Policymaker should embrace renewables and address reliability by incentivizing new technology and reducing demand.
By Michael E. Webber
1:30 AM on Jul 24, 2021 CDT
This op-ed is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion section to explore ideas and policies for strengthening electric reliability. Find the full series here: Keeping the Lights On.
Texas takes justifiable pride in its status as a world energy leader.
Unfortunately, many current state leaders seem to have missed that lesson.
Yet many of the same state leaders still want to hobble Texas’ vital clean energy industries by singling them out for additional costs — costs that everyday Texans will pay in their electricity bills.
Solar and wind power also have fostered economic development in rural communities as few industries have. They help Texas attract large employers who are trying to meet sustainability goals. And wind, solar and battery storage now comprise the vast preponderance of new capacity set to plug into the Texas grid in coming years.
Making it harder to install these power plants to accommodate the growth we know is coming increases the likelihood of shortfalls in generating capacity, which raises the risk of future blackouts.
Despite Texas’ documented clean energy successes, too many leaders have embraced the notion that Texas needs to build even more gas plants to prevent future blackouts. But our problem in February wasn’t that we had too few gas power plants — it was that too few of Texas’ power plants were running: either they failed from the cold or they could not get the gas they needed when supplies froze up.
It’s true that wind and solar power had their own challenges and did not pick up enough slack to cover the gas failures. It’s also true that wind and solar generators performed as state planners expected them to during the extreme weather.
But if the last six months have taught us anything, it’s that gas and nuclear plants aren’t as reliable as they claim if they break down or supplies freeze up. A regulator-mandated gas-plant building spree would be expensive for Texas customers and would increase emissions, but it wouldn’t guarantee that we would never experience devastating blackouts.
Instead, the gas plants and pipelines we already have should be required to prepare more thoroughly for cold weather. Further, policymakers should support solutions that reduce electricity demand — think efficiency and rooftop solar. Texas regulators also can put a price on reliability, rewarding customers who reduce their demand for electricity when supply is tight by turning off nonessential appliances such as pool pumps and water heaters. Such financial rewards to reduce demand are a much faster, cheaper and more effective strategy than building new power plants.
And the state should encourage investment in technological advancements, like high-voltage DC transmission, microgrids and battery storage, that can move power or load up energy when it’s plentiful and cheap and send it out when it’s needed most. Storage is especially critical and private sector companies are already building huge batteries to supplement electricity when it’s needed. The Legislature can speed the process with incentives that encourage deployment.
We all know gas has been good to Texas. It has powered the state’s economy and helped decarbonize our grids by displacing coal in the power sector.
But overwrought, misleading, politically motivated claims don’t match with reality, won’t keep our lights on and won’t stop massive wealth transfers from consumers to producers.
It’s time for public officials and private-sector advocates to be honest about the benefits and shortcomings of each fuel and technology.
Leading on energy means having a diverse fuel mix, innovative solutions and forward-looking policymakers who will prioritize Texas’ long-term prosperity over short-term political agendas.
Michael E. Webber is a professor of energy resources at the University of Texas at Austin. His documentary television series, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video and local PBS stations. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.