Texas Lessons to Keep the Lights On Dangers

On March 14, 2021 the Syracuse Post Standard published a commentary “To keep the lights on, take these lessons from Texas” by Dr. David Murphy, an associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University.  Unfortunately, most of what he said is incorrect and what he proposed will guarantee that New York’s lights will go out.

Unsaid in the commentary is that much of what Dr. Murphy proposed is being incorporated into the implementation plans for the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).  I have summarized the schedule, implementation components, and provide links to the legislation itself at CLCPA Summary Implementation Requirements.  I have written extensively in long posts on implementation of the CLCPA because I believe that it will negatively affect reliability, affordability and the environment.  I have described the law in general, evaluated its feasibility, estimated costs, described supporting regulations, listed the scoping plan strategies, summarized some of the meetings and complained that its advocates constantly confuse weather and climate.  The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

Dr. Murphy has a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Master of Science in Environmental Science, State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY and Bachelor of Arts in Biology, The College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA.  He has authored a textbook Renewable Energy in the 21st Century and according to his webpage at St. Lawrence University, he “has also published widely in the popular press.”  Note in particular that “has been featured on a number of episodes of the podcast The Energy Transition Show with Chris Nelder, a popular podcast in energy technology and climate change activist circles.”  Based on this I characterize Dr. Murphy as a professional climate change activist whose career depends on the narrative that climate change is an existential threat.

To keep the lights on, we should take these lessons from Texas

In the following section I will provide my italicized and indented comments on his commentary.  For a detailed overview of the Texas deep freeze I recommend this article by Weather Blogger Chris Martz.  He explains that Arctic cold weather events have occur regularly, the weather conditions associated with these events always include high pressures with very light winds so wind resources will always stop working, and that “to blame weather events that have occurred many times before on man-made climate change is absurd”.

 The tragedy in Texas is viewed by many as another glimpse of our uncertain future, and that brings up the question of whether it is possible to be prepared for scenarios we can’t even imagine in the new, climate-changing world.

In climate change activist circles any unusual weather is due to climate change.  Martz points out that cold waves are an expression of natural atmospheric variability and result in record cold temperature.  This was a record-breaking event.  He goes on to point out that the earth is warming and that the “frequency of cold waves, the number of record low temperatures, and the percent of land area observing unusually cold temperatures have all declined over the last century”.  Nonetheless, the important point is that similar cold snaps occurred in 2011, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1983, 1963, and 1961 and electrical outages occurred in some of those cold snaps.  The real question is whether Texas adequately planned for the past, not whether we can plan for an uncertain future.

The storm wreaked havoc on almost all major power-producing technologies. A nuclear generator supplying electricity to 1 million homes tripped off-line due to the cold weather impacting a pump system. Natural gas supplies for heating homes froze up. And wind turbines froze in place. The more climate changes, the harder it will be to predict, and outages like the one in Texas are all but guaranteed. The Biden administration must develop a resilient power grid where outages impact fewer people for less time. To build a resilient grid, we should focus on redundancy and decentralization.

This was not a climate change problem.  Instead, it was poor planning for a variety of reasons and, in my opinion, something similar is not likely in New York because the New York electric market has different rules and priorities.  However, given that New York’s CLCPA mandates a transition to zero-emissions electric sources the question becomes is this more likely in the future?  I agree with Dr. Murphy when he says we should focus on redundancy to prevent something similar in the future but disagree what counts as valuable redundancy.  I see no value in de-centralization.

Redundancy means that if there is a failure in one part of the system, another can perform that same task, avoiding a large-scale outage or an outage altogether. Slightly more than half of Texas’ electric grid relies on one fuel source — natural gas —and another quarter relies on wind.

Compared to Texas New York currently has a more redundant electric system because there are more options for generating electricity and used to be much more redundant.  In 2019, New York electricity was generated 38% by natural gas, 23% by hydro, 33% by nuclear, 3% by wind and solar and 2% by other sources.  In 2001, New York electricity was generated 16% by coal, 27% by natural gas, 11% by oil, 16% by hydro, 28% by nuclear, 0% by wind and solar and 2% by other sources.  One key aspect of redundancy is the ability to store fuel on-site which is a feature of coal, oil, hydro and nuclear.  All three fuels are used much less than in 2001.  It is also important to be able to transport the fuel different ways which is another feature of coal and oil that has disappeared.  Based on these trends New York electric generation is becoming less redundant and thus more likely to have blackouts.

Microgrids, small grids within a larger system, are another form of redundancy. Microgrids can operate in “island mode” — if the larger grid is collapsing, the microgrid shuts communication and operates alone, keeping lights on. Alaska —with expansive land and isolated populations — has a number of microgrids. The Longhorn State has few.  Decentralizing power production systems also is important. When one reactor at the South Texas Nuclear Power Station went offline due to the cold temperature, power to supply 1 million homes went off-line. This makes entire cities, not just small towns, vulnerable.  We need many microgrids using many energy sources, both large and small — and by small I mean as small as rooftop solar panels and battery storage systems.

 De-centralized microgrids powered by wind and solar are a climate activist talking point but I don’t believe they stand up to scrutiny.  While it is true that a microgrid can operate without being connected to the grid the question is whether the factors that caused the grid to collapse also affect the microgrid.  In the case of extreme weather events, damage to microgrids powered by wind and solar is also likely. 

 The bigger problem is whether a microgrid can provide necessary power when and for as long as it is needed. Murphy neglects to point out that the Alaskan micro-grids are powered by fossil fuels that can be stored on-site.  His vision is for micro-grids powered by wind and solar.  Martz points out that energy demand is highest during both periods of extreme cold and extreme heat and that such weather conditions are associated with high pressure and very light wind speeds, which means, wind turbines will stop working.  Coupled with the fact that New York solar radiation is reduced by day length, cloudy conditions, and snow cover, I am very leery that sufficient renewable energy resources are available to meet the demands of winter peak load.

 In order to meet New York’s climate law goals heating and transportation will have to be electrified.  As a result, even more electricity will be needed.  Because renewable energy is intermittent, energy storage is required. This is a particular problem because demand varies and when the demand is highest it is also needed most.  Murphy’s rooftop solar panels and battery storage system approach may work most of the time but in order to provide reliability during the coldest periods the amount of energy storage needed for one or two days a year may be uneconomic.  This is precisely what happened in Texas.  Ratepayers enjoyed low rates because the electric market did not incorporate a mechanism for generators to pay for measures that would ensure they could provide power during intense cold snaps.  When the record-breaking cold weather occurred, the system could not provide the necessary energy at any cost so the system broke down.

All this requires a paradigm shift in thinking. For the past century, we have built grids that take what energy guru Amory Lovins calls the “hard energy path.” This means building big, centralized generators that produce massive amounts of electricity in a one-way grid system to deliver power to customers.  We need a 21st century version of Lovins’ “soft energy path” that focuses on energy conservation, solar and wind power. These technologies, in contrast to huge nuclear generators, are smaller and more flexible. And, since many more will be needed and spread across the country, they will be much less prone to massive outages like that in Texas.

Climate activists love to disparage the current electrical system with its centralized generating stations but the fact is that they provide affordable and reliable electricity.  There are inherent economies of scale that enable large power plants to provide power for millions cheaply and efficiently.  Moreover, different types of fuels at these power plants truly provide a redundant and flexible power system that can provide reliable electricity when needed.  In contrast wind and solar power which are utterly dependent upon the vagaries of weather cannot be called flexible and certainly are not dependable without additional energy storage and grid support services that markedly increase the cost.  The claim that wind and solar are less prone to massive outages is absurd given that every night with calm winds causes an outage of both of these generating resources. Furthermore, he point out that “many more will be needed and spread across the country” means that wind turbines and solar panels will sprawl across New York with significant  impacts to birds and bats.

The Biden plan calls for a modern grid system, but details are unclear. The Green Act of 2020 introduced in the House doesn’t address grids. If we want to avoid crises, the plan must include redundancy and decentralization. We must encourage more people to produce their own energy.  Investing in local production and ownership of energy systems makes energy systems more resilient and creates jobs.

One climate alarmist cherished belief is that because the wind is always blowing somewhere the solution to local wind calms is a transmission system that can move the power from those locations to calm locations.  There are problems however. 

 The fundamental issue for keeping the lights on is that wind is intermittent.  I found that in New York in 2018 there were 1,982 MW of onshore wind energy nameplate capacity that generated 3,985 GWh of electrical energy for a state-wide annual capacity factor of 24.5%.  The problem is that I also found that over a sixteen-month period there were 25 hours when none of the 24 wind facilities in the state produced any power, that 36% of the time less than 200 MW per hour was produced and that half the time hourly wind output was less than 324 MW.  The worst case is a long duration period with light winds. I found 12 periods when less than 100 MW of the state’s total wind capacity of 1,982 MW was available for 24 hours, 5 periods for 36 hours, and one period of 58 hours. Evaluation of wind energy on continental scales in Australia shows that large high pressure systems can cause light winds over continental scales.  The grid solution to intermittency is fatally flawed.

 New York’s worst case wind energy deficit was 58 hours long when wind output was less than 100MW meaning that in order to replace the total onshore wind capacity 1,800 MW has to be generated elsewhere and transmitted to New York.  In order to be absolutely positive that amount of power is available, dedicated renewable resources someplace where the winds are guaranteed to not also be calm are required.  In other words, both the wind turbines and the transmission capacity necessary cannot be used for anything else.  I expect that would be uneconomic.   Alternatively, energy storage could be developed but the problem is there is no long-duration energy storage technology currently available that can be deployed in the necessary quantities.

 It is not clear to me how wind and solar resources can be considered redundant.  Putting all our energy production into two limited types of intermittent resources seems anything but redundant and given their susceptibility to weather impacts it certainly is not a resilient option..

Clean energy jobs account for roughly 40% of energy sector jobs in the U.S., and according to a Brookings Institution report, they are also better paying than most jobs across the country.

While I am not sure that I reviewed the Brookings Institution report referenced, I suspect that the Brookings report Advancing Inclusion through Clean Energy Jobs has the same biases are present in all their work.  I believe the appropriate jobs metric limits clean energy jobs to those that would not exist in the absence of clean energy initiatives.  However, the Brookings definition of clean energy jobs encompasses jobs that go well beyond the work necessary for a clean energy economy.  For example, in the environmental management sector they include hazardous materials removal workers, refuse and recyclable material collectors, and septic tank servicers and sewer pipe cleaners.  Consequently, they are taking credit for “clean energy” jobs that would exist anyway which makes the claim that 40% of the jobs in the energy sector are in clean energy exaggerated.

By encouraging individuals and local communities to produce their own energy, we will also increase energy democracy, so that not just the downtown, wealthy areas remain with power while the poorer neighborhoods experience outages, such as what happened in Texas. We can’t predict the future, and outages will continue to occur, we can only hope to minimize their impact, and focusing on a resilient future is the only path to do so.

The presumption that individuals have the desire and means to produce their own energy is a great theory but in practice I suspect most people have a greater desire for affordable and reliable electricity. Until it is demonstrated that investing in the capability to provide reliable power as proposed when I need it is cheaper than current costs, I suspect that I am not the only skeptic of the economics of this approach.  As to viability my roof line runs north-south so I do not have the optimal setup for solar panels and I live in the cloud and snow belt downwind of Lake Ontario so solar is not dependable in the winter.

 Energy democracy is a slogan long on emotion but short on content.  I don’t understand what is meant by energy democracy or the basis of the argument so I cannot respond.

 The Texas lesson should be that they did not develop an electric market that rewarded development of infrastructure to withstand cold temperatures that have been observed in the past.  My concern is that while community energy approach may work most of the time there will be times, likely when the power is needed the most, that it won’t work.  Any resources diverted to this aspirational, feel-good approach reduce what is available to a solution that provides power all the time. 

 The other Texas warning should be the pitfalls of an over-dependence upon wind energy.  The coldest air of the winter and the highest demand occurs when cold air moves in behind a cold front.  This Arctic air is associated with a cold core high pressure system pushing the front.  Those high pressure systems have very little wind.  Martz nailed it when he said “When it comes to a life and death situation, what would you do? Use fossil fuels to keep warm and survive, or freeze yourself to death once wind power fails in order to save the planet?”

Conclusion

Dr. Murphy concludes that “We can’t predict the future, and outages will continue to occur, we can only hope to minimize their impact, and focusing on a resilient future is the only path to do so.”  The real cause of the Texas energy debacle was to fail to address obvious impacts associated with observed cold weather outbreaks in the winter.  Our first priority should be to plan for the future based on what has happened in the past because if we cannot do that then there is no way we can plan for future changes.

His recommendation is to build a resilient grid which focuses on redundancy and decentralization.  A redundant electric system exceeds what is normally needed and necessary for as wide a range of conditions as possible.  It is unclear how solar energy that is only available half the time, is reduced when it is cloudy, and can go to zero when panels are covered with snow can be considered redundant.  His suggested approach relies on energy conservation, solar and wind power and that might work most of the time.  Unfortunately, an electric system that fails to provide power when it is needed most is a recipe for catastrophe, just like Texas.

Energy conservation is a no regrets approach but it is naïve to expect that energy loads won’t continue to peak and grow when the weather is very cold or very hot, especially when New York’s CLCPA mandates heating electrification.  When the electric system transitions to solar and wind power, the critical weather period will be a multi-day wind lull in the winter because both wind and solar energy availability is very low.   In order to provide power during those periods for Murphy’s de-centralized large energy sources and rooftop solar panels, the energy storage systems necessary for them to be independent of the centralized system will have to be large.  I expect that installing large batteries for short periods of the year will be uneconomic.  Advocates for this approach have to prove otherwise.

Like it or not New York is rushing ahead to incorporate the themes in Dr. Murphy’s commentary in the implementation plans for the CLCPA.  It cannot be over-emphasized that these concepts have not been implemented anywhere on the scale necessary to transition the New York electric grid.  Moreover, initial attempts in other jurisdictions have shown that costs have gone up and reliability has gone down.  The real lessons of the Texas energy debacle should be caution is needed, that reliance on intermittent resources is risky, and that failure will have catastrophic impacts.

 

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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