My favorite WSJ writer, Holman Jenkins, captures a number of lessons to be learned from the Texas blackout.
In Texas, every kind of power source suffered a variety of mechanical malfunctions due to an extraordinary icing episode, with wind power taking the worst hit by percentage. In the Northeast, the perennial challenge is trees that neighbors are reluctant to see cut down. But you only have to dig a quarter-inch into the reliability literature to see that, while weather is always with us, and while “major events” will tend to steal the show, renewable intermittency is the new systematic challenge to grid reliability. Renewables are a puzzle both directly and indirectly because they suck up investible resources that might be used for other purposes.
Engineering challenges can be solved, but the real menace is an unwillingness, expressed through politics, to pay for the greenhouse reductions we say we want.
Texans had a rough week, say it again, because of an outlier cold snap that its system was designed to handle by shutting down. Temperatures are headed back into the 50s and 60s this weekend. You, me and everyone else live in utility districts where certain emergencies, such as those caused by trees on power lines or wildfires, are also designed to be handled by systems shutting down. We live with this.
But I doubt many people will be phlegmatic when Texas-like rolling blackouts come to the Northeast or New England one of these winters, as they almost did in the 2014 polar vortex. Falling trees won’t be the culprit. The guilty party will be our choice not to invest in pipelines and backup gas plants to support our desired renewables in the face of cold spells a lot more predictable than those that landed on Texas.
This outcome is all but guaranteed unless we get a better discussion than the one we’re having. Then something else will become manifest: When the design performance limitations of utility systems come into play, it will always be in the interest of politicians and utility executives to change the subject to global warming.
It is not just politicians who change the subject. Every proponent of renewable-energy power generation tries to change the subject in ways to avoid blaming Texas windmills for the outages. This isn’t helpful, because — as any engineer will tell you — electricity can be reliable, or cheap, but not both.