Recently there’s been some blackouts in Texas caused by unseasonably cold weather. In fact its the sort of extreme weather we’d be expecting due to climate change (which doesn’t just lead to hotter weather, it can also cause shifts in weather patterns leading to more extremes of weather, such as more intense rainfall, hurricanes and yes snow storms). And predictably Republicans in Texas were showing the sort of leadership we’d expect of them, either by fleeing to Mexico (just as well we didn’t build that wall then!), or by blaming wind energy for the crisis.
While it is true that yes some wind turbines stopped working during the cold, or were forced offline due to the failure of power lines connecting them to the grid (as neither were weatherised for cold conditions, as state legislation doesn’t require it). But they were not alone, indeed far more fossil fuel and nuclear capacity was lost due to the storm than wind energy (again due to a lack of legislation requiring proper weatherization).
And this is not exactly the first time a grid failure has occurred due to cold weather. There was the infamous ice-storms of 1988 in Canada which nearly caused complete power loss to several cities due to power-line failures. Indeed the lack of connection between Texas and the rest of the nation (something we have to blame on Texas politicians) is a much more plausible explanation for these blackouts. In fact federal authorities warned Texas state officials of the potential dangers ten years ago. So I’m afraid this one’s on them.
Part of the problem here is the tendency for opponents of wind energy to cherry pick. They will ignore situations where the failure of conventional power sources led to a black out, focusing instead on any situation where renewables can be blamed. For example on the night of 28th of October, 2013, the UK was hit by a large storm. This (as seen in the graph below) let to a brief drop in the output of some of the UK’s wind farms (some were forced to turn off for a few hours due to the high winds, although this was partially cancelled out by others operating at peak output in the high winds). As this was predicable event (the grid operators would have had access to weather forecasts a few days in advance) it could be dealt with, as other sources of power were on standby and picked up the slack.
Of course this isn’t what the media reported, focusing on how one small wind turbine in the kW range was blown down in the storm. And they almost completely ignored the more serious fact that Dungeness nuclear power station also went off line due to flooding. As nuclear power stations need to draw power from the grid to operate (run pumps, cooling systems, control systems and computers) they therefore have to shut down in the event of a loss of onsite power, or even the risk of it (yes there are backup generators, but you really don’t want to tempt fate by over relying on them).
So this left the grid with a massive hole pretty much straight away. This was filled using a combination of pump storage and hydroelectricity. And while wind energy was back to normal pretty quickly, Dungeness was down for over week.So a story which should have read “renewables help save country from massive black outs caused by nuclear power plant failure” instead we got “wind energy doesn’t work because of wind”. So we have to acknowledge there is more than a little bias in the media, particularly certain right wing outlets, against renewables. Which may have something to do with financial connections to big oil or simple ideological reasons (we’ll get to that).
Certainly yes a policy of wind, wind and yet more wind isn’t going to work, but nobody, other than opponents of wind energy, is actually making an argument for this. So either they are completely ignorant of how electrical grids work, or they are posing a deliberate strawman argument. Solar tends to make a nice fit (and Texas does get quite a bit of sunshine) as whenever its not windy, it tends to be sunny. Solar is also a distributed form of energy, so less reliant on power lines to distribute power to customers.
As noted in the examples above hydroelectricity is often used for load balancing, as it can be turned on and off as necessary and used to store energy for emergencies (particularly when it comes to pumped hydro). Biomass too can do load balancing and it can also work on the large scale. Two-thirds of the UK’s Drax power station’s 3.9 GW output (the largest power plant in the UK) is now fed by biomass, with it planned to eventually go over completely to biomass. While there is a big question mark over the carbon footprint of this fuel, as its sourced from the US, but this won’t be a problem in Texas. Not least because of all those cattle ranches in Texas, which would be an obvious source of manure and thus methane.
Another straw man is that you will need vast amounts of energy storage in the form of batteries to back up a renewable heavy grid. Some will even try to claim we’ll need 7-14 days supply. Okay, and where is the storage facility providing 7-14 days backup for all of the nuclear plants? After all, as we’ve just mentioned, they can be knocked offline for weeks by flooding or high winds. Surely that means we can’t rely on nuclear either?
And while there are stockpiles of fossil fuels in that range, the worse case scenario supply interruption would be repeat of the 1970’s oil crisis (which saw supplies disrupted for several months). So arguably you’d need the best part of a year’s supply in storage as a back up for fossil fuels. Do we have such stockpiles? My point is you are imposing requirements on a low carbon grid that exceed those of the existing grid. It seems that power cuts are only a problem when they can be blamed on renewables.
Certainly you would need some storage for renewables, but not nearly as much as many think. Assuming you have a fairly diverse grid, drawing power from a variety of different sources, the potential storage levels needed are a lot smaller. The exact amount of storage needed would depend a lot on your load profile (heavy industry, or mostly residential), your mix of renewables (a good mix of renewables or a heavy dependancy on one particular type), interconnections (can you get power in an emergency from your neighbours?) and ultimately your budget (you can have a super reliable grid than costs a lot to maintain, or one with lower costs where you have to cope with the odd brown out).
Recent advances in technology do mean large scale energy storage using batteries is now possible. Although I’d argue in favour of using smart grids. In a future with lots of electric cars you could offer car owners the option to charge their cars using cheaper off peak power and then sell power back to the grid (say 10-20% of the battery) during peak demand (topping up again during off peak hours).
Think about it, if you had 3.8 million cars (10% of the UK’s current vehicle fleet) each with an average 50 kWh battery, 10% of all of those batteries is 19 GWh’s, or about two thirds of the UK’s current entire energy storage capacity of 30GWh. In a crisis, such as the one in Texas, (when people aren’t going to be travelling long distance, hence you’ll have more cars connected and can do a deeper discharge and still leave enough for the owner to make a few supply runs to the store) you could up this to 30% of the fleet and say 33% of each car’s battery capacity, yielding 188 GWh’s, over 6 times the UK’s current electricity storage capacity. And better still, like the solar panels, this would be distributed power (the sort you need in an ice storm).
Other options for long term storage would be pumped hydro. While the capital costs for this can be high (essentially there is a price floor for such a facility), but they do scale up and there is essentially no upper limit to how large they can be built. Hence if you ever did need that 7-14 days of supply, this is how you’d do it.
Hydrogen stored in underground caverns is another option. In fact a facility in the US has been storing 2500 tons of Hydrogen (about 84 GWh’s worth) regularly since the 1980’s. An even larger facility was recently commissioned in 2017 in Texas (of all places!). I bring up hydrogen, in part because it shows how ignorant republicans are about what’s going on in their own state (maybe you should focus on fixing the power grid rather than banging on about the usual right wing talking points). But also because hydrogen tends to be a nice fit with heat demand, as burning it for heat is 2-3 times more energy efficient that using it for electricity production (due the difference in efficiency between a boiler and a power plant). And I’m kind of guessing that what Texans want right now is heat. In fact, the bulk of most of Europe and North America’s energy demand is in the form of heat.
Of course getting all of this to work together is perhaps the problem. A future low carbon grid is kind of a bit like an orchestra. Its only going to work with a conductor. This means there needs to be some legislation from government, notably to make sure the infrastructure that is built is fit for purpose and that customers don’t get ripped off. This doesn’t mean handing everything over to the government, in fact it assumes the private sector will do most of the heavy lifting and innovation (and be rewarded in return).
But naturally, this is the problem with right wingers as they are ideologically opposed to big government …other than the bit that provides generous defence contracts, public highways, police, the largest prison population in the world and subsides to big oil. Some of them think an orchestra can work without a conductor. Others prefer their fossil fuel drum solo. And still others are in the pocket of the sort of conductor from whiplash (renewables aren’t quite their tempo), who want to retain their right to abuse their customers and protect their monopoly.
But either way, blaming renewables for power cuts makes no sense. If the republicans in Texas are looking for someone to blame for this crisis, they need only look in a mirror. This mess is entirely one of their own making. Had they focused the same effort on their policies as they are now focusing on PR maybe this crisis could have been avoided.