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Fair Weather Energy

By Griffin Saltron, January 19, 2024


The arctic cold front that swept across Texas in mid-January elicited fears of the February 2021 freeze, Winter Storm Uri. During Winter Storm Uri, large swaths of Texas were without power for several days. Since the storm, the Texas energy grid has seen two real tests; Winter Storm Elliot in 2022 and the recent January freeze. While the grid was also tested in the summer months, summer stresses are less of a concern. In the case of heat waves, the grid is primarily stressed by demand and not supply. In contrast, winter outages are caused by relatively high demand in conjunction with reduced supply. During freezes, statewide generation is reduced because solar panels and wind turbines stop working due to a combination of ice, snow, low winds, and clouds.

 

While the early 2024 freeze was not as impactful as some believed it may be, as evidenced by ERCOT only issuing a voluntary Conservation Appeal for a total of seven hours between January 15th and 16th, it provides additional data to examine which sources of energy can be relied upon during challenging weather conditions. Examining fuel mix on normal winter days as compared to occurrences of cold blasts is the key to determining reliability. Fuel mix, as defined by ERCOT, is “a graphical representation of energy generation broken down by resource type”. This includes both renewables as well as fossil fuels. In the case of the recent freezing event, it is best to compare it to the most recent full month of data available, December of 2023. The results are as follows:

January 15-16, 2024




 Energy Source

Jan 15-16

Dec 2023 Average

Difference

Solar

5.25%

8.67%

-3.42%

Wind

13.36%

35.58%

-22.22%

Hydro

0.05%

0.03%

0.02%

Other

0.12%

0.18%

-0.05%

Natural Gas

57.35%

24.76%

32.59%

Coal and Lignite

16.69%

18.49%

-1.80%

Nuclear

7.18%

12.29%

-5.11%


These data show that not only does overall natural gas production appear to not be affected by the inclement weather, but it is able to ramp up when other sources (in this case solar and wind) fall short. While other sources of energy, except hydro, see drastic reductions in production, averaging 37% of normal production, natural gas can thrive and have a 132% increase in production. This is not just because natural gas performs better in the cold, but it is also a result of the metaphorical levy being let loose to keep the power on. This is not merely an anomaly but rather a consistent practice that can be seen during the last two impactful Winter Storms, Elliott and Uri.

Winter Storm Elliot (Dec 22-25, 2022)




 

Energy Source

Winter Storm Elliot

Dec 2022 Average (Excluding Elliot)

Difference

Solar

4.85%

4.33%

0.52%

Wind

25.24%

34.29%

-9.05%

Hydro

0.16%

0.04%

0.11%

Other

0.19%

0.19%

0.00%

Natural Gas

37.91%

25.91%

12.00%

Coal and Lignite

19.73%

20.64%

-0.91%

Nuclear

11.92%

14.60%

-2.67%


As in the case of the recent cold event, Winter Storm Elliot was not widely impactful on the power grid. During Elliott, ERCOT did not meet a threshold to issue an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) and did not even have to issue a voluntary Conservation Appeal. This is a result of a variety of factors, namely a lack of precipitation and slightly warmer temperatures. This lack of precipitation allowed solar energy to continue to be produced because cells were not covered by a layer of ice or sheet of snow. However, if conditions worsened, ERCOT planned to once again lean on non-renewable energy production to subsidize the deficit of other energy sources and keep up with demand. This is evident by ERCOT requesting and being granted permission by the U.S. Secretary of Energy to allow certain generating units “to operate in excess of their federal environmental permit limits so that [they] could provide maximum output.” A similar trend can be seen in Winter Storm Uri where even gas plants were negatively impacted.

Winter Storm Uri (February 13-17)




 

Energy Source

Winter Storm Uri

Feb 2021 Average (Excluding Uri)

Difference

Solar

1.75%

3.39%

-1.64%

Wind

11.88%

30.42%

-18.54%

Hydro

0.39%

0.22%

0.17%

Other

0.13%

0.06%

0.08%

Natural Gas

47.70%

25.74%

21.95%

Coal and Lignite

25.69%

24.70%

0.99%

Nuclear

12.46%

15.47%

-3.00%


According to the Sierra Club, “one in four gas production sites had some sort of equipment freeze during Winter Storm Uri.” Without testing the veracity of this claim, the data shows that even if this is the case, it is still natural gas and coal that led the way in returning power to millions of Texans, not renewables.


While the effort of increasing air quality and the environment is laudable, it cannot be done at the expense of human life and Texas’ ability to keep the heater on in times of crisis. In the Sierra Club’s paper on Winter Storm Uri entitled The Failure of Fossil Fuels: Learning from Winter Storm Uri, which seeks to deride natural gas despite the aforementioned reality of the event, there is a self-admission about the state of renewables in cold weather. In the Debunking Myths and Falsehoods section of the paper, the following is posted:



Put simply, while the Sierra Club claims that “wind and solar can both be prepared for extreme cold and extreme heat,” that is not Texas’ experience thus far. While the future of renewables may be bright, and through the free market, batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines may one day be able to withstand these freezing temperatures, they are not reliable in these conditions yet. As a result, emphasis should continue to be placed on the winterization of natural gas production, as that is the source of energy that keeps Texans warm.

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