Misinformation about the electric grid failure is already spreading. One of the most widespread false claims: renewable energy is to blame for the loss of power across the state. Report For America corps member and Texas Public Radio environmental issues reporter Dominic Anthony Walsh spoke with energy and climate consultant Doug Lewin.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Dominic Anthony Walsh: Help us understand the components of the power grid in Texas at the most general level. When a Texan flips on a light switch, where is that electricity coming from?
Doug Lewin: Yeah, the grid works as one big system... So you don’t actually know when you turn on a light if the electron coming into your home is from wind, solar, nuclear, coal, natural gas. It moves across vast expanses. Texas does have its own grid that stays within the state called ERCOT — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT maintains its own grid within the state boundaries. So, you do know if you live within those boundaries — and about 90% of Texans do — your energy is being generated within the state. But beyond that, you don’t know exactly what kind of energy you’re getting or where it’s coming from.
Walsh: So, it’s a mix, but hard to pin down at any given time or any given place. So, let’s turn to some of these claims that we’ve seen recently about renewable energy. Some people have been pointing to the frozen wind turbines in West Texas and basically saying that’s the root of the current supply problem. Is that fair?
Lewin: It is not fair. Those are unfair and untrue assertions. For most of the period of this crisis, wind has been producing more than what ERCOT prepares for — what they expect to be getting out of wind. That is not true for every hour within this crisis, but it’s true for the vast majority of the hours within this crisis. The biggest problem — and ERCOT has just said this themselves... the main factors were frozen instruments in natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities and pressure on natural gas supply. That is the biggest sort of source of outages in the state...
Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying, ‘This is the fault of fossil fuels,' anymore than somebody should be saying, ‘This is the fault of wind and solar.' The real problem here is we are dealing with circumstances we have not dealt with before in modern memory and probably ever... But I think it’s really important right now that we be looking to solutions. We need to figure out how to weatherize all of the plants. Power plants that are in Minnesota and Canada and other places continue to run in the winter. It’s expensive to do that. And so we’ve got to have a policy discussion in Texas about what’s the cost of doing that, how do we pay for that? And not to be lost in that discussion is that we are living in a period of climate change.
Walsh: That’ll be part of the discussion going ahead. Another part of the discussion will be this old debate — renewable energy versus fossil fuels is often the framing... Now, you already explained why this is not an accurate framing of the situation. But looking ahead, how do you think the discourse over energy sources will be impacted by this current event?
Lewin: You know, what we all need to do — no matter what our priors were, no matter what our preconceived notions coming into this world — we need to take a hard look at the data. We need to pull stakeholders together, and we need to figure out how to make sure that this never happens again. And I think that there’s a combination of things that can be done there. So, rather than spend time pointing fingers and saying, ‘It was this person’s fault, it was that person’s fault,' and devolving into this reductive binary — us versus them — I’d rather focus on: Let’s get the plants weatherized. Let’s build more transmission and interconnect to different parts of the grid so that we are able to pull energy from around the country and send energy out to other parts of the country. California had blackouts over the summer, and Texas had a surplus.
Now we’re running short and other parts of the country have a surplus. It’s crazy that we can’t move energy around. We need to have more transmission. We need to have better buildings. We need to have more energy efficiency retrofits to put more insulation in homes so that when these kinds of events happen, at least people are able to hold the heat inside their homes, or the cooler inside their homes if this kind of thing happens during the summer. And oh, by the way, those same energy efficiency measures also save people money. They also put people to work. And they also increase the reliability of the grid, because the amount of energy needed to warm or to cool homes is not as much.
Walsh: What else should folks keep in mind over the next few weeks and months, as they start to see more claims about the reliability of renewable energy?
Lewin: I think what they should keep in mind as they hear these unreliable claims is that renewables are coming, and this is a good thing. We need more of it, not less of it. We’re also going to need all kinds of different ways to make sure that we have more reliability. I think one of the things that I didn’t mention in the solutions that people should be thinking about is energy storage, right... the technology has moved tremendously. Costs of lithium ion batteries are down. Could that have helped? Would the performance of the batteries not have been great because of the cold? These are all things we need to figure out. But we should all be looking for a solution.
So yeah, look, you know, wind and solar, like every other energy source has pluses and minuses and trade offs, right? Overall, it’s a great source of energy. It’s emission free, it’s very cheap. But it is not, you know, it doesn’t have the same dispatchability that other sources do. But I would also point out that what we’re finding now in these situations is natural gas plants which ERCOT has always called — and you put quotes around this — "firm capacity," meaning they could count on it in all situations. That’s not true either. So again, all these sources have things that make them challenging and have their benefits associated with them... But clearly, we’ve got more questions than we do answers right now. And I think it’s just important that the public — and you know, everybody involved in this — really look for those solutions coming out of this and avoid the sort of pointless finger pointing and blaming and the like.
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