The same sun that is scorching Texas is keeping the air conditioning running, no matter what certain Lone Star legislators say.
JULY 4, 2023
Texas has been breaking all sorts of records, and that’s mostly bad news.
As a heat dome settled over Texas in June, trapping brutal heat and humidity underneath, high temperature records were broken across the state. It was so hot in Texas, meteorologist Ben Noll noted, that the only rivals on planet Earth were “the Sahara Desert and Persian Gulf area.” The National Weather Service in Houston apologized for the “potentially deadly” and “oppressive and persistent heat” smothering the state: “Sorry, y’all. We’re gonna get back to our typical levels of heat someday, but not real soon. Keep up the fight against the heat!”
Texans, obviously, cranked up the air conditioning. And that was largely responsible for a new all-time record for energy demand in the state — 80,878 megawatts on June 27 — though the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), didn’t expect that record to hold long.
The Texas power grid — which, uniquely, only serves Texas — has shuddered and occasionally broken in recent years under the weight of extreme weather, a growing population and aging infrastructure. But so far, the grid has held up this summer. In fact, ERCOT has only asked customers to voluntarily reduce electricity use once during the heat wave.
And that’s due in large part to another record Texas has shattered this summer: Solar and wind farms set a new high water mark for renewable energy generation — 31,468 megawatts — on June 28, helping offset the 8,000 megawatts knocked offline at ailing natural gas and coal-fired plants. “Wind and solar are giving us a big enough buffer that even when we have a handful of power plants go offline, it isn’t causing disruptions,” Dan Cohan at Rice University in Houston told The Washington Post.
How are solar and wind power saving the summer?
Keeping the air conditioning flowing through the extreme heat has been a group effort — Texas subscribes to an all-of-the-above energy strategy — but the rapid buildup of renewable energy generation has kept the state from rationing power as in summers past. And solar energy was the surprise MVP during the weeks of triple-digit heat.
“The same sun that heats up our buildings and drives our need for AC is the same sun that makes electricity with solar panels,” Joshua Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, told Texas Monthly. “It lines up pretty well.”
Solar electricity “has been a workhorse during the afternoon hours, fulfilling more than 15 percent of the state’s power needs during some of the most critical periods,” Russell Gold wrote at Texas Monthly. Natural gas and wind turbines generate more electricity, “so solar can’t solely be credited with saving our bacon” this summer, but “when it’s so hot out that the bacon will sizzle on the sidewalk, the sun’s largesse has played a key role in preventing brownouts.”
Texas is the leading state for wind power and No. 2 for solar, behind California, but it is trouncing all comers in building new solar and wind farms — and also the third leg of the renewable energy triad: battery storage. “Mack truck-size” battery arrays, which step in when “power plants sputter,” are “ideal for harnessing wind and solar energy,” the Post reported, and they “played a crucial role in avoiding outages” in Texas.
“I really think solar and storage are really the stories of the summer,” said Doug Lewin, president of Stoic Energy and author of the Texas Energy and Power Newsletter. Over the past few years, Texas has “expanded its battery storage to over 3,000 megawatts — enough energy to power the city of Austin during peak energy demand,” Arielle Samuelson wrote at her Heated Substack.
ERCOT predicts that 8,000 megawatts of battery storage will be installed by May 2024, which is “enough power to meet ERCOT’s current backup needs,” Chris Tomlinson added at the Houston Chronicle. “Companies have applied to connect 96,300 megawatts by 2030, which is more juice than the entire grid consumes at today’s peaks.” This year, though, “The real test for the ERCOT system is probably going to be late July through August,” Rhodes told Heatmap.
How did Texas get so big in renewables?
When people think of Texas, they think of oil derricks and natural gas wells, but thanks to “federal tax credits and Texas’ famously permissive regulatory environment, developers have found a welcoming environment for putting ‘steel in the ground,’ whether it’s wind farms in North Texas or utility-scale solar in sunbeaten South and West Texas,” Matthew Zeitlin wrote at Heatmap.
Texas also stepped in and built critical transmission lines to move the power being generated at wind and solar farms on happily leased land to growing population centers that need the power, Susan Sloan at clean energy company Ørsted told The Texas Tribune. And the state’s electricity market has made it easy for wind and solar power companies to get needed permits and plug into the grid, added Rob Minter at ENGIE North America. “It’s frankly superior to most of the market designs that we see across the rest of the country.”
An attractive bonus in Texas is that “wind and solar power plants don’t need water cooling,” Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources at the UT Austin, told PBS NewsHour. “And water is scarce in Texas.” Consumers, meanwhile, like renewable energy because it’s cheaper. “Wind and solar have saved tens of billions over the past decade when it comes to electricity prices,” UT’s Rhodes told Heatmap.
Do Texas Republicans support this green revolution?
It’s complicated. Many of the GOP lawmakers that dominate the Texas government argue that wind and solar power are unreliable compared to power plants that run on fossil fuel. Oil and gas production is also a significant source of tax revenue for the state, as well as political contributions. This past legislative session Republicans advanced a bill to kneecap wind and solar power through onerous permitting requirements, and they gave a boost to natural gas plants with special financial incentives.
But “two decades ago, the state’s conservative leaders laid the groundwork for Texas to become a clean energy powerhouse,” the Post reported. Gov. George W. Bush (R) deregulated the state’s energy market in 1999 and called for 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy to come online in the following decade, while his successor, Gov. Rick Perry (R), backed the multibillion-dollar push to put in the transmission lines from windy, sunny West Texas.
“There is a sort of a cultural thing in Texas, which is often irrational, that renewables are bad because they’re against oil and gas,” Stoic Energy’s Lewin told Heated. Given the benefits, “it should be safe for any elected official to talk about an energy transition, but they don’t perceive it that way.”
The oil and gas industry see the upside, however, and they are investing in renewables, Lewin said. “We saw this play out during the session, where some of the oil and gas players were not as full-throated against renewables, and might have even been trying to stop some of the worst attacks on renewables, because they’re trying to buy them.”
Are solar and wind reliable energy sources?
“No source of electricity is 100% reliable,” Tomlinson wrote at the Chronicle, but “the Texas electric grid’s biggest failures so far this summer are coming from the supposedly most reliable generators: fossil fuels.”
Some GOP lawmakers are “pushing for this idea that wind and solar are not reliable,” but “what we found in Winter Storm Uri, the February 2021 storm that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and a massive blackout, it was the natural gas infrastructure that froze up, and natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants that went offline,” UT Austin’s Webber told NewsHour. “And we’re finding out that solar power plants really perform well when it’s sunny outside,” which is also when it’s really hot.
In fact, “there is a very strong case to be made that solar in particular is far more reliable than coal and gas,” Lewin told Heated. “We know exactly when the sun is coming up and when it’s going down.”
What can other states learn from Texas’ renewables juggernaut?
“Texas is experiencing what everyone in the country is going to be going through in some form or fashion in the years ahead,” Aaron Zubaty, CEO of energy storage company Eolian, told the Post. The current inferno and recent ice storms in Texas “are the types of weather events that can cause weird things to occur that no one has ever thought about at all types of plants.”
“We basically built our grid for the weather of the past,” with transmission systems mostly from the 1930s to 1970 and a lot of our modern power plants in the ’70s and ’80s,” Webber told NewsHour. “It was cooler then. And we need to prepare the system for a hotter future,” where “the heat we’re feeling now in Texas and the high temperatures and high demand for air conditioning might be the new normal. Next year might be hotter. So, we have to prepare for that.”
One lesson Texas has to offer is that “only a diverse mix can keep us alive during extreme weather,” the Chronicle’s Tomlinson wrote. “Solar facilities are cranking during the day, and some wind still blows at night,” and the “new batteries kept the lights on during the two unplanned outages, and they will do more in the future.” Batteries will get cheaper, but it will take years to put them in place, and “fossil fuels will always provide some backup,” he added. But “the grid must evolve to mitigate climate change. Texas will eventually rely mostly on clean energy most of the time.”
“I think we’re a postcard from the future,” and “the stakes are very, very, very high” not just for other states but other countries, Lewin said. “I think a lot of places could learn from Texas from what we do right. The inverse is also true. This is the energy state,” he told Heated, “and we have to get this right.”