Despite assurances to the contrary, records indicate that Texas’ power grid remains unstable.
Electricity generation is lately taken for granted in the Western world. Few living today can imagine life without it. But it is more than just a convenience for smartphones and television screens. Electricity is essential to maintain safe climates in homes and apartments, particularly during extreme temperatures, not to mention food and medicine preservation in refrigerators or freezers. Purposefully going without electricity in the West typically is seen as a type of recreation in the form of camping.
In the whole of human history, electricity is still a relatively new invention, but one that elected public servants can make unstable through poor choices.
In mid-February 2021, Texans got a huge hint that something was seriously wrong with their power grid when they were hit with a statewide blackout in the midst of freezing temperatures. The Texas Tribune reported the state’s official death toll during the February blackout was “at least 246,” due to issues ranging from hypothermia to the deadly gas called carbon monoxide. A BuzzFeed News analysis pegged the death total to roughly 700.
The causes of the blackout were three-fold according to Jason Isaac, director of Texas Public Policy Foundation‘s Life:Powered project. The first cause was that the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)—which manages Texas’ power grid—took too long to respond to demand spiking in response to freezing temperatures. Next, half of the state’s unreliable wind turbines froze. ERCOT shutting down reliable natural gas power substations was also a critical mistake that only added to the statewide power woes at the time.
Citizen outrage from the blackout freeze spurred some action by the Texas Legislature, which told the state Public Utility Commission to create reliability standards and make sure the state has enough power generation capacity. The PUC was also directed to study the issue of backup power and contracts with industrial businesses to stop operating in order to save power. This was to be done with the intention of resolving the problem.
ERCOT’s CEO was also replaced, as well as members of the board.
State lawmakers also let a corrupt tax abatement program, which helped burden Texas with unreliable power generation plants across the state, expire. However, even before this spigot of crony cash was shut off, state lawmakers and others were openly plotting to rebrand and revive this mafia-like system in 2023.
Texas Scorecard recently published a five-article investigative series—titled “Texas Mafia“—about this corruption.
When Texas was hit with another cold snap last week, the unreliability of solar and wind energy was again evident.
Economist Vance Ginn shared a graph from ERCOT showing that reliable energy sources (nuclear, natural gas, and coal) were carrying the lion’s share of energy production as of 8:24 am on February 1. Unreliable energy (wind and solar) accounted for a measly 3.7 percent. “Where’s the sun when most of Texas is cloudy & solar panels are covered in ice? Where’s the wind when it’s not windy & possibly windmills are frozen?” Ginn asked. “Reliable thermal energy of natural gas, coal & lignite, & nuclear are keeping power on in Texas.”
On February 3, energy specialist Alex Epstein showed that at 5:00 a.m. that day, unreliable wind and solar was responsible for only 1 percent of electricity production on the Texas grid.
[Texas] has spent a fortune on solar, wind, batteries, and transmission lines—and stolen a fortune of the rest of the US’s money via solar/wind subsidies. What did it have to show for it this morning?
This leads to an even greater question: Is Texas’ power grid stabilized?
“The grid is ready and reliable,” Peter Lake, chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission, said at a December 21, 2022, press conference with Gov. Greg Abbott as a wave of cold weather began sweeping the state.
That narrative contradicts data published by ERCOT. Last year, Texas Scorecard examined several records published by the state agency. Included among them were the Seasonal Assessment of Resource Adequacy (SARA) reports. These are “a deterministic approach to considering the impact of potential variables that may affect the sufficiency of installed resources to meet the peak electrical demand … during a particular season.”
These reports indicate a steady decline of the Texas power grid’s stability.
The Final Fall of 2016 SARA states the state’s power grid “is expected to have sufficient systemwide installed generating capacity to serve forecasted peak demands in the upcoming fall season.” Regarding power outages, the report included “a unit outage forecast of 13,672 MW” based on historical data since December 2010.
The “expected to have sufficient systemwide installed generating capacity” language stays more or less the same for a while in the following SARAs. That changes three years later in the Final Summer of 2019 SARA. “In all of the scenarios studied for the final summer SARA, ERCOT identified a potential need to enter Energy Emergency Alert (EA) status in order to maintain system reliability.” The final report includes “a forecasted peak demand” that was “1,300 MW higher than the all-time peak demand record set last summer on July 19.”
The report continued that it expected operating reserves “to remain tight.” However, “total generation resource capacity” had increased compared to the preliminary summer SARA back in March, thanks primarily to more imports, more production from particular units, and the expected restoration of a gas-fired power generator, producing 365 MW.
ERCOT’s language briefly moderated in that fall’s SARA, though it did include an “outage forecast of 13,833 MW.” The bureaucracy based that on the historical average of power outages Monday through Friday at peak hours from 2016 to 2018—in other words, past data when demand was high.
The “expected to have sufficient” language was present in their Final Winter 2016-2017 SARA, but it disappeared entirely in the Final Winter 2019-2020 SARA. A peak winter demand of more than 62,000 MW, based on “normal weather conditions during peak periods” was forecasted from 2003 to 2018.
Correctly read, this was a warning sign that all was not well.
As for how ERCOT would handle this demand, their SARA did not say they had “sufficient” power generation. Instead, it simply reported that “more than 82,000 MW of resource capacity” was “expected to be available for peak demand this winter.” It included 136 megawatts of gas-fired and wind power.
From the records Texas Scorecard examined, ERCOT’s Final Winter 2019-2020 SARA appeared to be the first time it was clear something was wrong with the grid.
Reality ended up not matching the expectations in ERCOT’s Final Winter 2020-2021 SARA. It went back to the prior language except, curiously, for one item: it swapped the word “expected” with “anticipates.”
“ERCOT anticipates there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve system-wide forecasted peak demand this winter season, December 2020 ‒ February 2021,” it read.
An internal January 28 ERCOT email Texas Scorecard obtained through an open records request showed the state agency on that day was awakening to the fact they had a real problem approaching. “At this time, ERCOT is preparing for our most conservative/extreme case forecasts of approx. 72,000 MW demand next Friday morning (02/04/22). A note that our winter season all-time peak was set last year at 69,812 MWs,” wrote Lindsey Hughes, ERCOT director of Corporate Communications and Government Relations. “ERCOT is evaluating all avenues to ensure as much capacity as available is online.”
Then came the mid-February 2021 winter blackout.
The following Winter 2021-2022 SARA was more cautious and featured new asterisks. “Assuming that the ERCOT Region experiences typical winter grid conditions, ERCOT anticipates that there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve the system-wide forecasted peak demand for the upcoming winter season, December 2021 ‒ February 2022,” it read. “Nearly 85,000 MW of resource capacity is expected to be available for the winter peak.”
This is all in the past. However, contrary to what PUC Chair Peter Lake said on December 21, 2022, alarm bells sounded off again about the state’s power grid.
In the Winter 2022-2023 SARA, ERCOT apparently felt the need to again hedge as opposed to being definitive. “Assuming that the ERCOT Region experiences typical winter grid conditions, ERCOT anticipates that there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve the system-wide forecasted peak demand for the upcoming winter season, December 2022 ‒ February 2023,” the report reads. “About 87,300 MW of winter-rated resource capacity is expected to be available for the winter peak.”
It adds that two reliable energy resources—a coal and gas power generation unit that provides 685 MW—”are out of service” for the winter. As previously mentioned, the loss of reliable power generators combined with frozen unreliable wind farms contributed to the February 2021 blackout.
The Winter 2022-2023 SARA was published November 29, 2022, and it was widely reported as a warning sign that troubled waters were ahead in the coming winter. “The winter report published Tuesday shows that very high demand during winter weather could force ERCOT to ask Texans to cut back on electricity usage to avoid an emergency,” The Texas Tribune reported that same day. “And in the most extreme scenario considered for this winter — a combination of high electricity usage, power plant outages and very low wind and solar energy production — the grid would need to resort to rolling blackouts, the report shows.”
Troubling Track Record
Since the February 2021 blackout, multiple reports and warnings have sounded that, despite narratives from public servants, Texas’ power grid is still unstable.
Reportedly, these plants broke down because their maintenance had been postponed so they could keep generating power. ERCOT denied that was the reason. Reportedly, part of the state’s response to the February 2021 blackout was to keep existing power generators running at full blast, which may have caused a further strain on the system.
Texas Scorecard asked ERCOT about those six power plants. In response, they sent a spreadsheet listing more than 14,000 outages from October 2020 to May 23, 2022, with the given reasons for each. The types of outages include forced, unavoidable extension, forced extension, and maintenance. From May 1 onwards, the type of work listed for these outages include Turbine/Generator Vibration/Repair, Tube Leak, Fuel Problems/Repairs, Lack of Steam Load Availability, Other, and Unknown.
“If you wish to know more, please contact each facility individually as ERCOT does not comment on specific facilities,” replied Trudi of ERCOT communications.
Even the U.S. federal government weighed in, albeit at a time that suggested possible political motivations to influence the 2022 gubernatorial election between Gov. Abbott and Democrat Robert O’Rourke.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) Winter Energy Market and Reliability Assessment highlighted the instability of Texas’ energy supply in emergency conditions. The report indicated that in an extreme winter weather event similar to the 2021 storm, Texas’ power grid may run over allotted energy stores by 18.1 gigawatts—in other words, energy to power around 3.6 million homes.
Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Public Utility Commission of Texas, disputed FERC’s account in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. While he claimed the report contained “inaccuracies,” Parsons did not specify which section of the study contradicted ERCOT’s internal data.
Demand on the state’s power grid seems to be increasing.
ERCOT’s Winter 2022-2023 SARA points to demand created from cryptocurrency mining operations.
It was widely reported last November that ERCOT officials blamed population growth as another demand driver. The ongoing build-out of new energy generation should have compensated for such growth. However, the “fastest-growing sources of power on the grid” are unreliable wind and solar sources.
A study last year from the Energy Alliance warned of Texas’ over-reliance on these unreliable sources. At that time, the study noted these sources take up to a dangerously high 25 percent of the state’s power generation network.
Bill Peacock, the Energy Alliance’s policy director, said lucrative handouts of taxpayer-backed subsidies from Texas’ public servants was responsible for the state grid’s growing instability. “The greatest danger that the Texas grid faces now is the political establishment’s continued unwillingness to challenge the environmental left’s and energy industry’s push for subsidies.”
In Part 2 of this series, Texas Scorecard will explore the actions by Texas’ public servants that led to the grid’s instability.