Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Neither ending nor beginning, on an ever-spinning reel…
The story of wind power has never been written so well as in the song “Windmills of Your Mind,“ by Michel LeGrand, with English lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The song, written about a great movie, The Thomas Crown Affair, is about the world of high-stakes theft and subterfuge, where all is spin and nothing is as it seems. And the blame vortex surrounding the blackouts during the recent deadly winter storm in Texas is a stunning example of this kind of rotary obfuscation.
The battle lines on the “what we learned from Texas” debate were drawn practically before the rotors had stopped spinning, either on the wind turbines, or in the gas, coal, and nuclear power plants that Texas has historically relied on to keep the lights burning. (Let’s leave solar out of this, at 2 percent of power production, it’s not relevant.)
If you wanted to scapegoat wind power, for whatever reason, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did, it was supposedly as obvious as the sheaths of ice on the turbines, that wind was the culprit. Responsible for producing over 23 percent of Texas electricity generation at some points of the year, a lot of the wind power didn’t work so well in the deep freeze. So, the narrative wrote itself for those looking to blame wind. They suggested wind power is unreliable because the wind is unreliable, the weather is unreliable, and so is the climate that drives the weather. Adding insult to injury, you can’t store the power to use when the wind isn’t blowing, even with Elon Musk in Texas. So, to those people, it was a wind-power failure, QED.
On the other hand, if you love wind power and oppose fossil fuels or conventional power plants, the narrative from your perspective was equally clear. The “obsolete” conventional power generation sector (fossil fuels and nukes) was to blame for a whole bunch of reasons, including a lack of proper maintenance, a failure to weatherize equipment in ways that the state had previously been warned about, an isolationist power grid separated from the rest of the country, and so on. In the face of a predictable storm, Texas’ coal and natural gas power plants weren’t ready to do the job they’re supposed to.
Both narratives are in some aspects true.
Yes, many wind turbines weren’t producing power during the storm, but it’s also true that far more coal and natural gas-powered power plants were down and unable to meet the demand of Texas customers. The Austin-American Statesman reported the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) breakdown of the problem across the types of facilities on Feb. 17:
ERCOT said all types of facilities, not just the ones that produce renewable energy, were affected by the statewide outages.
As of Wednesday, 46,000 megawatts of generation were offline, with 185 generating plants tripped. ERCOT officials said 28,000 megawatts came from coal, gas and nuclear plants, and 18,000 megawatts were from solar and wind.
Energy demand reached a record high Sunday and didn’t taper off as electricity usage typically does during overnight hours. The issue became critical when several of the grid’s energy generation units began to go offline in rapid progression, affecting more than half of the grid’s winter generating capacity, according to ERCOT Senior Director of System Operations Dan Woodfin.
These failing sources largely included nuclear plants, coal plants and thermal energy generators. Frozen wind turbines were a factor, too, but Woodfin said wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the outages.The problem in Texas was not simply about particular sources of power, nor the politics of power, the problem was a failure to properly blend the old with the new and balancing a system capable of meeting demand under those cold conditions…
An ERCOT report on generating capacity listed the top sources of power in the state:
Natural gas (51%)
Hydro, biomass-fired units (1.9%)
If you want a system that is heavy in intermittent power generation, like wind, you need to have adequate backup power standing by to kick in when the wind isn’t blowing. That’s obvious. What’s not obvious is that the problem is not when the wind fails to produce power, but when it actually succeeds at producing power because while that’s happening, the backup systems are operating at partial capacity, and they’re losing the money needed to maintain their ability to pick up the slack when the wind dies down. Add to that a general political climate that heavily disfavors properly maintaining, renovating, and upgrading conventional power generation or infrastructure, and you have some of the key contributing factors to the Great Texas Winter Blackout of 2021.
This challenge, balancing the economics of wind power and its effect on conventional forms of power generation is where the overall concept of replacing conventional power with renewable power is failing and will likely continue to fail. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with wind power, or conventional power. It’s a problem of cold, hard economics and governance. The various political actors steering power systems are often not interested or not capable of looking for a way to balance the speed of renewable deployment with a way to meet the economic needs of the established power generation systems that have kept the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Striking that balance is the key to moving forward toward decarbonizing and expanding the electrification of power systems over time.
Spinning has always been part and parcel of using and generating power: wheels, axles, pulleys, crankshafts, generators, and so on. Similarly, spinning has always been part and parcel (cynically, perhaps the greatest part) of politics. And it’s those politics that led to the power fiasco in Texas. But there is potentially a ray of light. Hopefully, in the forensic aftermath of the Texas fiasco, more knowledge will be gained about how to strike the balance when integrating more renewables, both those we know and those we have yet to discover, into an existing system with massive economic momentum built up over decades of operation.
Politicians, activists, advocates, and opponents of wind, coal, gas, nuclear, hydropower, and even solar power, all need to stop spinning around this fundamental truth: Whether one likes it or not, intermittent forms of energy generation are just as subject to the laws of economics as every other form of energy generation. We have to stop pretending it’s all one way or the other, renewable or conventional, and strive to find the proper balance that keeps the system working and from failing its customers in deadly ways as it did in Texas. And that correct balance involves technology, economics, and, unfortunately, political rationality, which often seems more fickle than the wind.