Wind When We Need It


There is much to admire about Texas, and no, this is not a political commentary on Texas Governor Rick Perry or his run for President.  In the energy space, Texas has been a leader since Spindletop blew its top and put oil on the map for the Lone Star State.  Texas has also been a leader in both offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and onshore development of its unconventional oil and gas resources using horizontal drilling.

I had the privilege to be part of the clean energy vanguard in Austin, Texas in the 1980’s as Assistant City Manager for Utilities & Finance.  We pushed energy efficiency hard in those days to avoid having to invest capital in a new power plant sooner than needed.  Our Conservation Power Plant assembled a collection of energy efficiency and demand side management programs that added up to the equivalent to another coal plant like the ones we shared with the Lower Colorado River Authority.  We invested in wind and solar before it was fashionable.  We tried waste to energy and even a manure burner in West Texas looking for ways to reduce our impact and improve our efficiency.

Texas has not been a shrinking bluebonnet when it comes to wind energy either.  The West Texas wind farms are the envy of the nation for their productive potential.  The only thing holding them back was adequate transmission to get that wind energy to market and so Texas has been building transmission to make it so.

There is nothing wrong with the Texas strategy of diversifying its energy resources to include wind and other renewable sources.  But Texas is learning that while it may be cleaner energy, it might not be sufficient when heat waves drives up demand or cold snaps takes units offline.

Top 5 States with Wind Power Capacity Installed, 2010:  
  1.       Texas
  2.       Iowa
  3.       California
  4.       Minnesota
  5.      Washington
10, 135 MW
3,675 MW
3,179 MW
2,432 MW
2,356 MW

Texas has 10,135 megawatts of installed wind-generation capacity.  As you see from the American Wind Energy Association chart above that gives Texas bragging rights about doing things big in the Lone Star State.   But Texas is also the perfect laboratory for energy policy because the ERCOT grid isolates the state from the rest of the nation and forces it to confront the realities of balancing energy reliability with other policy choices.

Over the last year in both winter and summer peak demand periods the wind resources were of little use.  That 10,000 megawatts that cost Texas $17billion in investment in wind capacity and another $8 billion for transmission to deliver produced only about 1,500 MW or less than 2 percent of the state’s peak demand of 67,929 megawatts on the hottest August day this summer.  Off-peak wind performance improved to about 5,000 MW or about 50 percent of wind’s capacity but Texas did not need it then.

The reasons wind performed poorly are varied and logically explainable by weather patterns, meteorological conditions, but that was still tough for a rugged Texan to accept when the lights were about to go out.  And that ends up being the big lesson from the Lone Star State about an over-reliance on any one fuel or technology.  Each choice of energy supply has its quirks, and the goal of integrated resource planning is to balance those advantages and disadvantages in ways that produce the least cost, best fit portfolio of resources that will assure the highest reliability and the lowest cost.

The good news is that energy efficiency and demand response programs worked well to reduce peak demand when Texas needed it most, but there is only so much help it can offer.

So it is a fair question for Texans to be asking their state and utility officials—“If we had spent that $25 billion on load following resources would we have had a better result?”

Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute who has been following this story pointed out in a piece called Wind Energy Myth  that $25 billion would have produced about 5,000 megawatts of new nuclear generation capacity, or 25,000 megawatts of efficient and load following natural-gas-fired capacity to meet those peak demand days.

So what?

So renewable energy is a good thing and wind energy has been the first to reach grid parity levels.  It is clean and helps us diversify our dependence on coal and reduce emissions.  But like every energy resource it has its advantages and disadvantages.  In the Texas experience we have also re-learned the lesson of having too much of a good thing might not be sufficient to assure reliability.