AMAC Exclusive – By Luke Allen
Texas has been America’s number one oil-producing state for decades, churning out 42.7% of all domestic oil in 2021. Yet this energy-rich state has been at risk from potentially deadly rolling blackouts all summer as hot weather continues to drive up electricity demand – a darkly ironic twist on the blackouts which resulted from extreme cold last winter that left hundreds dead. Unfortunately, Texas’s energy crisis is a red alert of what all states will face if far-left politicians dedicated to so-called “net zero carbon” polices are not stopped in their efforts to radically cut the use of cheap and reliable fossil fuels and replace them with wind, solar, and other expensive and unreliable power sources.
An overview of how the electrical grid works will help explain how Texas got into this mess. The U.S. energy grid is operated by seven Independent System Operators (ISO’s). For example, the grid that covers 15 states in the Midwest is operated by the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), while the grid that covers seven states in New England is operated by Independent System Operator-New England (ISO-NE). These system operators manage the flow of electricity through the grid. They forecast demand, set wholesale prices, and ensure the grid operates reliably.
The way that electricity flows through the grid – or how demand is met and from what geographic sources – is critically important. If electricity for a region flows from just one source, power lines and substation components can overheat and fail. Another critical variable ISOs constantly monitor is “reserve margin.” Put simply, think of reserve margin as “back-up power.” For example, assume a power plant fails, or “trips,” as can happen from time to time. Reserve margin is a measure of how much electricity is available that can be put onto the grid quickly to make up for the electricity the tripped plant was producing.
Texas is unique in that its grid is isolated from the rest of the nation; it has its own operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). This makes the state an excellent indicator of what can happen in the rest of the grid across the nation if other ISOs implement similar policies. Like other ISOs, ERCOT answers to the National Energy Regulatory Commission (NERC). It operates like a large non-profit, with 13 company officers and hundreds of employees, but is actually a co-op made up of all the energy producers in their region. In order to work for ERCOT, or any other ISO, one must undergo extensive training and be certified by NERC. Despite the fact that ISOs are co-ops, they don’t take orders from their member power generators. For power producers, it can feel like a voter’s relationship to the U.S. Senate.
Despite Texas being politically conservative and an energy-rich state, ERCOT has been infected with political correctness and a desire to virtue signal their dedication to green energy at the expense of sound energy policy. They bet heavily on renewable energy, particularly wind energy, and stood by while many of their reliable coal plants were shuttered. They then made several policy decisions that resulted in their reserve margin being almost completely dependent on wind and solar power. The result of these decisions threatens catastrophe since the wind often stops blowing during a heat wave and solar panels can get covered in snow in the winter.
Compounding the problem, the recent hot summer temperatures in Texas have created record demand for electricity as residents and businesses run their air conditioning non-stop. These high temperatures have also been accompanied by low or no wind, and thus, not enough reserve margin. The result has been to leave Texans under constant threat of blackouts throughout July, with more threatened in August. According to ERCOT, it was only voluntary cuts from consumers that enabled wide swaths of the state to avoid blackouts last month. At times this summer, wholesale power prices, which normally hover around $80 a megawatt, have peaked as high as $5,000 a megawatt.
During the winter 2021 blackouts, the lack of reserve margin due to frozen wind turbines and snow-packed solar panels resulted in an upset in the balance of electricity flow through the grid. That imbalance tripped power plants, exacerbating the problem. In addition, loss of power to electrically-operated valves on Texas’ natural gas pipelines would not allow the valves to open, robbing gas-fueled power plants of their fuel source. The result was millions left without power in sub-freezing temperatures that ultimately led to hundreds of fatalities. Those lives might have been saved had Texas kept its coal plants open.
Coal plants provide a reliable energy source in all kinds of weather. Unlike gas plants, which rely on a massive gas pipeline infrastructure, coal plants have coal piles on site that amount to 90 days of fuel and can continue to operate at full capacity in any kind of weather event.
In pursuit of the Biden administration’s net-zero carbon goals, however, coal plants across the nation are being shuttered and less reliable wind and solar plants are being built in their place. Twenty-six more coal plants are scheduled for premature retirement in the next two years alone – meaning that what the country has seen in Texas over the past year could soon become commonplace throughout the rest of the country, in blue and red states alike.
Biden’s Green New Deal-inspired energy policies are rapidly pushing the rest of the nation to the brink of blackouts. Political leaders in Washington would do well to gain wisdom from the bitter lessons Texas is learning the hard way.
Luke Allen is the pen name of a freelance writer and former Senior Energy Advisor in the Trump Administration.