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The February cold snap left millions of Texas utility customers without power. I provide a bit of a timeline at the bottom of this post. What happened? Well, first, don’t waste your time arguing with alarmists about whether “climate change” caused the plunge in temperatures. Whether it was climate change (it wasn’t) or anything else, the power shortage had very nuts-and-bolts causes and was avoidable.

Texas has transitioned to producing a significant share of its power with renewables: primarily wind and solar, which is fine across a range of weather conditions, though almost certainly uneconomic in a strict sense. The problem in February was that the state lacks adequate capacity to meet surges under extreme weather conditions. But it wasn’t just that the demand for power surged during the cold snap: renewables were not able to maintain output due to frozen wind turbines and snow-covered solar panels, and even some of the gas- and coal-fired generators had mechanical issues. The reliability problem is typical of many renewables, however, which is why counting on it to provide base loads is extremely risky.

Judith Curry’s web site featured an informative article by a planning engineer this week: “Assigning Blame for the Blackouts in Texas”. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is the independent, non-profit operator of the state’s electric grid, with membership that includes utilities, electric cooperatives, other sellers, and consumers. Apparently ERCOT failed to prepare for such an extreme weather event and the power demand it engendered:

“… unlike utilities under traditional models, they don’t ensure that the resources can deliver power under adverse conditions, they don’t require that generators have secured firm fuel supplies, and they don’t make sure the resources will be ready and available to operate.”

ERCOT’s emphasis on renewables was costly, draining resources that otherwise might have been used to provide an adequate level of peak capacity and winterization of existing capacity. Moreover, it was paired with a desire to keep the price of power low. ERCOT has essentially “devalued capacity”:

Texas has stacked the deck to make wind and solar more competitive than they could be in a system that better recognizes the value of dependable resources which can supply capacity benefits. … capacity value is a real value. Ignoring that, as Texas did, comes with real perils. … In Texas now we are seeing the extreme shortages and market price spikes that can result from devaluing capacity.

Lest there be any doubt about the reliance on renewables in Texas, the Heartland Institutes’s H. Sterling Burnett notes that ERCOT data:

“… shows that five days before the first snowflake fell, wind and solar provided 58% of the electric power in Texas. But clouds formed, temperatures dropped and winds temporarily stalled, resulting in more than half the wind and solar power going offline in three days never to return during the storm, when the problems got worse and turbines froze and snow and ice covered solar panels.

Power prices must cover the cost of meeting “normal” energy needs as well as the cost of providing for peak loads. That means investment in contracts that guarantee fuel supplies as well as peak generating units. It also means inter-connectivity to other power grids. Instead, ERCOT sought to subsidize costly renewable power in part by skimping on risk-mitigating assets.

Retail pricing can also help avert crises of this kind. Texas customers on fixed-rate plans had no incentive to conserve as temperatures fell. Consumers can be induced to lower their thermostats with variable-rate plans, and turning it down by even a degree can have a significant impact on usage under extreme conditions. The huge spike in bills for variable-rate customers during the crisis has much to do with the fact that too few customers are on these plans to begin with. Among other things, Lynne Kiesling and Vernon L. Smith discuss the use of digital devices to exchange information on scarcity with customers or their heating systems in real time, allowing quick adjustment to changing incentives. And if a customer demands a fixed-rate plan, the rate must be high enough to pay the customer’s share of the cost of peak capacity.

Price incentives make a big difference, but there are other technological advances that might one day allow renewables to provide more reliable power, as discussed in Tyler Cowen’s post on the “energy optimism” of Austin Vernon”. I find Vernon far too optimistic about the near-term prospects for battery technology. I am also skeptical of wind and solar due to drawbacks like land use and other (often ignored) environmental costs, especially given the advantages of nuclear power to provide “green energy” (if only our governments would catch on). The main thing is that sufficient capacity must be maintained to meet surges in demand under adverse conditions, and economic efficiency dictates that that it is a risk against which ratepayers cannot be shielded.

Note: For context on the chart at the top of this post, temperatures in much of Texas fell on the 9th of February, and then really took a dive on the 14th before recovering on the 19th. Wind generation fell immediately, and solar power diminished a day or two later. Gas and coal helped to offset the early reductions, but it took several days for gas to ramp up. Even then there were shortages. Then, on the 16th, there were problems maintaining gas and coal generation. Gas was still carrying a higher than normal load, but not enough to meet demand.