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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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How Texas’ Troubled Grid Weathered the Winter

  • Texas has improved grid reliability by weatherizing natural gas plants and wind turbines, and by encouraging energy conservation.
  • Despite leading the U.S. in renewable energy capacity, Texas still heavily relies on natural gas for grid support during peak demand in winter.
  • The state's energy strategy reflects the global challenge of balancing rapid renewable energy adoption with the need for reliable baseload power sources.
Austin Texas

Texas’ navigation of recent frigid temperatures show the ways in which the state’s energy industry and electrical grid management have progressed – and the ways in which they haven't – since the tragically disastrous grid failure three years ago. In 2021 a grid collapse during a cold snap resulted in the death of at least 246 people across the Lone Star State. Since then, there has been concern about how the Texas grid would handle ongoing extreme weather events, as climate change makes such events more frequent and more intense. But so far, despite a spate of bone-chilling temperatures, the grid has hummed along throughout this winter season. 

So what has changed? For one thing, the reliability of natural gas. During the last few cold snaps across Texas, natural gas has been the primary supporter of the grid during peak demand for heating. During the deadly 2021 freeze, frozen natural gas plants were the primary culprit of the widespread, days-long grid failure. At the time, renewable energy was widely blamed for the failure in a highly successful misinformation campaign which has since been thoroughly debunked

In the wake of that disaster, Texas officials have “weatherized pipes and gas equipment and also shored up wind turbines and other equipment” and asked consumers to consume energy conservatively in the early morning hours when demand is highest and the grid is rendered most vulnerable. Altogether, the formula has worked to keep the grid running smoothly this winter. 

The prevalence of natural gas in the energy mix during these crucial times may come as a surprise to anyone who has been keeping an eye on Texas’ breakneck renewable energy development. The Lone Star State leads the country in terms of wind and solar deployment, blowing even California out of the water in terms of sheer volume of added renewable energy capacity. As of July of last year, Texas had added almost 3,000 MW of wind power since 2021 and 10,000 MW of solar since 2020, with utility-scale solar increasing two-fold every year since then. The state is also heavily investing in battery storage as a critical stop-gap for variable renewable energy sources. 

In fact, last year, when the grid was still extremely fragile after the 2021 disaster, experts contended that the massive addition of renewable energy capacity was the saving grace for the Texas grid during summer heat waves. “It’s all thanks to the rapid additions of solar, wind, and grid-scale battery storage in the last two years,” reported Forbes. “During this historic heat wave, it’s been all these new, low-cost wind, solar and batteries that have kept the grid afloat and Texans cool – in many cases saving lives,” Forbes writes. 

But this winter has told a different story. “We still rely a lot on natural gas,” David Spence, a professor of law and regulation at the University of Texas at Austin, told the New York Times. Echoing this sentiment, Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a research group that supports fossil fuels said, “Natural gas is critical and essential to back up wind and solar. If it’s not going to be coal, people have to look at other sources of always-on, always-available electricity.”

The scene playing out in Texas is a microcosm of the challenges of decarbonization at a global scale. Ramping up renewable energy expansion as fast as we can is critical for the health of the planet, but switching to wind and solar overnight simply isn’t feasible. Relying on baseload powers to ease the transition will be a necessary fallback in order to avoid more grid-failure tragedies (and incidences of extreme increases in energy poverty as we saw in Europe last year). But with proper planning and policy support, the amplified role of natural gas and other fossil fuels in times of crisis will continue to decline as renewables take the main stage, energy storage technology improves, and as support for nuclear – a carbon-free baseload power – continues to gain mainstream traction. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • DoRight Deikins on January 23 2024 said:
    The excuses are rampant and those in power will try and rewrite history - especially if it is a political entity such as ERCOT. I no longer live in Texas (I moved to a place far crazier and more dangerous), but what I heard from those in production is that ERCOT had forced contracts on large users of electricity to shut down in times when the grid was at risk. Unfortunately one of the groups that I heard had to shut down their electrical usage were the gas suppliers. Maybe the politicos thought gas would keep flowing without compressor stations?

    And one of the joys of a front blowing through Texas (you know there's not much between Canada and Texas except some fence posts and a few scraggly mesquite trees) is after the wind stops blowing the paint off your house, it is dead calm. So if you're a turbine operator, you have to feather your blades while it's blowin' (or your turbine will be spread across 3 counties) and then try to get it started again after the ice has frozen it solid. But since it is generally calmer than a sleeping baby, that takes some effort!

    Now there are places in Texas where the wind blows 95% of the time, hang out in Dimmit if you don't believe me, but when it's most needed, it kind'a takes a breather.

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