Did renewable energy cause Texas grid failure? Could it happen in Utah?

The once-in-a-lifetime winter storm that clobbered the electrical grid in Texas and left at least 10 people dead has sparked a political donnybrook pitting clean energy advocates against conservative supporters of the oil and gas industry.

The controversy erupted after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the rolling power outages that affected millions of residents enduring bitter cold underscores the continued need for fossil fuels.

“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said in an interview with Fox News, emphasizing that wind and solar energy make up “collectively more than 10% of our power grid.”

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Wind turbines did freeze in Texas, but the unprecedented deep freeze also led to the failure of natural gas plants, associated infrastructure such as pipelines, as well as nuclear power units.

Abbott’s criticism of clean energy comes even as the workhorse for the energy grid in Texas remains fossil fuels.

His statement led to a scathing rebuke from the American Clean Power Association.

“It is disgraceful to see the longtime antagonists of clean power — who attack it whether it is raining, snowing or the sun is shining — engaging in a politically opportunistic charade misleading Americans to promote an agenda that has nothing to do with restoring power to Texas communities,” said Heather Zichal, the association’s chief executive officer.

“Texas is a warm weather state experiencing once-in-a-generation cold weather. Most of the power that went offline was gas, coal or oil. It is an extreme weather problem, not a clean power problem.”

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The firestorm was further inflamed by tweets from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who also blamed renewables for the power failures.

“Bottom line: Texas’s biggest mistake was learning too many renewable energy lessons from California,” which he pointed out routinely suffers rolling blackouts even absent extreme weather events.

Wind turbines stand at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon in Spanish Fork on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“This raises the obvious question: can we ever rely on renewables to power the grid in extreme weather? No. You need gas or nuclear. And subsidizing investment in wind has pushed gas and nuclear out. Now we live with the consequences.”

Crenshaw also insisted that “downed” natural gas plants were due to scheduled maintenance and nuclear power plants shut down as a precaution due to a safety sensor freezing, demonstrating they are a safe source of power.

His Twitter account lit up with angry reaction from clean energy supporters who say the power grid failure was a result of Crenshaw’s own state, and its GOP leaders, to move away from regulations and failing to take proper steps to modernize the grid against an extreme weather event.

How did it happen?

Texas is No. 1 in the country in the installed capacity for wind power, with 28,843 megawatts as of 2019, but as a percentage of its total generation, the state falls to 11th place — with coal and natural gas providing the bulk of electrical generation.

Critics laid blame at the feet of Texas leaders who failed to learn lessons from a 2011 deep freeze that led to millions without power and should have been the impetus for regulators to require equipment upgrades for power providers to withstand extreme weather events.

El Paso, which has a different power provider, did make those investments and reports indicate the power outages there are much less widespread.

Texas, too, operates like an island when it comes to its electric grid with its own reliability council — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT — which manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texas customers and 90% of the state’s electric load.

Because of its insular nature, observers say the Texas grid is vulnerable when generating capacity is overrun like in this storm, which drove up demand for heating and led to controlled outages after several system failures in its energy portfolio, including frozen pipelines to deliver natural gas, sensors shutting down nuclear power plants and frozen wind turbines.

Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials told media outlets they were within minutes, if not seconds, away from a catastrophic failure of the entire grid if they had not instituted the rolling outages beginning Sunday night.

Wind turbines stand at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon in Spanish Fork on Feb. 18, 2021.
Wind turbines stand at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon in Spanish Fork on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Could widespread grid failure happen in Utah?

It’s much more unlikely that a widespread grid failure could happen in Utah, according to Rocky Mountain Power’s Dave Eskelsen, because Utah’s grid structure is so different than that of Texas.

Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company is PacifiCorp, which is the largest grid owner and operator in the West, serving six states, including Utah.

Because of that, Utah enjoys the benefit of being part of a large, diverse grid in which there are multiple power purchase contracts in place should generation in one state fail.

In addition, PacifiCorp is a member of the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which exists to ensure a reliable grid for 14 Western states, two Canadian provinces and a portion of northern Mexico.

“It was organized in the decades after World War II when it became pretty clear that as the electric system matured over the decades, it was advantageous for electric utility companies to share interconnections for reliability,” Eskelsen said.

While those interconnection relationships were initially forged to provide grid reliability, Eskelsen said the relationship among the various states emerged into one of a wholesale energy market in which long-term and short-term contracts provide electricity needs among the players.

Eskelsen said there are also plenty of “day ahead” contracts that exist to counter an unforeseen weather event that could affect individual generation.

“Cold weather can affect any kind of generation type such as coal, natural gas plants and, of course, wind turbines and solar plants. And Texas has a whole lot of everything.”

Another contingency in the utility’s energy portfolio is that any of the wind turbines, say those in Wyoming, come with a cold weather package.

“Because a lot of those turbines in Wyoming are at a higher elevation where cold weather is common, they come with a cold weather package that offers heating capabilities to keep the machinery turning the turbines such as lubricating oil that is heated,” he said.

Should another electricity provider become compromised such as a natural gas plant or coal-fired power plant — Utah’s dominant conveyer of electricity — the state would generally have 800 megawatts of wind power available and Rocky Mountain Power is also a common recipient of excess solar power generated in California.

Another difference between Utah and Texas is that Rocky Mountain Power is part of a vertically integrated system in which the generation, the transmission and the distribution of electricity is all under one operating umbrella. In Texas, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas controls the flow of power, while there are independent power providers.

Weather-driven power outages

That’s not to say that Rocky Mountain Power is not immune to weather-driven power outages like high wind events or snowstorms that topple trees into power lines or transmission infrastructure.

Eskelsen recalled high winds that toppled 60 transmission towers in Weber and Davis counties in 1983, followed by a lake effect storm that delivered 18 inches of snow in a 24-hour period in 1984.

There was a similar snow-triggered outage of extended duration in 2003 and hurricane force winds in 2011 that led to widespread outages.

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Significant weather events can routinely correlate with power outages.

“I think the lesson from this and other similar events is that really severe and unusual weather is always a risk,” Eskelsen said. “It is pretty difficult to harden the system against every eventuality. You do the best planning that you can and you try to make sure you have the resources to handle what is coming.”

To that end, Eskelsen said Rocky Mountain Power has stepped up its fall and spring preventative maintenance program over the years and also took a cue from California’s wildfires to put in preemptive planning to mitigate that risk.

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In the summer of 2019, the utility company mapped Public Safety Power Shutoff Areas — or those areas in the state where residents and business operators are at extreme risk of wildfire in extremely dry conditions.

Last fall, Rocky Mountain Power announced it might have to institute rolling blackouts to prevent the dangerous nexus of live power lines and dry conditions sparking a wildfire. It announced the possible blackouts, but did not have to institute them.

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The utility company has also hired meteorologists and installed weather stations to deliver information on hyper-local conditions.

“The key is that planning for extreme weather events is a big part of what we do. That is, not only planning for cold weather like arctic air descending rapidly, but hot weather and wildfire weather. We are much more attuned than ever to watching weather conditions as they develop and trying to be prepared for them.”

There’s a distinction, too, between the Texas power outages and those that frequently happen in Utah.

The Texas problem was one of generation capacity being overwhelmed that resulted in intentionally instituting power outages.

In Utah, widespread outages have been spurred by weather, not due to the problem of generation capacity being compromised.

Eskelsen said there was a time in the 1990s when prolonged controversy over a planned Sandy substation led to targeted rolling blackouts in that city and population growth prompted back-to-back summers in which the utility company embarked on a public awareness campaign promoting energy conservation so the system was not overwhelmed.

The message worked, he added, and intentional outages were avoided.

But weather remains the constant threat that prompts vigilance, Eskelsen said.

“We have some capability to utilize that seasonal diversity which makes our system a little more robust in terms of weather events,” Eskelsen said. “But we want to assure our customers that we are thinking about this all the time and are planning and thinking ahead and watching the weather. It is what we do over the course of every day.”

Masood Parvania, an electrical and computer engineering associate professor at the University of Utah, said Utah is in a much better position to bounce back quickly in the event of extreme weather events or other natural disasters.

Parvania is director of the university’s Utah Smart Energy Laboratory, which specializes in research and design work revolving around next generation grid reliability, distributed energy systems and shoring up grids against cyberattacks.

It has carried out research on multiple fronts that relate to microgrids and pricing flexibility in the context of energy storage,

“The situation in Utah is very much different than what they are experiencing in Texas because we have been working to be prepared against these storms,” he said. “Days ago when we had some record snowfall with the winter storm, not so much happened in the state.”

He pointed to resiliency in Utah for all manner of events, pointing to last year’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake that struck Magna and rattled the entire Wasatch Front.

While it did result in power outages, Parvania said power was restored relatively quickly.

“It is all about being prepared for this kind of event (like in Texas) and I believe we are very prepared for that.”