You know that fourth-string college athlete, who by his own reckoning singlehandedly brought his team to the championship game? That’s how the advocates of wind energy act when they loudly claim that wind capacity was the key factor that kept Texas’ power running during the polar vortex two weeks ago.
A look at the data, however, shows that wind was no more essential than conventional sources, such as coal and natural gas. Indeed, it was far more disruptive.
On Monday morning, January 6th, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)—the grid operator for most of Texas—issued an emergency alert because the demand for electricity threatened to exceed the available supply. Freezing weather had pushed electricity use to unexpected highs. At the same time, 10,000 megawatts of ERCOT’s generation fleet was off line for scheduled maintenance, and an additional 3,700 megawatts failed for a variety of reasons, including inadequate winterization.
Although ERCOT cancelled the alert within a few hours, advocates for wind energy have been quick to claim credit for Texas escaping the cold snap without a blackout. They have alleged that wind energy “provided massive quantities of extremely valuable electricity when grid operators needed it most,” “provid[ing] the critical difference that allowed grid operators to keep…the lights on.”
The numbers tell a different story.
According to ERCOT’s own reports, at the time the emergency alert was issued, Texas’ wind generators were producing 1,782 megawatts of power. A seemingly substantial number—that is, until you compare it with that morning’s peak load of 56,000 megawatts. For all the bluster and horn tooting, wind energy contributed mere 3.2 percent of the electricity used during peak demand. The numbers were even less at around 5pm when ERCOT almost issued another alert due to a second spike in demand.
The rest of Texas’ electricity supply (96.8 percent of it) came from conventional energy sources like coal and natural gas, plus a smattering of other sources like hydroelectricity—contributions that remained conspicuously absent in the wind lobby’s retelling.
Nor was the amount of electricity generated by wind unexpectedly high. Even though the early morning is typically a good time for wind generation, Texas’ wind turbines were only operating at 17 percent of their installed capacity during the emergency alert. By 5pm, it had dropped to around 10 percent.
It seems like a stretch to claim that wind capacity carried the Texas electricity market into the end zone, when you consider that wind produced only a tiny fraction of the power used and gave a lackluster performance the very moment it was needed most. At best, wind advocates can claim that wind partly contributed to Texas making it through the freeze without a blackout—in that wind turbines produced some electricity that was added to ERCOT’s total supply. You know, like a member of a team.
But, even that is giving wind too much credit.
Wind capacity disrupts the reliability of the Texas electricity market. Unlike conventional energy sources, wind energy is intermittent, meaning that it cannot be dispatched to Texas homes and businesses on command. Instead, grid operators must wait for weather conditions to be just right. As a result, although there are models that offer short term forecasts, grid operators can never be sure just how much electricity wind turbines will add. It injects a high degree of uncertainty in ERCOT’s long term planning.
It also makes wind generation a terrible safety net because unexpected disruptions are just that, unexpected. They will not wait to double check if it’s a convenient time for Texas’ wind turbines to run at full, or even half their capacity.
Wind advocates counter by highlighting the fact that several conventional electricity plants failed during the demand spike, contributing to the close call. That’s true and should be addressed. The difference is that their shortcomings (the lack of winterization) can be fixed with a modest investment. The inherent shortcomings of wind energy as intermittent power source cannot be overcome.
Worse, subsidies for wind energy discourage other types of generators from investing in the Texas market. Government subsidies cover the operational cost of wind turbines, which allows them to artificially lower their prices. This in turn prevents conventional generators from bidding into the electricity market at a competitive price. Conventional generators are unable to earn a profit and, therefore, are unwilling to invest in new capacity.
The end result is that Texas has a slimmer cushion of extra capacity for unexpected cold snaps and overabundance of wind generation which can’t pick up the slack.
Texas’ wind lobby likes to spin an epic tale, but there’s a reason why wind energy remains a fourth-string player. Wind generation cannot overcome its intermittent nature, and it’s disruption of the energy market makes Texas more susceptible to blackouts and shortages. Texas did not survive polar vortex because of wind generation; Texas survived in spite of it.