Retired Cal State Fullerton professor: Natural gas is best option for reliable energy in Texas

The announcement came as a surprise, even a shock to many people.

On April 13, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) asked Texans to conserve electricity use due to the grid nearing emergency conditions. This appeal came despite mild weather across most of the state that day.

“Alert: Due to a combination of high gen outages typical in April & higher-than-forecasted demand caused by a stalled cold front over TX, ERCOT may enter emergency conditions,” a tweet issued at 4:39 p.m. stated. “We do not expect customer outages. Declaring an emergency would allow us to access additional resources.”

Robert Michaels, a retired Cal State Fullerton economics professor and energy analyst, said it appears maintenance and a lack of a consistent power source prompted ERCOT to ask for reduced energy use.

“An electrical system is not something you can turn on or off. In an electrical system, power doesn’t flow like water, power flows by the laws of physics,” Michaels told Dallas Express. “And essentially in order to make sure that the thing is operating stably had to survive, you’re going to have to keep very good track of which lines are in use and which ones of them are strained.

“And you realize that the electrical system, there’s two possible difficulties you can have. One is demand exceeds supply…but supply can exceed demand, that it can generate the same kind of instabilities and outages. So it’s a complicated problem,” he said. “All the engineers understand it, but some of it’s even a mystery to them. It’s a complicated problem and there really is no quick solution. But what happened there is probably that you had maintenance…you had a tremendous number of things going on.”

Wind hit its peak generation of almost 17,000 megawatts at 1 a.m. on April  13, according to ERCOT system conditions data.

Wind generation subsequently dropped to about 5,000 MW during the daily periods of regular increased demand. Even the 5,000 MW, wind generation for April 13 reached 3,000 MW less than originally forecast.

While wind decreased, cloudy weather reduced solar generation, according to a Texas Tribune report.

Michaels said it’s apparent the system lacked sufficient reserves at the time.

“Shortage of reserves comes about because there was a shortage of fuel,” he said. “And all the gas being cut off or a tremendous fraction of the gas being cut off, scattered places all around the state. And this is going to happen whether you’ve got a lot of reserves or none. Reserves are only good to the extent that they’re operating and ready. Normally with the reserve system is they have reserves with different qualities, with different classifications of priority.

“And there is spinning reserve, which is ready to come in at any time with a line go out; you’ve got standby reserve, which goes into operation after there’s constraints on the spin,” Michaels said. “You have further reserves which are going to require the scheduling of the individual power plants unit, which is a priority system. But here the priority problem was messed up by the fact that we are all of these random changes. And they got in the way, as best I can tell, of having the system got in the way of…restoring orderly operations is the best I can say.”

The powerful winter storm that blasted through Texas in mid-February caused numerous power problems, leaving millions of Lone Star State residents shivering in the dark. Among the problems were wind turbines freezing (due to lack of available preventative equipment) and not being able to produce power.

Texas Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian recently told the Austin News that renewable energy sources have displaced reliable generation largely because they have been prioritized and subsidized by tax dollars.

Through 2018, according to a report from America’s Power, renewable energy resources — primarily wind and solar — have received subsidies amounting to more than $100 billion.

Charles McConnell, the executive director of the Center for Carbon Management in Energy and Sustainability at the University of Houston, told the Houston Republic that Chapter 313 subsidies are one of several tools that Texas uses to “encourage the investments and the deployment of renewables — both wind and solar.”

McConnell said the way renewables often operate means that they would not be profitable without government subsidies and other handouts. Texas’ reserve margin has dramatically decreased as a result of subsidizing renewable energy projects.

Michaels said that is a key reason, much more than temporary problems.

“I think they factor into it, not so much because of the things going down or staying up, rather what’s happened is you’ve had a lot more investment in plants, which by their nature are less reliable —  intermittent sources that they would say they were,” he said. “Normally in a power system, you add some extra generation capacity to it, you’re going to be strengthening it here. Here the problem is that when you add intermittent capacity like wind or solar, you could very well be weakening the grid because it basically gives it another contingency that might go out.

“If you’re lucky, and very often you are, I should add, you can get a lot done with interruptible sources, but here you’ve got that whole storm conditions, everything else.”

Michaels said it’s a very complex problem, with multiple factors to consider.

“Those are things that the system is built to take, and it doesn’t matter what interrupts the power,” he said. “Now, however, you’ve got several different things going on at once. You’ve got a lot of the wind and solar, and you’ve got them bottle-necked into the system. You’ve got everything coming out from West Texas, for instance. And now the system is becoming more and more dependent on lines that are going into West Texas, coming from West Texas.”

If reliable energy is the concern, the old standby — natural gas — remains the best answer, the professor said.

“I would say that gas is reliable on a number of grounds. Sure, gas is reliable. Gas is the most reliable because you can control it,” he said. “And there’s lots of individual plants and lines, which you’re able to manipulate and work with to handle emergencies. Coal systems are, of course, usually base-loaded.

“Would I want it all (to) be gas systems? No, because there’s others. There’s room for other generators,” Michaels said. “Problem is that there may be room for other generators in there, but in our case, the people who own the generators are not the people who are paying the bills for the power whose stability is the issue here.”

He said solar power’s slow growth may have been an error.

“First off, if you’re just looking at it, Texas is great wind country in west Texas,” Michaels said. “It doesn’t mean the wind is worth having. What has really surprised me about Texas is how slow solar has been to take off, given the climate conditions here, given this seasonal demand-supply patterns. That’s changing. But I do not understand why solar it took so long to become big in Texas, although now it is crawling through the ceiling.”

He said he doesn’t see any path forward without wind or solar, primarily for political reasons.

“The politics of power supply is such that there’s no choice but to have them permanently available on a contingency basis,” Michaels said. “So whether we like it or not, we’re going to be there. And we have seen what was coming and the favorable tax treatment of wind and solar, the difficulties of integrating them into the system.

“Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the people, all those units, are really not responsible for maintaining system conditions, at least stability,” he said. “And a disproportionate amount of the system condition costs are going to be borne by ordinary ratepayers, not being directly paid for by the people who put up the wind and solar plants.”

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