Following the tragic February power outages in Texas, in which 4.5 million homes suffered service interruptions, supporters on both sides quickly interpreted events as confirmation of their preferred energy policies.
With news footage of helicopters emitting frozen turbines, conservatives have criticized Texas’ growing reliance on wind power as the villain of history.
Trying to temper this knee-jerk reaction, Reason.com columnist Ron Bailey argued that “[m]Most of the power generation deficit during the current cold snap is the result of taking natural gas and coal-fired power plants offline. And Paul Krugman for his part said it was a “malicious lie” to blame wind and solar power for what happened in Texas because it was primarily a natural gas outage. .
In this article, I will lay out the basic facts about the energy sources that intervened during the crisis. Contrary to what you would have known from reading Ron Bailey (not to mention Paul Krugman), when the Texas freeze hit, electricity from natural gas skyrocketed while wind production fell off a cliff. People who argue the wind wasn’t to blame mean it in the same way Jimmy Olson wasn’t to blame when General Zod took over: the wind is so unnecessary that no one is serious. thought it could help in a crisis.
Krugman on Texas Electricity
In his February 18 column titled “Texas, Land of Wind and Lies,” Krugman said that
Rather, Republican politicians and the right-wing media … have coalesced around a malicious lie: the claim that wind and solar power caused the collapse of the Texas power grid, and that radical environmentalists are somehow responsible for the fact that millions of people are freezing in the dark …
Contrary to that rotten dirty lie from the right, Krugman instead explains:
An electrical network ill-prepared to cope with extreme cold has suffered multiple points of failure. The biggest problems seem to have come in the delivery of natural gas, which normally supplies most of the state’s winter electricity, as wellheads and pipelines froze.
A little later in the article, Krugman admits that the wind was also involved, but downplays its role in this way:
It is true that the state produces a lot of electricity from wind, although this is only a small fraction of the total. But just because Texas – Texas! – is run by environmental freaks. This is because these days wind turbines are a cost effective source of power wherever it is very windy, and Texas is very windy.
It’s also true that the extreme cold forced some of the state’s under-wintered wind turbines to shut down, but it was happening to Texas power sources across the board, with the worst problems involving natural gas.
Incidentally, there is literally no numbers in Krugman’s article (except for the numbers referring to dates), indicating that he is pulling a quick one on his readers. From his qualitative (not quantitative) description, most people would have assumed that when unusually cold weather hit Texas last month, electricity production from various sources was on the decline across the board, But most fell natural gas, while the drop in wind was insignificant. As I will show in the next section, this is totally wrong.
What Really Occurred during the Texas Power Crisis
If I hadn’t seen the analysis of my former colleagues at the Institute for Energy Research (see their articles here and here), I might have believed that the Texas crisis was actually a failure of fossil fuels rather than fossil fuels. renewable energies. Yet, as we’ll see, the actual numbers tell a much different story than what most Americans have likely “learned” from the media discussion.
The easiest way for me to communicate the relevant information is through three infographics, generated from the Energy Information Administration’s handy tool, which shows the mix of sources for daily energy production by state.
Before showing the numbers, I must make an important clarification: the request for electricity soared to unprecedented levels during the freeze. In particular, on February 14, the peak demand on the electricity grid exceeded sixty-nine gigawatts, breaking the previous winter record of (almost) sixty-six gigawatts set in 2018. It was in the wee hours of the following morning. (February 15). that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) implemented DC outages to keep the entire grid from collapsing. So to be clear, the problem wasn’t that provide in an absolute sense fell, but rather than request soared. (Texas typically uses more electricity in the summer to keep things cool, rather than in the winter to keep things warm.)
With that background in place, here are the statistics for electricity production from various sources on February 15, 2021:
We are already seeing something interesting. Of the total amount of electricity delivered on that first day of blackouts, 65 percent came from natural gas, while only 6 percent came from wind and 2 percent from solar.
But in all fairness, maybe what guys like Krugman meant was it’s way lower than what we normally could wait for natural gas. (Remember Krugman once said that natural gas “normally provides most of the state’s winter electricity.”)
To test this possibility, we can look at the situation a year ago, on February 15, 2020:
Now this is interesting. A year earlier, on a normal day in mid-February, natural gas provided “only” 43 percent of total electricity, while wind was 28 percent and solar was the same at 2 percent. Remember how Krugman said the wind was only a “small fraction” of the Texan generation? Overall, for the year 2020, wind produced 22% of Texas’ electricity, a higher share than coal.
But beyond the proportions, also look at the absolute quantity of electricity produced: on February 15, 2020, natural gas produced 398,130 megawatt hours (against 759,708 MWh during the recent freeze), while wind power produced 264,024 MWh (against 73,395 MWh during the freeze).
To reiterate the clarification I gave earlier, part of the confusion here is that electricity demand in February is normally not as high as it used to be due to the frost. So, to test whether natural gas is the culprit, we can compare the production from various sources during the freeze to the summer situation. For example, let’s take a look at how things went on August 15, 2020:
As our meeting took place during the scorching summer days, the total demand for electricity was higher in mid-August 2020 than on February 15, 2021. In addition, production from all sources was lower during the frost compared to their performance on the previous August 15. However, it seems strange to point to natural gas as the culprit, when it suffered the the lowest percentage decline, and (on all dates) was the most important source.
The following table summarizes the electricity production from various sources on the three dates we analyzed and shows the change between the previous dates and the first day of the last power outages:
As the table shows, on these three dates, natural gas has always been the leader in electricity generation. During the frost, it produced 91 percent more than the previous year on a more typical winter day. And while natural gas produced less electricity during the freeze than during peak summer demand, it was only a 7% drop.
In contrast, wind power during the frost was down 72% from the previous year, and compared to the summer it was 47%.
Among all sources, the percentage difference between the previous year and the previous summer was greatest for natural gas. In other words, the surge in natural gas production from one year to the next was by far the largest (with coal coming in second with a 54% increase), and relative to the summer load, its decrease. was lowest at 7%.
The wind, on the other hand, was the worst interprets in both cases, if we measure in terms of difference. That is, the 72% drop in wind in the year-over-year column was the largest, and its 47% drop in the summer-to-winter column was also the largest.
In light of these statistics, it’s a little odd for commentators to blame the Texas power outages on natural gas while excusing the wind.
What they mean: the wind is the Ted Cruz of electricity
Now, in all fairness, what commentators blaming natural gas have in mind is that ERCOT’s contingency planning assumed that natural gas (and other “thermal” sources of electricity, to namely coal and nuclear) could be called upon to fill the void if there was a record demand during a winter storm. If we measure in terms of total capacity which was temporarily knocked out due to freezing, so the culprits were thermal sources, rather than wind and solar.
As Jesse Jenkins, Assistant Professor at Princeton, tweeted, “The main story continues to be the failure… of natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants… that ERCOT relies on to be there when needed. . ” He further clarified: “Of around 70,000 MW of thermal power plants at ERCOT, around 25 to 30,000 MW have been down since Sunday evening. Huge problem. “
And so we see what people mean when they say the power outages in Texas are the fault of natural gas, rather than the wind: for no serious official has ever been. expected the wind cannot be of any use in the event of a crisis, one can hardly blame it for not showing up during the disaster. Indeed, Krugman argues that wind power is the Ted Cruz of electricity.
When assessing liability for a disaster, it is difficult to know what the relevant counterfactual should be. Yes, if the (relatively) unregulated Texas electricity providers had done a better job of winterizing their natural gas lines, things would have been better last February.
But at the same time, had the federal government never implemented the Wind Power Tax Credit (PTC) – which subsidizes wind power so heavily that it sometimes sells out? a negative price in the Texas wholesale market – then there would have been more fossil fuel production capacity in Texas, which the numbers show provided better electricity during the freeze. Normally, renewable energy boosters pride themselves on Texas, which has by far the highest wind capacity of any state in absolute terms, and even has almost 25% of its official generating capacity made up of wind power. Yet when the wind collapsed during the frost, even its biggest fans admit that no one ever thought it could do the same job as natural gas.
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