TEXAS VIEW: Texas’ energy future is at risk

THE POINT: Legislators must protect wind, boost natural gas.

Those of us who saw the power go out during the winter storm in 2021, or who worried through rolling blackouts in the record-breaking heat of the summer, are all too aware that Texas has an energy problem.

The nature of the problem is fairly simple: There are more of us in Texas than there ever were before, and just about every one of us is using more electricity to power our lives.

Fixing it is not simple. And the steps that legislators and energy leaders will have to take to stabilize our energy present and expand our energy future are about as serious as decisions get in public policy.

We are concerned about the direction things are headed, because they could risk the energy future this state has been building since Gov. Rick Perry helped set the stage for the state to become an international leader in wind power.

On Sept. 1, the State Energy Plan Advisory Committee — appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont — issued a lengthy report to legislators that might well indicate how Texas develops its energy future.The report is a deeply detailed and serious technical analysis of vulnerabilities in our state’s electrical grid, something that was exposed in the deadly outages of 2021.

That includes the complex ways Texas’ embrace of wind energy has affected the supply of electricity throughout the grid. Natural gas still accounts for the largest share of Texas energy. According to figures from the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, 42% of energy comes from natural gas, 24% comes from wind, 19% from coal, 10% from nuclear and 4% from solar. The share of wind has grown rapidly, and solar is set to increase substantially as well.

Wind energy, in particular, has been a boom industry in the state, and one worth celebrating. And no, wind energy was not the primary cause of the blackouts during the winter storm, as has been falsely stated a number of times.

But it is true, as the report correctly notes, that wind power did play a role, as did the lack of supply of natural gas. Turbine blades iced up and natural gas wellheads froze. Supply cratered and there wasn’t enough redundancy in the system to provide the power necessary to keep homes heated.

And even as extreme cold is a risk, we know the state is getting hotter while more and more people run air conditioners. On July 20, 2022, ERCOT recorded “an all-time maximum peak demand record of 80,038 megawatts,” the report notes.

The problem with our wind energy boom is that we have seen investment fall in what the energy industry calls “dispatchable” power. Natural gas has the benefit of storing its energy until it’s burned. Not so with wind. Either the wind blows or it doesn’t. Storing the power in batteries for dispatch later is not yet feasible at a large scale.

The report goes into this problem in some depth, noting that the increase in wind power has reduced the overall reliability of the Texas grid. An energy supply fleet “with large amounts of wind and solar is more difficult for ERCOT to maintain from an operational reliability standpoint, as demand and supply swing unpredictably.”

There is little doubt that is true, even if it is far from the only problem the Texas energy industry and market has to face.

What concerns us within the otherwise thorough and serious report is the recommendation to require wind energy producers to meet undefined reliability standards. That threatens to undermine the industry.

If Texas legislators decided that wind producers must back up their power generation with the purchase or production of dispatchable power, it would upend the economics of wind production.

That wouldn’t just be a thumb in the eye of environmentalists that some legislators might delight in. It would be a grave harm to the state’s ability to produce the power it needs to grow and prosper.

There is no question that the arrival of wind energy, and the increasing supply of solar energy, has disincentivized investment in natural gas power. That’s a good thing insofar as solar and wind energy are cheap and abundant. That’s a terrible thing in that we aren’t yet ready technologically to take the leap into a fully renewable future. And we won’t be for some time, absent a major technological breakthrough in power storage.

So we do need more dispatchable power. The foolish way to achieve that is by crippling another source of power that we need.

If legislative leaders are wise, they will instead study ways to incentivize dispatchable power production while welcoming the growth of solar and wind energy.

And in the meanwhile, they can take any number of other steps, recommended in the report and unrelated to renewable energy, to help shore up the grid. That includes things like speeding up the permitting process for transmission lines and making sure the Railroad Commission has finalized its weatherization rules for critical gas infrastructure.

Picking on the wind industry might be fun for politicians and their constituents who don’t know any better. But it’s one of the fastest ways to make energy more expensive and less abundant in our growing state.

Dallas Morning News