Lessons from Texas

WSJ Political roots of power outages

If this is paywalled, a brief explanation. 

Texas utilities have gone in big for wind power, getting as much as 42% of base load from turbines. On the face, Texas is well suited for wind power, with open planes and nearly constant wind. And, of course, heavy subsidies. 

As we have discussed here, successful use of wind and solar requires dispatchable backup from fossil fuel plants for when conditions are not favorable, and that has proven true in Texas, where heat waves are generally accompanied by still air. So, the Texas grid is set up to fall back on natural gas power plants when wind fails. That worked well in recent heat waves, but the problem is that when it gets really cold, demand for natural gas for direct heating of homes also increases. Decades of environmental challenges to new pipeline capacity have left Texas gas supplies constricted and insufficient for both home heating and power generation. When pipeline pressures fall, the power plants go offline so that pilot lights in homes don’t go out leading to explosions when the pressure is restored. 

The result has been a failure of the backup system and widespread outages.

While a typical coal fired plant keeps 90 days worth of fuel stockpiled on site, it is not practical to keep reserve supplies of natural gas, and gas fired plants rely on continuous gas supplies. So, it turns out that we actually need to keep those coal fired plants available, which requires operating them at at least partial capacity on a continuous basis so they are ready to scale up when needed. Sometimes things are more complicated than a bumper sticker can accommodate.

Virginia should plan accordingly, and among other things, resurrect that Mid Atlantic Gas Pipeline that recently was blocked. 


73 thoughts on “Lessons from Texas

  1. NPR talked to someone in Texas this morning (I came into the middle of the interview), that stated that 10% of Texas’s energy is supplied by renewable sources, primarily wind and solar. However, she put the lie that GOV Abbot contended last night about failures there being the problem. The problem was that the systems controlling the gas and coal systems froze up and were not functioning properly.

    Now, are backup systems needed? Yes. But the primary fossil fuel systems failed as well. The other issue is the electrical supply grid. And it is not just Texas. So a national federal infrastructure upgrade is desperately needed. And it appears this storm could be the impetus to get moving on that.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. “more complicated“ Something we can agree on.

        I won’t pretend to know what the answer ought to be, but coal will probably need to play a role for the short term. Whatever Virginia does can us Texas which is a massive clusterf*%k as an example of what NOT to do.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And the other statement that was made was that even thought there were issues with wind and solar capacity, they continued to perform at proper levels. (Not my words, but those, paraphrased from the NPR interview.)

        Liked by 2 people

          1. Both articles are correct.

            I think the difference between Reason and WSJ is mostly short term failure vs underlying cause.

            If you noticed, I pointed out why the gas fired plants went offline. It’s a safety feature protecting homes in times of high demand.

            But the longer term problem is having too much of the base load in wind which us not reliable.

            We have an AC power system, When you add generators to meet demand, they have to sync with the base load so the cycle will be the same. If the base load is too weak, the sync won’t happen and the added plant will kick out.

            But the basic problems were too much reliance on wind, a constricted natural gas supply and the failure to anticipate that home heating would drain the natural gas supply at the time it was most needed for backup power,

            There are important lessons that should not be lost in partisan bickering.

            Coal can be stored on site, natural gas cannot. That makes coal backup an important component.

            The way to reduce the need for coal is not to make too many windmills, it is to ramp up nuclear and have the pipeline capacity for supply natural gas for power and home heating at the same time.

            The more wind you want to use, the more nuclear and natural gas you need.


    1. Yeah, this is utter bullshit that was rebuked by the energy experts as fast as FOX could start lying about it. Another attempt by big oil and the GOP to demonize ANYTHING “green”. I’m not surprised our resident “denier” jumped on it…

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I’m replying to the Abbot BS Adam brought up. In true trumpian fashion Abbot misdirects and blames “green” DEM policies for HIS State’s massive failure.

          And yes, I don’t comment on shit I haven’t read or understand. You might give t try yourself.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. There is similar reporting in a variety of sources that also debunk the Fox News/fossil fuel spin and which provide fact-based explanations for what happened. I thought that “Reason” was less likely to be rejected out of hand as would be the reception of a report in NYT or WAPO or CNN.

            Liked by 2 people

          2. Your cite was WSJ but the article – based on your reporting of it – was part and parcel of the “Fox News/fossil fuel spin” that I referred to. The common theme coming from such propaganda sources is the one that you are repeating – that the power problems in Texas are because of environmental policy.

            The facts are that the renewable power sources performed better than planned for the period in question. And that in spite of lessons that should have been learned in 2011, the Texas system remained unconnected to the national grid and the power and gas infrastructure was not adequately winterized. Penny wise and pound foolish capitalism.

            The claim that environmental activists caused there to be insufficient capacity in the gas pipeline system sounds truthy but is essentially false. Texas does not import gas through pipelines. It is a gas producer. But, about half of its production was stopped not because methane was frozen (cute!) but because the wells where it is produced were frozen and off-line.



          3. “I grew up with gas wells.”


            However, that does not rebut the Texas media reports that being unprepared for such severe cold knocked about half of Texas wells off line.


            nor does it rebut this . . .

            “Natural gas production was pretty much halved in Texas and its gas-rich Permian Basin during the recent cold and stormy weather. It fell from 22.5 billion cubic feet of gas produced per day in December to between 10 to 12 billion cubic feet of gas per day this week, according to estimates from BTU Analytics.”


            Liked by 1 person

        2. Another opinion;


          Additional views:


          “ Wind shutdowns accounted for 3.6 to 4.5 gigawatts — or less than 13% — of the 30 to 35 gigawatts of total outages, according to Woodfin. That’s in part because wind only comprises 25% of the state’s energy mix this time of year.”

          “ Even so, wind generation has actually exceeded the grid operator’s daily forecast through the weekend. Solar power has been slightly below forecast Monday.

          “The performance of wind and solar is way down the list among the smaller factors in the disaster that we’re facing,” Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, said in an interview. Blaming renewables for the blackouts “is really a red herring.”

          A “red state herring”, to be precise.


          Liked by 3 people

          1. RE” “Blaming renewables for the blackouts ‘is really a red herring.'”

            The WSJ editorial Dr. Tabor shares doesn’t blame renewables. It blames politics.

            In this case, the problem isn’t that wind and solar failed, but that the coal and gas capacity which should have been available wasn’t. The reason is that politicians made poor choices based on environmental policy instead of engineering policy.


          2. “… coal and gas capacity which should have been available wasn’t.”

            Yes, because they froze among other issues. And that Texas isolated itself from the grid for reasons that seem foolish now.

            Liked by 2 people

          3. Well than, why say the freeze of facilities was part of the problem.

            If a blood red state creates energy issues like lack of sufficient resource delivery or opting out of the grid, we shouldn’t blame the minority party there.

            But we do. Just like Antifa and the Capitol assault.

            Liked by 1 person

          4. The original WSJ article cites the low pressure cutoff, the reason that it is to protect home gas supplies is just common knowledge if you come from the petroleum producing parts of the country.

            Interrupting the gas supply is a major faux pas in the oil patch. It requires a total shutdown of the distribution system, closing and locking everyone’s meter and then restoring service one house at a time as pilot lights are checked.


          5. I am sure that you are correct that home heating demand for gas is exacerbating the gas situation in Texas and that you are also correct that it is vital to keep the gas flowing to homes for the reasons you mention.

            Where you go wrong is trying to spin these facts into blaming the environmental opponents of new gas pipe lines for the problem. The real problem is that most of Texas gas system is fed by gas wells in Texas and that approximately half of them were off line recently because the equipment they use was stopped by the extreme cold. Combine cutting the gas supply sharply while increasing the home usage and you get low pressure in the system.

            Liked by 2 people

          6. I grew up with gas wells.

            They only freeze up if they are shut down and restarted in very low temperatures.

            When gas comes to the surface, it has petroleum distillates and water vapor in it than can freeze as the gas expands exiting the choke.(a constriction that limits the flow from the well) The first thing that happens as the gas comes up is that it passes through a drier that separates out the distillates and water vapor. The drier is run using a small portion of the gas coming from the well. Past that point, it can’t freeze.

            The area between the choke and the drier can only freeze while the drier is warming up as waste heat from the drier keeps the well head warm once it is producing,

            I’ve watched well operators apply a torch to the choke during the warm up process.

            I watched from a safe distance, though he didn’t seem worried.


  2. Citing that “as much as 42%” baseload data point for wind is somewhat misleading. In fact, the overall contribution of wind to the Texas grid is about 20%. And, in spite of problems with some of the turbines due to cold weather, the windier conditions kept the overall output from wind turbines near normal levels. Back in 2011 when wind power was far smaller in Texas there was a similar failure of the system caused by fossil fuel plant outages.

    Reason is not buying the fossil fuel lobby spin that you are pushing . . .


    You can try to blame environmentalists for the inability of Texas to get enough natural gas but the real problem is short-sighted and greedy management of the utilities. The biggest reason for Texas’s power failures is that it has chosen to isolate itself from the two national grids in order to avoid the regulations of the Federal Power Commission. Unregulated capitalism often fails and this fiasco is a prime example.



    Finally, there is an obvious overriding reason for the human tragedy and financial losses of these outages – climate change.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So, Climate Change is the cause for the heat waves and the Polar Vortex block.

      It seems it can do anything.

      Or it could just be that weather happens and few days are average.


          1. NASA and other scientists have said otherwise. Repeatedly. And NASA scientists don’t have a dog in the climate change fight; they report their findings.


      1. “It seems it can do anything.”

        Yes. And your mockery conflating heat waves and polar air movements may be persuasive in Trump circles but we both know that it is simple sophistry.

        Weather does happen and can be quite variable BUT weather is powered by heat in the atmosphere and ocean. More heat in the system means extreme weather becomes more likely. Physics 101.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Actually, it is the opposite. A warmer world is more stable.

          Weather is driven by temperature differences, not absolute heat content.

          Warming in response to the greenhouse effect is not uniform. It warms more toward the poles than the equator, more in winter than in summer, more during the night than during the day. All of those reduce temperature gradient.


          1. Uh, you don’t pull the “facts” you spread from advocacy groups? Yeah, right.

            With that said, the first link was to material posted by the United States Government under the Presidency of Donald Trump. Hardly an “advocacy group.”

            As for the other two, it is not clear which facts they share are false because you do not like the policies they advocate?

            Bottom line, the theory that a warmer planet will have less severe weather is not supported by evidence.

            By the way, thanks for sharing the good news about polar bear populations.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Again, the references are in the ‘At a glance’ links at the bottom. and mostly to the IPCC itself.

            The severe weather stuff is mostly the result of the Expanding Bullseye as explained by Bjorn Lomberg in FALSE ALARM which I have recommended before,


          3. It’s all so simple, except when it’s not.

            If you’ve seen a picture of a snow capped mountain in the summer, you’re seeing the snow line, the altitude above which, at that latitude snow does not melt.

            In the polar regions, that is about 2000 feet. The central ice sheets in Greenland and Antartica are 2 miles thick. They are above the snow line.

            Ice can be lost along the coast as glaciers flow to lower altitudes, but the central ice sheets cannot melt unless you relocate the continents closer to the equator, or you can find a giant hair drier.


          4. “No, it doesn’t”

            Huh? Mr. Science, are you sure about that?

            Yeah, we know that the melting of floating ice will not raise sea levels, but the melting of the ice on land in Greenland and Antarctica will do exactly that. Adam referred to the poles – plural.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. “But Greenland and Antartica are still gaining ice mass faster on the central ice sheets that they are losing it along the coasts.”

            That “alternative fact” speaks to the quality of your cherry-picked information sources.

            Both Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice and the rate of loss is accelerating.




            Liked by 1 person

          6. “It’s all so simple, except when it’s not.”

            Maybe it is just me, but this somewhat condescending science lecture seems a very poor substitute for simply admitting that once again you have buttressed your opinions with “alternative facts.” It is NOT TRUE that “Greenland and Antartica are still gaining ice mass faster on the central ice sheets that they are losing it along the coasts.” It is FALSE.

            It is obvious that you want your opinions to be taken seriously and the cites that you provide to be trusted. This kind of bullshit does not help in that cause. The opposite in fact.


  3. This quote captures the key assertion of the editorial:

    “In short, there wasn’t sufficient baseload power from coal and nuclear to support the grid [in Texas]. Baseload power is needed to stabilize grid frequency amid changes in demand and supply. When there’s not enough baseload power, the grid gets unbalanced and power sources can fail. The more the grid relies on intermittent renewables like wind and solar, the more baseload power is needed to back them up.

    “But politicians don’t care about grid reliability until the power goes out. And for three decades politicians from both parties have pushed subsidies for renewables that have made the grid less stable.”

    The technical point is that wind and solar at best can function as add-ons to a system that doesn’t need them to meet 100% of demand. The regulatory or political mistake was to allow wind and solar to displace capacity instead of merely adding to it.

    I suppose a case can be made for having two power systems, one based on renewable energy, the other on non-renewable energy. But one of them needs to be able to operate completely without the other. Wind and solar using current technology cannot.


    1. This map shows very clearly what the real problem in Texas has been in this and in past power failures . . .

      Texas isolated itself from the rest of the nation to avoid the regulations of the Federal Power Commission. Had it not done so, the entire energy capacity of the country would have been available to make up for the shortfalls created by their coal and gas plant outages.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. RE: “Texas isolated itself from the rest of the nation to avoid the regulations of the Federal Power Commission.”

        Fair enough. Sounds like a government or political failure to me, which is consistent with WSJ’s argument.


        1. Yes, it was a government failure. That is what happens when special interests can buy politicians.

          What is probably left out of the WSJ article is the strong possibility that the Texas system would not have suffered this failure if it had been interconnected and could draw on less stressed power stations outside of Texas.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. “Wind and solar using current technology cannot.”

      Currently, no. But progress continues to grow in R&D on storage and also growing capacity of the generation of power using renewable sources and those will go a long way to the goal.

      And wasn’t it Obama who pressed for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy and was vilified for it by the fossil fuel supporters?


    3. …”renewables that have made the grid less stable.””

      I wonder how ADDING capacity makes the grid less stable. The thought appears to be the usual denial drivel as to why renewables are bad.

      And tell me when in the past three decades subsidies were cut for fossil fuels.


      1. RE: “I wonder how ADDING capacity makes the grid less stable.”

        As I explained, Texas both added wind and solar and subtracted former capacity. The grid became “less stable” in the sense that risk of failure increased.

        RE: “And tell me when in the past three decades subsidies were cut for fossil fuels.”

        There are no subsidies for fossil fuels. What you may be thinking of are standard depreciation allowances that apply across the mining industry, but these are not similar to the direct subsidies granted to renewable energy programs.


      2. Seriously?

        When you add to the base load with inconstant sources it is inherently less stable.

        A nuclear plant can put out the same power day in and day out for decades but wind and solar vary by the hour and here is no throttle to increase them when needed.


        1. Nuclear is a point I believe you and I agree on. The larger issues there are the costs associated with 1) construction and 2) disposal of waste.

          And if Texas hadn’t separated itself, there would have been ample sources available.


        2. And when you add a Texas governor singing different tunes based on who he is talking with:



          From the second link:
          “One nuclear reactor and several coal-fired plants went offline, but “Texas is a gas state,” Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas, told The Texas Tribune. And “gas is failing in the most spectacular fashion right now.” Instruments and other components at gas-fired power plants iced over, and “by some estimates, nearly half of the state’s natural gas production has screeched to a halt due to the extremely low temperatures,” as electric pumps lost power and uninsulated pipelines and gas wells froze, the Tribune reports.”

          And this: “According to ERCOT, wind power generation is actually exceeding projections.”


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