Texas leads the nation in wind power, with nearly 15,000 wind turbines producing 23% of the Lone Star State’s electricity last year. Many of the turbines shut down when the cold descended on Texas.
It turns out that only a third of the power outages in the state resulted from wind turbines failing in the cold. Power plants that use fossil fuels — coal and natural gas ― accounted for two-thirds of the power outages.
But we couldn’t help but wonder why wind turbines in cold-weather states like New York can operate in the winter with seemingly little trouble when their counterparts in Texas can’t.
The huge Maple Ridge Wind Farm, in fact, operates year-round in the Tug Hill north of Syracuse, an area famous for its bitter cold winters that often pile up 200 inches or more of snow.
So we went to the experts — EDP Renewables, which operates Maple Ridge and other wind farms.
EDPR is the largest owner and operator of wind power in New York and the fourth-largest in the United States. Locally, in addition to Maple Ridge, it operates the Madison Wind Farm in Madison County. EDPR’s New York wind farms produce enough clean electricity to power more than 298,000 New York homes.
Amy Kurt, senior manager of regional government affairs for EDP, said EDP and other wind power operators in this neck of the woods equip their turbines to handle the cold and, even more importantly, the ice that often comes with the cold.
“There are a variety of cold weather and anti-icing technologies that are used on wind turbines in the coldest regions,” she said. “These technologies help prevent the buildup of ice on turbine blades, detect ice when it cannot be prevented, and remove ice safely when it is detected.”
Ice clinging to the blades of a wind turbine poses big problems. It adds weight and can throw the spinning blades out of balance, potentially damaging vital gear mechanisms. It also can change the aerodynamics of the blades, preventing the wind from making them spin.
Kurt said EDP’s turbines are equipped with sensors that detect ice by sensing the imbalance the ice causes.
“When there’s an imbalance, we know something is not right,” she said.
The sensors can even tell which blades have ice on them and which ones don’t. When ice is detected, heating elements inside the blades turn on to melt the ice.
For safety reasons, the turbines are shut down while the heating elements melt off the ice, Kurt said. That way, there’s no chance of ice flying off spinning blades, potentially damaging the turbines or, worse, striking someone on the ground, she said.
“We’d rather the ice drop below the turbine,” she said.
Once the ice is removed, the turbines are turned back on and the blades can safely spin in the wind again.
In Texas, wind turbines are not equipped with such de-icing packages because operators there never expected to need them, Kurt said.
“Turbines in Texas are built for the type of temperatures they usually get in Texas, where it’s 110 degrees, not 10 degrees,” she said. “It’s a cost thing.”
Conservatives lying about what’s causing the rolling blackouts and power outages in Texas.
Texas officials knew winter storms could leave the state’s power grid vulnerable, but they left the choice to prepare for harsh weather up to the power companies — many of which opted against the costly upgrades. That, plus a deregulated energy market largely isolated from the rest of the country’s power grid, left the state alone to deal with the crisis, experts said.
Millions of Texans have gone days without power or heat in subfreezing temperatures brought on by snow and ice storms. Limited regulations on companies that generate power and a history of isolating Texas from federal oversight help explain the crisis, energy and policy experts told The Texas Tribune.
While Texas Republicans were quick to pounce on renewable energy and to blame frozen wind turbines, the natural gas, nuclear and coal plants that provide most of the state’s energy also struggled to operate during the storm. Officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the energy grid operator for most of the state, said that the state’s power system was simply no match for the deep freeze.
“Nuclear units, gas units, wind turbines, even solar, in different ways — the very cold weather and snow has impacted every type of generator,” said Dan Woodfin, a senior director at ERCOT.
Energy and policy experts said Texas’ decision not to require equipment upgrades to better withstand extreme winter temperatures, and choosing to operate mostly isolated from other grids in the U.S. left power system unprepared for the winter crisis.
Policy observers blamed the power system failure on the legislators and state agencies who they say did not properly heed the warnings of previous storms or account for more extreme weather events warned of by climate scientists. Instead, Texas prioritized the free market.
“Clearly we need to change our regulatory focus to protect the people, not profits,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a now-retired former director of Public Citizen, an Austin-based consumer advocacy group who advocated for changes after in 2011 when Texas faced a similar energy crisis.
“Instead of taking any regulatory action, we ended up getting guidelines that were unenforceable and largely ignored in [power companies’] rush for profits,” he said.
It is possible to “winterize” natural gas power plants, natural gas production, wind turbines, and other energy infrastructure, experts said, through practices like insulating pipelines. These upgrades help prevent major interruptions in other states with regularly cold weather.
LESSONS FROM 2011
In 2011, Texas faced a very similar storm that froze natural gas wells and affected coal plants and wind turbines, leading to power outages across the state. A decade later, Texas power generators have still not made all the investments necessary to prevent plants from tripping offline during extreme cold, experts said.
Woodfin, of ERCOT, acknowledged that there’s no requirement to prepare power infrastructure for such extremely low temperatures. “Those are not mandatory, it’s a voluntary guideline to decide to do those things,” he said. “There are financial incentives to stay online, but there is no regulation at this point.”
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., is currently developing mandatory standards for “winterizing” energy infrastructure, a spokesperson said.
Texas politicians and regulators were warned after the 2011 storm that more “winterizing” of power infrastructure was necessary, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation shows. The large number of units that tripped offline or couldn’t start during that storm, “demonstrates that the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds,” regulators wrote at the time. More thorough preparation for cold weather could have prevented the outages, the report said.
“This should have been addressed in 2011 by the Legislature after that market meltdown, but there was no substantial follow up,” by state politicians or regulators, said Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics professor at the University of Houston. “They skipped on down the road with business as usual.”
ERCOT officials said that some generators implemented new winter practices after the freeze a decade ago, and new voluntary “best practices” were adopted. Woodfin said that during subsequent storms, such as in 2018, it appeared that those efforts worked. But he said this storm was even more extreme than regulators anticipated based on models developed after the 2011 storm. He acknowledged that any changes made were “not sufficient to keep these generators online,” during this storm.
After temperatures plummeted and snow covered large parts of the state Sunday night, ERCOT warned increased demand might lead to short-term, rolling blackouts. Instead, huge portions of the largest cities in Texas went dark and have remained without heat or power for days. On Tuesday, nearly 60% of Houston households and businesses were without power. Of the total installed capacity to the electric grid, about 40% went offline during the storm, Woodfin said.
CLIMATE WAKE-UP CALL
Climate scientists in Texas agree with ERCOT leaders that this week’s storm was unprecedented in some ways. They also say it’s evidence that Texas is not prepared to handle an increasing number of more volatile and more extreme weather events.
“We cannot rely on our past to guide our future,” said Dev Niyogi, a geosciences professor at the University of Texas at Austin who previously served as the state climatologist for Indiana. He noted that previous barometers are becoming less useful as states see more intense weather covering larger areas for prolonged periods of time. He said climate scientists want infrastructure design to consider a “much larger spectrum of possibilities” rather than treating these storms as a rarity, or a so-called “100-year event”.
Katharine Hayhoe, a leading climate scientist at Texas Tech University, highlighted a 2018 study that showed how a warming Arctic is creating more severe polar vortex events. “It’s a wake up call to say, ‘What if these are getting more frequent?’” Hayhoe said. “Moving forward, that gives us even more reason to be more prepared in the future.”
Still, Hayhoe and Niyogi acknowledged there’s uncertainty about the connection between climate change and cold air outbreaks from the Arctic.
Other Texas officials looked beyond ERCOT. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins argued that the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry — a remit that includes natural gas wells and pipelines — prioritized commercial customers over residents by not requiring equipment to be better equipped for cold weather. The RRC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Other states require you to have cold weather packages on your generation equipment and require you to use, either through depth or through materials, gas piping that is less likely to freeze,” Jenkins said.
Texas’ electricity market is also deregulated, meaning that no one company owns all the power plants, transmission lines and distribution networks. Instead, several different companies generate and transmit power, which they sell on the wholesale market to yet more players. Those power companies in turn are the ones that sell to homes and businesses. Policy experts disagree on whether a different structure would have helped Texas navigate these outages. “I don’t think deregulation itself is necessarily the thing to blame here,” said Josh Rhodes, a research associate at University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute.
HISTORY OF ISOLATION
Texas’ grid is also mostly isolated from other areas of the country, a set up designed to avoid federal regulation. It has some connectivity to Mexico and to the Eastern U.S. grid, but those ties have limits on what they can transmit. The Eastern U.S. is also facing the same winter storm that is creating a surge in power demand. That means that Texas has been unable to get much help from other areas.
“If you’re going to say you can handle it by yourself, step up and do it,” said Hirs, the UH energy fellow, of the state’s pursuit of an independent grid with a deregulated market. “That’s the incredible failure.”
Rhodes, of UT Austin, said Texas policy makers should consider more connections to the rest of the country. That, he acknowledged, could come at a higher financial cost — and so will any improvements to the grid to prevent future disasters. There’s an open question as to whether Texas leadership will be willing to fund, or politically support, any of these options.
“We need to have a conversation about if we believe that we’re going to have more weather events like this,” Rhodes said. “On some level it comes down to if you want a more resilient grid, we can build it, it will just cost more money. What are you willing to pay? We’re going to have to confront that.”
For more information on Michael Shellenberger, please visit www.tedxberlin.de. Michael Shellenberger is co-founder and Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, where he was president from 2003 to 2015, and a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.
Over the last decade, Michael and his colleagues have constructed a new paradigm that views prosperity, cheap energy and nuclear power as the keys to environmental progress. A book he co-wrote (with Ted Nordhaus) in 2007, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism
to the Politics of Possibility, was called by Wired magazine “the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” while Time Magazine called him a “hero of the environment.” In the 1990s, he helped protect the last signi cant groves of old-growth redwoods still in private hands and bring about labor improvements to Nike factories in Asia. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedxNuclear energy is the only practical alternative that we have to destroying the environment with oil and coal.-Ansel Adams, 1983 (14 min)
.. Now it is the focus of a distinctly 21st-century challenge: turning the dam into a vast reservoir of excess electricity, fed by the solar farms and wind turbines that represent the power sources of the future... wants to equip it with a $3 billion pipeline and a pump station powered by solar and wind energy. The pump station, downstream, would help regulate the water flow through the dam’s generators, sending water back to the top to help manage electricity at times of peak demand.
The net result would be a kind of energy storage — performing much the same function as the giant lithium-ion batteries being developed to absorb and release power... The Hoover Dam project may help answer a looming question for the energy industry: how to come up with affordable and efficient power storage.. when solar and wind farms produce more electricity than consumers need, California utilities have had to find ways to get rid of it — including giving it away to other states — or risk overloading the electric grid and causing blackouts... The target for completion is 2028, and some say the effort could inspire similar innovations at other dams... Using Hoover Dam to help manage the electricity grid has been mentioned informally over the last 15 years. But no one pursued the idea seriously until about a year ago, as California began grappling with the need to better manage its soaring alternative-electricity production — part of weaning itself from coal-fired and nuclear power plants... estimated that utility-scale lithium-ion batteries cost 26 cents a kilowatt-hour, compared with 15 cents for a pumped-storage hydroelectric project. The typical household pays about 12.5 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity... engineers propose building a pump station about 20 miles downstream from the main reservoir, Lake Mead.. “Hoover Dam is ideal for this,” said Kelly Sanders, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California. “It’s a gigantic plant. We don’t have anything on the horizon as far as batteries of that magnitude.”.. “With lithium-ion batteries, you have durability issues,” Mr. Narayan said. “If they last five to 10 years, that would be a stretch, especially because we expect to use these facilities at full capacity. It has to be 10 times more durable than it is today.”.. its proposal would increase the productivity of the dam, which operates at just 20 percent of its potential, to avoid releasing too much water at once and flooding towns downstream.
President Trump is increasingly intervening in the economy, making decisions about corporate winners and losers in ways that Republicans for decades have insisted should be left to free markets — not the government.
.. On Friday, citing national security, Trump ordered the Energy Department to compel power-grid operators to buy from ailing coal and nuclear plants that otherwise would be forced to shut down because of competition from cheaper sources.
.. The order came one day after the president imposed historic metals tariffs on some of the country’s strongest allies and trading partners. Now the Commerce Department is further picking winners and losers as it weighs thousands of requests from companies for waivers from the import taxes.
“It replaces the invisible hand with the government hand,” said Mary Lovely, a Syracuse University economist. “You’re replacing the market with government fiat.”
.. The president has chastised individual companies, second-guessed the U.S. Postal Service’s business arrangement with Amazon and put pressure on Boeing and Lockheed Martin over the cost of their products.
So California especially, they balance solar with natural gas. In Germany, they balance wind with coal. And this leads to this very ironic situation where the places with the highest penetration of renewables also have greenhouse gas emissions which are going up.
DAVIES: And this is a fascinating thing that you describe where a utility will literally have an old plant running on fossil fuels – coal or diesel – and it sits idle until there’s a decline in some other energy source. And then they fire up this expensive, antiquated, polluting equipment?
BAKKE: Exactly. Yeah, either a dip in another energy source or a big surge in use. So we usually use – they’re called peakers, and we usually use them, for example, on a very hot August day when everyone turns up their air conditioning. So that’s another case where the plants that are making electricity aren’t making enough. And so these plants have to get turned on.
But you need all the coal sitting around to run them. You need the people sitting around to be called in to run them because they’re complicated machines – giant complicated machines.
DAVIES: So if we – if the people, if the utilities, if the grid could figure out a way to manage all this renewable energy coming in and not have to have these old, antiquated plants at the ready, it would save a lot of money, effort and pollution, right?
BAKKE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And one of the things, for example, that Texas is doing right now, they have the highest amount of wind energy in the country. And they – their – Texas wind blows at night, so they’ve done two funny things. One is that there’s one utility that just gives away electricity after 9 p.m.
So the electricity is free, again, because they need people to use it. So everybody at 9:00 p.m., everybody sort of stands up and turns on their dishwasher
.. I think that this idea – the idea that with either zero or we’ve failed needs to be put aside a little bit to say, what would it look like if we could get to 80 percent? How would we have to revive – what would we have to do to the system in order to get to 80 percent renewables – because once we can do that, then we can look at and say, how do we get to 90 percent – as opposed to this sort of we’re going to completely eliminate any kind of fossil fuel, leave it all on the ground, and we’re going to run all on renewables.
The upside of renewables is that they can for sure make more electricity than we need. There’s not – there’s not a shortage problem. There’s, in a way, an excess problem. But that is not – that’s not the issue. That’s in part why I feel like this book actually matters is because it’s not about generation. That’s not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the story. And the rest of the story is about the ways in which we use that power, the ways in which we transmit that power, the ways in which we care for that power, we store that power or we don’t store it, we balance it – all of these grid-related sort of human questions.
So, yes, absolutely, I think it’s absolutely possible. But let’s get to 50 percent. Let’s get to – I think 80 percent – by the time we get to 80 percent renewable and integration, we are going to have confronted all of the big problems that are facing us right now.