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Inside Clean Energy: Explaining the Crisis in Texas

Even before the cold weather hit Texas last weekend, some people said the crisis showed the stupidity of switching to clean energy sources like wind and sun.

When power went out across the state, the fallout turned out to be much worse than last year’s power outages in California, an event that inspired an energy debate. But the problem in Texas was more than just the failure of any type of energy source. Energy analysts quickly realized that much of the problem was the inability of natural gas plants to operate in snow, ice and cold. Other technologies were also not working, including poorly performing wind farms. As I write this Wednesday, millions of people are still powerless.

Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher at Georgia Tech, has spent most of the last week talking to people like me explaining what’s going on.

The catastrophe in Texas is happening at the same time with two different but related problems: Climate change is causing extreme weather conditions beyond what the grid can handle, and electricity generating companies are moving away from fossil fuels. costs and concerns related to changing climate. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson blamed the massive cuts in the transition to clean energy when, in the panic of a crisis, the root of the problem was actually extreme air.

Still, there are legitimate concerns about how a cleaner grid will cope with extreme conditions. This does not mean that we have to build a group of coal-fired power plants, but that the current and future grid must cope with extreme weather conditions, and any system – even a mostly coal-fired system – will likely break when faced with such pressure.

I asked Grubert what he saw and what lessons we should learn from it. The interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Based on what we know so far, how would you explain what went wrong on the Texas grid last week?

I think the most important thing to understand about this is that these are extremely difficult conditions. So there’s a lot of talk about what’s happening on the grid, and there’s a lot of talk about where fuels are responsible and whether there are certain demand patterns that are responsible, and things like that. But I think what we really need to understand is that the deep, deep cold throughout the state of Texas is extraordinarily extraordinary and extraordinarily challenging.

As this started, we saw some familiar comments, like the clock where people talk about how unreliable renewable energies are, the clock blaming almost renewable energies. What did you think when you saw this?

Emily Grubert

I have a family in both Oklahoma and Texas and they are texting me about these really crazy predictions of how cold it will be for a week or two. And even if I saw this prediction, I predicted that power would probably run out and people would die. This is a very serious emergency. So I see a bunch of reactions getting too focused, “Ah, yes, that’s because the grid is renewable” and, as you said, it comes to an inconvenient conclusion here. I would like to point out that I am not arguing that fully renewable grids will take care of this. But I think what’s really important to understand what’s going on here is that these are conditions that mean that no grill is well suited to tackle, meaning there isn’t a certain kind of cold. the world it has cooled to this much – but the circumstances are far beyond the design requirements associated with this very complex machine and system.

There’s a climate change adaptation problem here, and then there’s an energy transition issue, and it’s happening simultaneously. So how do we understand this?

What really worries me and has worried me for a long time about how to make sense of it is that we really understand that we will fail sometimes and make sure we have a clear vision of where we are going, what we are trying to do with the system. Because it is very, very easy to accept failure as an indication that it is going the wrong way, it may be more simply about the fact that we are learning how to do it. We cannot spend too much time learning how to do this. People will die because we make bad choices or make mistakes, and things like that, and that’s not what anyone wants. However, coming to the conclusion that the only solution from such an event is to build a bunch of brand new coal plants, I think it’s a very difficult and dangerous aspect that people are beginning to express.

Part of me thinks it’s a complete reaction when I see inevitable comments about the reliability of wind and sun. But another part of me thinks there is something legitimate here, like when you get into these crazy winter weather events, this presents real concerns for a grid that will be heavily dependent on wind and solar plus batteries, right?

Yes, and I think one of the things I’m trying to highlight is that it’s a mistake to assume that the systems we have will perform as well as they did in the past. And this is a different matter from an all-zero carbon grid under certain conditions, or whether it will outperform something along those lines in the future. Therefore, we have to admit that comparing a future zero-carbon system with the historical performance of a fossil-based system is actually not a correct counterfactual.

Xcel Energy’s Grand Plan: This week I wrote about how a national discussion on the energy transition for ICN sparked high interest in Xcel Energy’s proposal on how to manage Minnesota power plants between today and 2034. Xcel was the first major US agency to set a goal. to net zero emission. And now the company says it wants to build a new natural gas power plant with new wind and solar. Environmental groups say a new gas plant is incompatible with an effort to reach net zero, and the groups are publishing alternative plans for Xcel. State regulators are reviewing the evidence and making a decision this year.

Xcel Energy proposes to stop burning coal at Sherburne County Production Station in Becker, Minnesota, and install a natural gas power plant on site. Credit: Tony Webster
Xcel Energy proposes to stop burning coal at Sherburne County Production Station in Becker, Minnesota, and build a new natural gas power plant on site. Credit: Tony Webster

Understanding the Texas Grid: Much has been written about the crisis in Texas. A cleverly digging into the underlying issues from energy researcher Joshua Rhodes at the University of Texas and Caitlin Smith, vice president of AB Power Advisors, writing at Forbes.com. They note that Texas generally peaks in summer electricity demand, and their power systems are not well-equipped to deal with such demand in winter.

Natural Gas Prices Are Rising: Bryce Gray’s St. The extreme cold has led to a massive increase in the market price of natural gas, which leads to high costs for most gas-heated consumers, Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Fluctuation in the gas market used to be a usual feature of the heating season, but has become less in recent years due to mild winters and the abundant gas supply of the United States. The price of gas is relevant to the renewable energy debate because wind and solar are in competition with gas in the market.

Meet the New Boss at FERC: From publishing fiery dissent as a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Trump, Richard Glick began leading the panel now under Biden’s administration. Last week he talked to reporters about how his office wants to better assess climate change and environmental justice in their work, and this encourages many advocates who argue that the FERC should take a much more active role in addressing these issues. Catherine Morehouse has a story about how she talks about Glick’s new role in Utility Dive.

Inside Clean Energy is a weekly news and analysis newsletter on the energy transition from ICN. Send news tips and questions to [email protected]

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