Texas is on a roll — an energy use roll, that is. This week, amid sweltering temperatures, the power demand on the state’s grid soared to an all-time high on Wednesday, reaching 80,000 megawatts of demand. This marks the eleventh time this demand record has been broken this year alone.
Texas consumers were allowed to keep their A/Cs cranking this week. But last week, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the grid, asked consumers on both Monday and Wednesday to conserve energy during another intense heat wave.
As the grid creaks and groans under the pressure, and as the widespread and deadly systemic failures during a freeze in February 2021 are fresh on everyone’s mind, renewable energy has once again become a political hot point in this contentious election year. Texas Republicans, aided and abetted by conservative media, are quick to assign blame to renewable energy for Texas’s problems whenever convenient. Last week, as ERCOT struggled for power while the wind was low, conservative outlets like the Washington Times and Fox trumpeted how the “windmill-reliant power grid” was “strain[ing].” An editorial from the Wall Street Journal last Friday declared smugly that “unreliable renewable energy [is leading] to power outages” in Texas.
It’s hard to pin down solar and wind’s role in Texas’s energy mix. Some days wind and solar seem to be saving the grid, while low wind and cloud cover on others means that the grid is faltering. Will blackouts this summer be the fault of renewable energy?
Regardless of what Republicans may say, wind and solar are doing a great job at providing power to ERCOT this summer as they’re intended. In the first six months of this year, wind and solar provided a record 36% of power to the grid. One particularly hot day in mid-June saw nearly 40% of the state’s energy mix coming from wind. Solar has enjoyed a particularly robust growth spurt in Texas in recent months: There’s now three times as much solar capacity on the ground this summer as there was 18 months ago. And these energies are often complementary to each other, kicking in when the other is down.
“When the wind dies down during the day, that’s when the sun is producing the most power,” said Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin’s Energy Institute. Renewables providing so much power, Rhodes said, is also helping offset the astronomically high gas prices that energy providers are suffering through worldwide, and keep prices in Texas lower than they would be otherwise.
The issues with renewable energies on the grid are nothing new. “Sometimes wind and solar are the workhorse of the grid and they’re producing a lot of power, but sometimes the wind does die,” Rhodes said. “We know this — we’ve had wind in ERCOT for 20 plus years. It’s not like this is a surprise.”
A healthy grid system would be able to meet demand when both wind and solar are offline. This means providing reliable baseload power like natural gas, nuclear, or coal. (There’s also the promise of batteries to store all that extra renewable juice: California has made some incredible gains in adding utility-scale batteries to its grid this year.) But there are deep problems with the Texas grid in particular that predate the explosion of renewable energy.
First, the state is not giving its ageing power fleet any breaks. Texan power plants, which have already suffered from years of underinvestment, are being told to basically run nonstop this summer in order to meet demand, providing operators little ability to make repairs.
“Like the rest of the U.S., we’ve got an ageing power plant fleet,” Rhodes said. “They’re kind of like humans — they need time to rest. If you just sprint, you’re going to run out of energy at some point, versus if you run at a more moderate pace or take a break every once in a while. We’re not letting them do that.”
We’ve seen what happens when extreme weather hits a stressed-out grid particularly hard — albeit in much colder temperatures than what Texas is sweating through now. In 2021, a winter storm caused a literal perfect storm of freak weather and grid failure, as demand for power soared far beyond expectations and the ageing and stressed grid struggled during the cold. (Republicans tried to blame wind energy back then, too — despite the widespread failure of natural gas during the storm.) In the wake of that disaster, Texas legislators passed narrow reforms to the ERCOT system, including preparing power generators and transmission lines for cold weather and shaking up ERCOT’s board. Abbot subsequently declared that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
But the legislature ended up leaving a lot of possible fixes on the table that could have made real progress in sorting out the grid’s issues. For instance, lawmakers could have mandated building more backup power plants or allowing the grid to purchase energy from other states during peak demand. ERCOT is also what’s known as an energy-only market, meaning power producers only get paid for energy they provide on a day-to-day basis, rather than capacity markets, which pay resources for simply being available; switching ERCOT over to a capacity market model was also on the table for the legislature to consider in the wake of the storm last year.
There’s “not a lot of transparency” to 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. “At this point, everyone is a political appointee, and every meeting of the public utility commission with the ERCOT CEO sounds like a stump speech. The governor is obviously quite concerned with a blackout having an impact on his reelection.”
This might explain the right-wing eagerness to cast renewable energy as the villain rather than confronting the complexities of Texas’s failing grid. Abbott is facing a heated governor’s race this fall, and opponent Beto O’Rourke has already seized on grid issues as a key talking point, vowing to make serious changes to ERCOT. Meanwhile, Abbott took some intense heat from pissed-off Texans who were asked to conserve energy during last week’s high temperatures.
There’s a chance the grid makes it through the summer just fine, saving Abbott a political crisis. But as temperatures stay high and may keep getting higher, both Hirs and Rhodes say anything could happen.
“It’s not hard to envision a hurricane hitting, cloud cover coming in, even — God forbid — smoke from wildfire could knock down solar and disrupt the wind patterns,” Hirs said.
All this hullabaloo over technologies that are working just as they’re intended to and helping the grid survive is not only an illustration of how energy can be a political weapon but is also a good reminder about the realities of the energy transition.
“ERCOT is dependent on renewables — wind and solar needs to perform to keep the lights on. We can’t keep up with all this demand with traditional forms of energy,” Rhodes said. “And we’re gonna have to make sure that we have enough capacity. We need to be clear-eyed about that, because if we’re not, that will not bode well for the energy transition we need.”