Texas doesn’t have enough thermal capacity to prevent devastating blackouts

Since August 2023, the electric grid operator in Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), has issued at least 10 conservation appeals asking residents to reduce electricity usage.

ERCOT even paid over $31 million to a bitcoin miner to cut electricity usage.

The energy disaster unfolding in the Lone Star State has so far been expensive, deadly, and predictable.

While you can find different people blaming different types of energy sources in Texas – whether it be the failure of wind and solar to produce energy when the wind stops blowing and sun stops shining, or outages of thermal generators due to heavy strain – the real issue plaguing Texas is poor energy policy.

How do we know this?

Because the weaknesses of different power plants are not unique to Texas. They are widely known and exist on almost every electric grid in the world.

Wind and solar need the wind and sun to produce electricity. Thermal generators need more maintenance when under the strain of heavy use and ramping for the fluctuations of renewable generation. If the wind doesn’t blow and sun doesn’t shine, you need other power plants available to produce electricity. If thermal outages occur, you need a reserve to call on to fill the gap.

Thermal capacity in Texas hasn’t grown since 2003

The reason Texas is in the situation it’s in is because energy policy in the state doesn’t realistically take the weaknesses of energy sources into account. It neither has backup power for when wind and solar are unavailable, nor sufficient reserves for thermal outages.

For example, Texas is in the middle of a population boom and has been for quite some time. Naturally, more people in the state have led to an increase in electricity demand.

The only resources Texas has built to meet this increase in electricity demand, however, have been wind and solar power plants – resources that are completely weather-dependent and may not be producing any electricity at all. (See graph below).

As you can see, electricity demand has increased by over 40 percent, while thermal capacity has remained flat since 2003. In other words, to meet a 30,000 MW growth in demand, ERCOT built over 50,000 MW of wind and solar, and it is currently failing to keep the lights on without weekly appeals to conserve energy.

This is one instance of Texas energy policy (or the lack of one) being completely out of touch with the realities of power plant technologies, and why the current situation in Texas can rightly be pinned on the state’s overreliance on wind and solar.

Texas is now at the point where it doesn’t have enough thermal, dispatchable to meet peak demand in the state.

Even if no thermal power plant outages took place (which is highly unlikely), Texas would need wind and solar generation to provide enough electricity for Texas families and businesses. And, as mentioned before, wind and solar may not be producing any electricity at all.

High demand plus low wind equals conservation appeal

Nearly all of the conservation appeals issued by ERCOT since August have been during times of high demand and low wind output when the sun is setting.

On each of these days, extremely high demand was paired with extremely low wind speeds, when wind had been producing as low as 3-8 percent of its total capacity.

Natural gas was the main source of energy during all conservation appeal events.

Sometimes, all it takes is low wind speeds

Worst of all, demand doesn’t actually need to be too high to force ERCOT to issue a conservation notice.

On August 29 and 30, the only days ERCOT had to issue a conservation appeal when electricity demand didn’t reach 80,000 MW, wind produced an average of 9 and 11 percent of its capacity, respectively, which were the two lowest wind averages in August and September of this year. (See August 30 above).

This means that roughly 90 percent of all the wind energy on the grid – the energy source ERCOT has built the most to supply electricity for an increase in demand since 2003 – sat completely dormant for two days in a row.

Since wind, as the main energy source built to meet a growth in electricity demand, hasn’t been showing up to work, it can correctly be blamed for capacity shortfalls in the state.

Blaming natural gas outages for the problems in Texas over wind and solar would be similar to a company blaming existing employees for the fact that new hires aren’t showing up to work, simply because a couple existing employees called into work sick.

Grid issues in Texas were predictable

What is happening in Texas regarding the electric grid is the predictable result of an energy policy devoid of realistic measures to account for the pitfalls of weather-dependent resources.

As early as 2018, before the 2021 blackouts, I wrote a warning to Minnesota about the possibilities of blackouts if the state were to follow in a similar direction as Texas:

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.

Some critics highlight other unfortunate realities about the Texas grid, such as the failure to weatherize thermal generators from extreme weather events.

However, as mentioned before, even with zero thermal outages, Texas would still need wind and solar to show up in order to keep the lights on. This fact alone suggests the real failure of energy policy in Texas has been the overreliance on wind and solar to meet an influx of electricity demand since the early 2000’s.

Unless the voluntary conservation appeals issued by ERCOT become mandatory ones (which would be equivalent to rolling blackouts), wind and solar cannot power a grid on their own and should never be relied upon solely to meet a growth in demand.

Not acknowledging this reality is why ERCOT is struggling to prevent blackouts.