Enjoying that AC? Thank the mighty power of the sun and the renewable energy source keeping the grid afloat.
On Monday the good people of Texas, many still suffering from lingering trauma as a result of the February 2021 failure of the state’s power grid, braced for bad news. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the much-maligned entity that manages Texas’s famously independent grid, warned that the situation was dire because of “a projected reserve capacity shortage with no market solution available.” If things got worse, rolling blackouts might be needed. Not great!
Fortunately, the worst didn’t happen. There are a few reasons why. To reduce demand, many Texans turned up the thermostat by a few degrees to help save power, and ERCOT’s emergency response program paid some large energy customers to scale back usage during peak times. And significantly, solar power, which has been the star of the Texas grid so far during this interminable summer, continued to set records for energy production. If your air conditioner has been steadily running all summer long, you can thank the mighty power of the sun.
“We’ve got twice the solar we had last summer, and something like three times what we had eighteen months ago,” energy consultant Doug Lewin told me on Monday. “We actually set another solar record today, and we set one yesterday. Renewables throughout most of May and June, as we’ve been experiencing extreme heat, really were the difference between [having] a whole lot of conservation calls and potential rolling outages and not having them.”
The two key renewable energy sources contributing to the Texas power grid are solar and wind power; solar accounts for roughly 25 percent of the renewable resources on the grid, while wind represents the other three quarters, according to Andrew Dessler, director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M.
It’s not all that difficult to understand how and why certain energy sources perform well under various grid conditions. Is the grid struggling to keep up with demand for air conditioning? Odds are it is bright and sunny outside, which explains why solar is performing well and also why wind would be less productive (go outside at noon on a summer day and wish for a breeze!). “The good thing about solar is it really does match AC demand,” Dessler said. “Days that are really hot and sunny are the days you’re making the most power from solar energy.”
While wind produced a low amount of energy relative to its total potential on Monday (and ERCOT put out a release blaming the energy source for the grid’s struggles), both Dessler and Lewin said that was to be expected, and that the amount of electricity being generated by wind was within state projections for a summer day. (Thermal energy sources—gas, coal, and nuclear—also underperformed on Monday.) While the wind farms of West Texas don’t generate as much power as we might like on stultifying summer days, wind farms along the Gulf Coast tend to do well during those hours. “If you’ve been down to the beach in the summertime, there’s usually a pretty good afternoon breeze,” Lewin said.
You could be forgiven for not realizing the extent to which renewables have bailed Texans out these past few months. In a state where the oil and gas industry carries as much weight as it does in Texas, politicians (including the ERCOT board of directors, who are political appointees) tend to downplay the contributions of renewable energy. In February 2021 Texas leaders were keen to blame renewables for the blackouts—despite the fact that natural gas was the main culprit in the failure, supplying fewer gigawatts of energy than even ERCOT’s lowest projections. Monday’s ERCOT press release also blamed wind. “It would be nice to be able to read a press release from ERCOT and just trust that it’s down-the-middle information,” Lewin told me.
The rise of solar provides a big opportunity for stabilizing Texas’s grid. While it’s not a one-stop solution for all of the state’s energy needs—“solar is not as great a solution for winter mornings,” Lewin acknowledged—in concert with wind, it goes a long way toward ensuring that Texans have access to reliable electricity.
Solar has been expanding rapidly in the state, but there’s still plenty of room for growth, according to Dessler. “Almost anywhere in the U.S. Southwest, starting at I-35 and running west toward California, is great for solar, and West Texas is also great for wind,” he said. “Texas could be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy—we got rich selling hydrocarbons, but for whatever reason, the politicians in Texas don’t want to get rich selling electrons.”
Thus far in 2022, renewables—especially solar—have provided a bulwark that’s kept the lights on and the AC blasting through an especially miserable summer—and they’ve done it affordably, even as natural gas prices skyrocket because of global energy prices. “Those costs are outrageously high,” Lewin told me. “I shudder to think about what this would look like if we didn’t have zero marginal cost fuel like wind and solar on the system at the scale we do.”