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Power Outages in Texas: What Minnesota Can Learn

In recent years, the electrical grid in Texas (ERCOT) has had moments of almost utter collapse. In 2008, a storm swept through the state causing a large amount of wind capacity to rapidly go off-grid when electricity demand was highest.

The grid’s frequency suddenly dropped, leaving many residents without power for up to four hours.

This occurred when wind energy was responsible for merely 4 percent of Texas’s electricity generation. It happened again in 2011 when record low temperatures in Texas resulted in record high energy demand. (In Minnesota, wind energy currently generates 18 percent of our electricity.)

Newer coal plants across Texas that weren’t tested to handle such a large increase in production suddenly went offline. Unfortunately, there was not enough power from natural gas plants to back up the loss in coal generation, and wind turbines decreased in production due to ice build-up on the blades. Texas was forced to turn to older coal plants that were sitting idle to get the grid back on-line.

Of course, these outages were caused by many other factors and not entirely attributable to the failure of wind turbines. Bad central planning had plenty to do with it.

But the information we do get from these outages is crucial for understanding how the power grid works, what it needs to be reliable, and how renewable energy sources such as wind and solar affect it.

It also tells us that Minnesota is heading down the wrong path when it comes to its energy policies.

There are three things we can learn from these power outages in Texas:

1. Increasing the use of wind energy increases the risk of power outages

Some Minnesota lawmakers want to reach a point where renewable energy sources provide 50 percent of the state’s energy consumption. This will require wind energy to act as though it were a base-load energy source.

But it’s not a base-load energy provider.

Base-load energy sources must be able to produce energy at all times of the day and are responsible for keeping up the minimum amount of electricity that a market needs. Wind energy, however, cannot produce electricity at all times because it requires the wind to be blowing. Therefore, it is a highly inefficient base-load source.

If wind energy does become the main source of electricity that utilities and consumers rely upon, utility companies will need to be in the business of predicting wind patterns more than ever.

When the wind stops blowing and wind energy production decreases, as it did in Texas in 2008 when available wind capacity suddenly fell from 1,700 MW to 300 MW, it will cause massive frequency changes in the electrical grid that can result in power outages.

Energy consumers will still need electricity, and that demand will have to be delivered through other sources.

This leads to number two.

2. For every MW of wind capacity, another MW must exist somewhere else

When something unexpected occurs and wind energy suddenly goes off the grid, utilities will either rely on fossil fuel generation or invest in expensive battery storage for wind energy.

Utility companies understand this. Minnesota utilities plan on retiring more than 1,800 MW of coal energy to replace it with over 7,000 MW of wind, natural gas, and solar energy. According to these numbers, for every one MW lost in coal generation, another three are being added elsewhere.

This means that ratepayers are paying huge costs to build wind farms while simultaneously paying for the capital costs, operational costs, and fuel costs of reliable power plants needed to back up wind.

To get a better idea of this, imagine being forced (by the government) to buy an electric car that runs 50 percent of the time. You would need to pay for this vehicle as well as the fuel and other expenses of another regular car for when the electric car does not work.

Sounds ridiculous, but it’s exactly what Minnesota is doing with wind energy.

So, for those of you in Duluth who are hesitant about a natural gas plant going up nearby because you want renewables instead, remember that natural gas plants will be necessary if the state wants to shut down coal plants to make way for renewable energy.

But also remember, you’ll be paying for it all.

3. Reliable plants are necessary for a reliable grid

The 2011 power outage in Texas showed how crucial it is for a power grid to have reliable energy sources.

Many wind turbines wouldn’t turn because of massive ice build-up. Newer coal plants failed when they were needed most because they were not designed nor tested to produce during winter weather. If that weren’t enough, natural gas plants either failed to ramp up in time to replace the lost power or couldn’t obtain the necessary fuel to do so because gas suppliers kept it for themselves. The state’s electrical system then turned to seasoned coal power plants for their energy needs.

Minnesota power plants are obviously more equipped to deal with winter weather, but a massive storm or a lack of wind could at any moment reduce wind generation to almost nothing. If wind provided 50 percent of the state’s electricity, this sudden loss of power would take an enormous effort to replace.

Older coal plants may not be as “clean” as renewable energy sources, but they got the job done for Texas when other sources couldn’t and were proven to be necessary. That’s why Minnesota should think twice about retiring our coal fleet.

Conclusion

Clearly, Minnesota power plants are designed for colder weather. But what our state won’t be ready for is an unexpected change in wind speeds.

If our state abandons fossil fuel energy sources and replaces them with unreliable energy sources like wind and solar, power outages seen in Texas and elsewhere might start occurring here if our grid lacks suitable back-up sources.

Mitchell Rolling (marolling20@gmail.com) is an intern at Center of the American Experiment. 

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