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Texas gas, power players need to winterize, but witnesses differ over renewables

Highlights

NERC warned after 2011 outages

Extreme weather happening more often

Almost half of capacity offline at peak

Houston — Witnesses testifying to a US House of Representatives subcommittee agreed March 24 that the Texas grid needs to winterize its generation fleet and infrastructure, but disagreed about how much renewable power contributed to the massive blackouts during the Feb. 14 winter storm.

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US Representative Lizzie Fletcher noted that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation had made recommendations for winterizing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas grid following the February 2011 freeze that resulted in limited rotating outages totaling about 4 GW, affecting 3.2 million power customers, due to insufficient capacity.

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"Insufficient and inadequately weatherized generation in Texas and the middle South states has been a growing concern for us since 2012," said NERC President and CEO James Robb, during a hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

As a result, the Texas Legislature required the Public Utility Commission of Texas to require Texas power market participants to develop and implement winterization plans, but specific standards were not set and the plans were not closely monitored, Robb said.

Extreme weather

"However, after another cold snap in the middle South resulted in unplanned load shedding in 2018, we concluded that severe cold in the South could no longer be treated as rare, and that a mandatory and auditable approach to weatherization was required," Robb said. Therefore, NERC is working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to set such standards.

US Representative Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Texas, noted that ERCOT was "four to five minutes away from the entire grid crashing ... 25 to 30 million people, the second most populous state in our union, without any power."

"This happened because of the neglect that the Republicans in Austin have shown toward the grid for a very long time – the lack of oversight, the lack of planning," Veasey said. "We have to do something about this."

US Representative Morgan Griffith, a Republican from Virginia, noted that the Texas Legislature is moving six bills to address energy sector reliability issues.

US Representative Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas, said, "Texans can and will solve this problem within their borders."

Generation outages

US Representative Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, who chairs the subcommittee, said, "What happened in Texas makes clear that extreme weather events can affect all forms of energy, including coal, wind, natural gas and even nuclear."

"Extreme weather events are devastating and happening more frequently," DeGette said. "We need to accept this fact and prepare. We need to stop kicking the can down the road. Adapting to and confronting climate change will not come cheap, and it will not come easily, but if we don't do anything, we will continue to incur huge losses in lives, property damages and threats to our power supply."

At the peak of the crisis, 52.3 GW of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas' 107.5 GW of generation capacity was out of service, with the largest totals being natural gas-fired generation, at about 26 GW, followed by wind at about 18 GW, coal at about 6 GW, nuclear around 2 GW and solar around 2 GW.

Disputes over renewables

But Michael Shellenberger, founder and president of Berkeley, California-based Environmental Progress, cited other numbers, pointing out that at the nadir of the Texas wind fleet's output, it was producing just about 2% of its nameplate capacity, while nuclear power was producing around 73% of its nameplate capacity at its lowest point.

"Adding more variable energy sources to electricity grids, all else being equal, might not in itself make electricity less reliable," Shellenberger said in his prepared remarks. "But all else is not equal. The significant integration of variable energies leads to the loss of traditional power plants and the construction of new transmission lines to weather-dependent energy projects that are unreliable in extreme weather events. The policy interventions required to ensure friendly investment conditions for renewables, including the lowering of acceptable reserve margins or the counting of 'average' contributions, even if reduced, from variable renewables, are interfering with grid resiliency."

In contrast, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner maintained that all of the generation types failed, and the gas-fired generation fleet supplies a much larger portion – about half – of ERCOT's power.

"The current infrastructure is outdated," Turner said. "And any claim that this systemwide failure was caused primarily by the use of renewables is blatantly false. Natural gas plants, coal-fired plants and [a unit of] the southeast nuclear facility came offline, which account for 67% of our energy supply."

Turner asserted that all of the power used in the City of Houston's municipal facilities are renewable, but US Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, disputed this assertion, as that power cannot be supplied by solar power at night and by wind power when it is not blowing.

"So far, I have heard some extremely partisan rhetoric," Crenshaw said. "That is not helpful. ... There was a baseload problem here in Texas. ... The only way you get that reliability is through baseload power – coal, natural gas and nuclear."