Winds of Change
Last month as Texans were enjoying warm, spring-like weather, the state smashed wind energy records. Over the course of a day, a strong southerly flow of wind swept across West Texas, sending turbines into a spinning frenzy. For about 20 hours, wind energy produced more than a third of the electricity for most of Texas.
At its peak, it was providing 45 percent.
Yet, the electric grid held up, contrary to some scaremongering claims.
In the last two years, conservative activists and politicians have claimed that the Clean Power Plan — the Obama administration’s new carbon regulations — might cause problems with the electric grid that “could quickly escalate into a regional blackout.” Ted Cruz, for example, called the policy a “lawless and radical attempt to destabilize the nation’s energy system.”
But the Clean Power Plan and other federal environmental policies only accelerate changes already in motion. Natural gas prices are at an all-time low, coal companies are going bankrupt and the cost of solar and wind energy has dropped dramatically in the last decade.
In Texas, those trends have led to the shutdown of coal plants and the construction of new natural gas, wind and solar facilities. The electric grid has so far weathered the changes remarkably well. The February wind record, however, goes one step further in challenging the sky-is-falling rhetoric from those opposed to the Clean Power Plan. It demonstrates that the grid is not only capable of absorbing a lot of wind energy, but that it can do so for sustained periods of time.
Still, increasing wind capacity certainly poses multiple problems for a grid operator. For one, wind speeds are hard to predict, adding a level of uncertainty that fossil fuel plants, which can be turned on and off at will, don’t have. Secondly, wind speeds in West Texas, where the majority of the state’s wind turbines are located, are highest when there is the least demand for energy — at night and during the spring.
But the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the operator of most of the state’s electric grid, is well positioned to handle these difficulties without destabilizing the grid, says Ross Baldick, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The tweaks that people are coming up with allow us to take up higher wind,” Baldick says. “Human ingenuity will help us tackle issues around integrating wind energy into the grid.”
Baldick says that if the state was aiming to rely entirely on renewable energy, then ERCOT has a long way to go. But if the goal is to meet environmental standards set by the federal government, then, Bal- dick says, “I would not be completely surprised if the changes are not huge.”
So, what should we expect the rest of this year? ERCOT is forecasting that in addition to the 77,000 megawatts of capacity that it currently has online, 800 MWs of solar facilities, 5,200 MWs of wind capacity and 1,800 MWs of natural gas plants will likely be built in 2016. There are currently no plans to build new coal plants.