. but also a good reminder of the realities of the energy transition.
“ERCOT depends on renewable energy – wind and solar have to work to keep the lights on. We cannot meet all of this demand with traditional forms of energy,” Rhodes said. “And we’re going to have to make sure we have enough capacity. We have to be lucid about this, because if we are not, it does not bode well for the energy transition that we need.