Something significant is getting left out in the “whodunit” debate of the Texas energy debacle that goes beyond the discussions of frozen windmills, snow covered solar panels, frozen pipes, and battery technology, and it is important for the future of certain forms of alternative energy.
The pro-fossil fuels crowd says the Green New Deal approach failed the people of Texas. The pro-alt energy folks claim that the failure of the frozen windmills and the snow covered solar panels did NOT cause the collapse of the Texas grid and to some extent that is true, but that truth only holds because 1) those forms of energy were a relatively small percentage of the overall energy generation and 2) there was enough surge capacity in the overall system to accommodate a total loss of wind and solar power – if the proper weatherization of those assets had taken place.
Here is the issue with the alternative energy growth in Texas. “Green” lobbies at the state and federal level have been pushing wind and solar, and as we know, if you want more of something, you subsidize it and if you want less, you tax it. So, the construction of wind and solar farms are subsidized with tax abatements, guaranteed contracts, and taxpayer dollars because Utopians and Climate Warriors want to feel good about saving the planet and we are all about feeling good about ourselves these days. It is a thing – but the reality is that without these artificial cost reducers, there is virtually no legitimate economic case for building wind or solar farms.
But, in a Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come” sort of delusion, we subsidize and build, subsidize and build, never learning anything from the failures of wind and solar in places like the UK and Germany, two countries that have invested heavily in wind. Germany mostly abandoned their wind ambitions and in the Big Freeze of 2008-2009, Britain’s wind output dropped to near zero.
Cool. I like feeling all warm and fuzzy. I mean, who doesn’t?
But the real killer, the knife in the back, is that where wind and solar concerns were once required to commit to a stipulated minimum amount of power fed into the grid, in Texas they apparently are not required to do that. This also drives up the cost of installing wind and solar, as California learned with the giant Ivanpah solar power plant in the California Mojave Desert. The Ivanpah solar farm uses natural gas co-generation to generate power when the sun is not sufficient – producing the equivalent of 46,000 tons of CO2 emissions in its first year, according to reports.
Not wanting to drive the cost of wind up, Texas wind farms were not required to provide co-generation methods, they did not have to pay for the costs of grid reliability by purchasing battery farms or building/contracting with gas “peaker” plants (natural gas generating facilities) to produce power when wind and solar installations could not produce. Battery farms and back-up generating facilities cost a lot of money, and drive the cost of alternative energy up, so the lobbies have worked to also eliminate guaranteed supply contracts.
Given these circumstances, when the Texas wind and solar facilities go down, there is a direct net loss of power from the grid that must be made up by other generating facilities somewhere. It was this spike of demand that cascaded, tripped the grid and shut down most of the power generation in Texas.
All that is a preamble to set up the conditions for the real problem with the two most popular forms of alternative energy, wind and solar, and it is the problem of control.
Where fossil fuels are used, we have nearly 100% control, limited by only equipment availability and access to fuel. We can turn it on, turn it off, turn it up or down at any time to meet demand. Power generation depends solely on situations we humans can control – we also have control over the methods and speed of recovery from disruptions – and yes, I even mean the situation in Texas was controllable. This was not a power plant failure; it was a failure of policy and management. There is more than enough capacity in Texas to keep the lights on even of every windmill caught fire and melted to the ground.
With wind and solar, the same level of control is not present. Humans cannot change the weather, nor can we make the sun rise or set. We cannot control temperature or humidity, we cannot prevent snow or clouds and we do not control wind speed, direction, or frequency. We simply cannot flip a switch or open a valve to increase the flow of wind or sunlight the way we can with natural gas.
Like King Canute, we cannot command the tides, nor are we ever likely to be able to do such witchcraft.
The problem with not having control is that without control, there is no reliability. You cannot predict it, you cannot plan for it, and if you cannot do either of those two, you cannot manage it. You are at the same mercy of the elements as 15th century sailors crossing the Atlantic – you just have cooler toys.
That was – and is – the real problem in Texas (and everywhere else).