Houston, we have a problem

Houston, we have a problem… actually we have two problems

  1. Texas has massive power outages as an “unprecedented” polar vortex hits, and
  2. we just can’t agree on what to conclude from this event.

The current unfortunate (and I assume uncomfortable) situation in Texas where over 4 million people were without electricity earlier this week, is revealing about how people view the energy debate.

  • On one extreme I have seen multiple “sharings” of a (very) old photo of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine to “prove” how reliance on renewable energy has caused the problems.
  • On the other extreme, it is claimed that the polar vortex is yet more proof that climate change is here and now and we should demand more renewables and shut O&G (and nuclear).

Both of these are confirmation bias in action.

Unfortunately, reality is likely to be far more complex. Texas looks like a plane-crash in the sense that a lot of things have had to line up (badly) for the outages to happen.

When the wind doesn’t come “sweeping down the plain”

It is reported that Texas Governor Greg Abbott initially blamed the failure of wind turbines for the outages. Wind-turbine failures as the main cause has been debunked (see below), but he also called the Green New Deal “a deadly deal for the United States of America.” The latter merits more discussion, also below.

Disclaimer: I have no first-hand knowledge of any of this and am many thousands of miles away and quite a bit warmer – so am just trying to piece together the story and look at how parts of it have been used to frame a priori opinions.

Cold polar air moved south as a function of a kink in the jet-stream – this is common, although it is not common for it to push so far south.

As the temperature dropped several things happened.

  • Wind power dropped either through lack of wind and/or due to icing…
  • But it appears that a much bigger chunk (c. 30GW) of thermal power dropped out at about the same time.

Before the loss of power, there were three key elements

  1. Demand was increasing – due to increased need for home heating – given that most homes in Texas a designed to deal with summer heat, not with winter cold. Electricity demand hit an all time high of close to 80 GW (for comparison, the UK peaks at about 44 GW)
  2. As demand ramped-up, wind generation was variable in the days and weeks prior, ranging from c. 2GW to 10GW but dropped from about 7-8 GW to 2-3 GW from the 9th to the 14th and then to about 1 GW on the 15th
  3. At the same time electricity from natural gas increased rapidly to match demand.

When the wind-power started to go off-line (Feb 9th) the system didn’t collapse since it was less than 10%.

It is pretty clear that wind power – even if “capacity” was doubled or tripled would not have been able to meet the demand increase. Sadly, cold air-masses typically also mean less wind. But as demand ramped-up, natural gas came to the rescue.

So one way of looking at this that is that natural gas is the true hero of the story – and it should have been that simple, except that it wasn’t.

As can be seen from the images; on the 15th Feb, a cascading series of outages piled upon each other in nuclear, coal and gas resulting in about 30GW (in addition to the “lost” wind) going offline – which was more than plenty to disrupt the system.

The shortfall is 20-25 GW and has lasted several days. That is 20GW (average) for 24hrs for 4 days (so far): something like 2 TWH. Someone can do the math to see just how many “utility scale” batteries would be needed to plug that gap!

oh and guess what? : Texas has “capacity” to supply 83 GW of electricity…. but

“The Texas wholesale electricity market does not reward generators who maintain spare capacity. They are only paid for the energy they sell, an approach that has boosted investment in new gas, wind and solar power plants, but which may lead to a thin cushion between supply and demand.” (source)

Yep. a very thin cushion indeed – the above was posted on the 13th Feb, 2 days before the cushion proved to be indeed “too thin”.

Cold and Colder

So if wind wasn’t directly the villain, but natural gas was (after having been the hero), what went wrong ?

I do not know if wind turbines did actually ice up, but if so this is not an intrinsic characteristic of wind turbines – the same operate in much more extreme climates (Antarctica, Swiss mountains), but likewise thermal power-plants operate in Canada and Siberia.

Yes it was unusually cold, but thermal plants work fine in much colder climes, so there will be a lot of questions about why “winterized” systems were not in place – the simple answer is probably just cost-benefit. I would guess that most motorists in Texas don’t have winter-tires on their vehicles, or snow-blowers in the garage on the off-chance that a “since records began” storm will hit – the cost would not merit the probability. Likewise I would assume that neither Texan wind turbines not Texan thermal plants (and their supply chains) are winterized. Hopefully people won’t be scandalized about this, despite the damage done. In any business you cannot prepare for all “long-tail” risks, despite the fact that people seem to want an entirely risk-free society.

So photos of iced wind-turbines (from a different continent and a different time) are pretty much irrelevant in this sad tale. What then of the “confirmation” that this means we must dump fossil fuels immediately?

Making America Greta Again

Governor Abbot concludes that.. [the current crisis] “shows that fossil fuel is necessary” and AOC responds with: “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal,” (source)

Seeing the lines of people queuing to buy propane, not to mention the fact that most of the US and Canada (its not just Texas) is currently staying warm and alive thanks to huge amounts of fossil-fuels – seems to support the assertion that “fossil fuel is necessary”.

But what of the New Green Deal? The one element I can’t find is a plot of wind for the period in question – it looks like wind dropped off – although I can’t see if the drop is due to less wind, or icing, or both. Whatever the facts, simply having a LOT more wind turbines would have not helped – even the fluctuations in the previous weeks would have created enormous strain on a more wind-reliant system. the wind output (before the cold weather) was as low as 1-2 GW at certain times – from a nameplate capacity of 16 GW… so to meet a spike of 80 GW it would require an unfeasible level of redundancy (600-1200GW of “capacity”).

Simply building more renewables would not fix the supply problem, but would it address the “unprecedented” nature of this event?

It is now standard fare to assign any and every weather event to “climate change” despite the fact that certain climate scientists argue against this kind of alarmism. North America has pretty violent weather – how out of the ordinary is this? I have no opinion on these arguments – but just want to point out that an event such as this which is “unknown since records began” (which is apparently about 130 years in this case) is not proof of a changing climate, and cannot therefore be used as logical argument for driving the New Green Deal.

Imagine the Central Valley of California 300 miles long and 20 miles wide being under 30 ft of flood-water for many months, Sacramento itself flooded to 15 ft for months, millions of people affected, agriculture destroyed… to many this would be clear evidence of climate change were it to happen today. However, you don’t have to imagine it because you can read about how it actually happened in 1860 (long before anthropogenic carbon-dioxide was noticeable in the atmosphere). Extreme events happen, we need to be best prepared for them; with current technology I’d rather rely on the existing (if imperfect system) than one dominated by weather-dependent electricity generation.

The plane crash

As I noted at the start – this kind of event is usually an unfortunate coming-together of multiple events, none of which on their own would be catastrophic. My list is here, but expect this to expand and grow as we learn more about this. Feel free to add to this list via the comments.

  • unusually cold weather, with an associated drop-off of wind
  • understandable lack of preparation for such an “outlier” event (i) icing of wind turbines is a minor variable, (ii) issues with thermal plants is a major variable; which reflects the relative importance of each in the generation capacity mix.
  • multiple and unusual failures across gas, coal and nuclear
  • possible weaknesses in the infrastructure (gas and coal supply, electricity distribution)
  • the preferential access of wind into the supply forces coal plants to cycle up and down (see graph above) – coal plants (and to some extent gas also) are not designed for this – a possible contributing factor for coal going off line when needed?
  • a system that does not reward energy producers to ensure spare capacity.

For my 2 cents worth?

The simple narratives of “renewables are useless and evil” is misleading and unhelpful, just as the “fossil-fuels are useless and evil” is also impractical and unhelpful. Energy Security saves lives but requires trade-offs and this examples shows that simplistic “conclusions” based on a priori view points are of little value at either end of the spectrum.