Last week, the New York Times ran a story titled “Electric Grid in Texas Faces Multiple Challenges.” The article documents a number of “challenges” facing operators of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), but provides little information about the real causes or real solutions to ERCOT’s problems.
Let’s start with the most misleading statement in the piece:
Texas, meanwhile, faces a unique risk. Among the nation’s contiguous states, it is the only one that has its own electric grid, and this relative isolation means less outside help is available in emergencies.
Take a look at the map on the ERCOT Wikipedia page. That’s right, “Texas” does not have “its own electric grid.” Most of the northern panhandle and sizable chunks of east and west Texas are not in ERCOT. The fact that the article’s author, Kate Galbraith, didn’t understand this basic fact about the Texas electrical system calls into question most of the rest of her “facts” gathered from “experts” in Texas.
Texas should not have any electrical reliability “challenges” at all, at least not the ones reviewed in the article. Download the 2010 edition of Energy Self-Reliant States and look at Texas’ potential to produce electricity from renewable sources alone. Renewable sources, available inside the Texas borders, have the potential to produce 10 times the state’s current electricity use.
So what’s the problem? Despite the “reliability” in ERCOT’s name, the Council has completely failed to insure the reliability of most of Texas’ electrical system, the part that it controls in any case. Instead of moving to insure reliability by transitioning to domestic renewable sources like wind and sun over the past thirty years, ERCOT’s managers locked their system into expensive and obsolete coal and nuclear technologies that are now failing.
Why are they failing? Here are the reasons Galbraith and her ERCOT “experts” point to:
- “Donna L. Nelson, the chairwoman of the state’s Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid operator, said the state was struggling to get enough power capacity for several reasons, starting with a new federal Environmental Protection Agency regulation. The cross-state air pollution rule, which takes effect Jan. 1 unless a federal court orders a stay, aims to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants.”
- “Luminant, a giant power generation company, plans to take two units of its 1970s-era Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas out of service in January because of the rule. (A third unit will continue to operate but use cleaner coal.) Texas state regulators, citing blackout risks, have protested the timing of the E.P.A. rule. But environmentalists argue that Luminant should have anticipated the regulations. Another EPA rule, announced this week and aimed at reducing mercury and other air toxics emitted from power plants, will not take full effect until 2016.”
- “Another challenge is the drought, which remains troublesome despite recent rains. The plants that produce coal, gas or nuclear power need lots of water for cooling. This year one coal plant already had problems, and Ercot said some 3,000 megawatts — about 4 percent of last summer’s peak demand — could be at risk by May if severe drought persisted.”
- “Looking beyond immediate cooling needs, Mr. Doggett said, water constraints could hinder planning of new gas or coal plants. A decision this year by the Lower Colorado River Authority, a Central Texas utility, not to sell water to a large proposed coal plant called White Stallion in southeast Texas was something of an alert, he said.”
All of these “challenges” could have been anticipated. The EPA regulations noted in the story have been delayed for 20 years by power company lobbying. Instead of spending all that money on politicians, what if power companies had invested in “expensive” renewable power. And who could have imagined that Texas, in one of the driest regions in the US, might someday run into drought conditions that would limit development of obsolete steam generation of electricity?
Speaking of “expensive” renewable power, Galbraith ends her list with perhaps the biggest challenge of all:
Through September, power prices in Texas were down 2 percent from the same period last year, according to federal data, and they are down more than 15 percent from highs three years ago, largely because of falling natural gas prices associated with the shale boom.
Wind power — 8.4 percent of Texas’ electricity so far this year — also helps to drive down electric prices in Texas, experts say, largely because its fuel is free. [emphasis mine]
“In order to respond to the demand, you’re going to have to make a profit off that investment,” said John Fainter, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.
So, according to Galbraith and her ERCOT “experts,” the real problem is that wind and gas power generation are making rates too low for coal-fired generators to build expensive obsolete power plants. Galbraith never even mentions the ability of solar power generation to provide excess generation at summer peak when she claims ERCOT “experts” are worried most about reliability “challenges.” So Texas is awash in cheap natural gas. Combined cycle natural gas generating plants require far less water than gas, coal or nuclear steam turbine plants. Combined cycle gas plants are a perfect complement to renewable solar and wind generation. Texas already has enough renewable power resources to produce 10 times the electricity that it currently uses. And wind power is currently driving low electric rates in Texas “largely because its fuel is free.”
The only challenge I can see is that ERCOT needs to get rid of the experts who stuck their heads in the sand thirty years ago and refused to build a really reliable electrical system for most of the state. As the Energy Self-Reliant States report clearly demonstrates, far from being a liability, as Galbraith claims in her article, ERCOT’s “isolation” from the rest of the North American interconnections could have spurred the construction of a real self-reliant, and reliable, electrical system. Instead, ERCOT “experts” continue their legacy of failure.