Commentary: Keep Texas going with a mix of power

Matt Welch, For the Express-News

The last week has been insane for Texans. Cascading failures of our major energy systems have left many of us questioning our faith that the lights will turn on when we flip the switch or the heat will come on when we turn the dial. People are furious, and they have reason to be. It is unacceptable that more than 4 million homes and businesses went without power, some for days on end.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing by politicians, advocates of certain technologies and those convinced the current market system is completely broken.

With warming temperatures restoring the electricity we have a newfound appreciation for, we can address the questions raised by this crisis: Why did this happen, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

All the stories, all the time

When we think of the Texas electricity grid under pressure, we generally think of our hot summers when we use all available resources to power air conditioners. But warming homes also requires a lot of energy. We would be hard-pressed to find another time when all 254 Texas counties were under a winter storm warning at the same time. This put a unique strain on not just the electricity system but the natural gas system.

During our long, hot summers, most natural gas consumed in the state is feeding power plants to generate the electricity to run air conditioners. The record-setting cold introduced so much demand for natural gas heating that we were unable to deliver enough fuel for both heat and power. Unfortunately, the cold also froze some natural gas wells and pipeline capacity, so we couldn’t ramp up supply.

We will have better data in the coming days and weeks, but it appears no source of energy was untouched by this event, as we had issues with coal, nuclear and wind as well. Before the freeze even began, about 14,000 megawatts of thermal (natural gas, coal and nuclear) power plant capacity was down for maintenance. At the height of the crisis, an additional 16,000 megawatts of thermal power plants were forced offline due to fuel delivery problems or sensor and/or cooling water intake issues. Some wind farms were taken offline due to blade icing, but the lost capacity was not nearly as great.

It is plain to see that Texas’ major sources of energy — natural gas and coal — did not meet expectations. Further, this has shown that “all of the above” should not be written off as a political platitude. Instead, it should be a guiding principle of energy policy moving forward. When most people hear “all of the above,” they think of some formula that calls for both fossil fuels and renewables. However, that definition is too narrow, as we have painfully seen.

What we need is a mix of not only fossil fuels, nuclear and hydropower to provide baseload energy, but renewables like wind and solar to capitalize on low fuel costs and provide more geographic distribution. The grid of the future, however, demands more. We will also need to focus on technology like carbon capture and sequestration, energy storage in all forms, next generation demand-side management systems and responsible energy-efficiency programs.

Meeting future energy demands will call for emerging generation technologies such as hydrogen, next-generation small modular nuclear reactors, community solar and aggregated distributed responsive resources to be developed and brought online. Pair that with electricity market reforms that better align utility incentives with public well-being, and call on the power of free markets to provide competition and value reliability, and act on real-time data, increase customer choice and lower costs across the board.

No one type of technology will fix this, but creating smart markets with clear incentives to keep the lights on is the best method to power Texas during the harshest of conditions.

Matt Welch is the state director of Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation.

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