Story at a glance
- Researchers from Rice University published a new study that found the state could almost power its entire electric grid through wind and solar.
- The wind power plants would need to be set up at opposing ends of Texas, at western and southern, points, to cover power throughout the year.
- Texas needs to start with expanding transmission lines that connect the windiest and sunniest parts of the state to cities.
Texas has the potential to replace nearly all its coal output with wind and solar, as the state has unique climates that can work at complementary times to power its entire electric grid. The transition would not only provide major strides in climate change efforts but also stands to be a cheaper energy source.
New research conducted at Rice University used optimization modeling to identify the least-cost combination of proposed wind and solar projects, all with the potential to replace coal-fired power generation in Texas. The results found that wind and solar could replace nearly all of Texas’ coal output, especially if wind and solar projects are placed in locations that provide complementary output.
“Simply put, it’s not always windy and not always sunny, but it’s almost always windy or sunny somewhere in Texas,” said the authors of the study, published in Renewables: Wind, Water and Solar.
If wind power plants are set up in West Texas, where wind power tends to peak overnight, and South Texas, where wind peaks with sea breezes on summer afternoons and evenings, together both opposing plants could power most hours of the year.
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Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice and a co-author of the study, noted that wind power plants in combination with solar could cover most but not all hours, leaving a small need for other energy sources at times.
“Even with complementary siting, there will still be hours when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Historically, the main challenge has been summer afternoons when air conditioners are running full blast, and the occasional deep freeze. Solar and coastal winds perform well during summer peaks, but can have lulls on some evenings when we’ll need something else to kick in,” said Cohan, in a statement.
The U.S. Environmental Information Administration (EIA) has also flagged that wind energy resources can vary hourly and seasonally throughout the country — like in Tehachapi, Calif., home to many wind turbines, where wind tends to blow more frequently from April through October than it does in the winter.
The environment also stands to benefit greatly if Texas’ power grid moves exclusively toward wind and solar, as researchers noted that the state still burns more coal and emits more carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide than any other state.
The key to making wind and solar projects successful in Texas needs to start with expanding transmission lines that connect the windiest and sunniest parts of the state to cities. That’s something the Biden administration has taken note of, directing the Department of Energy to launch a new “Building a Better Grid” initiative under the bipartisan infrastructure bill. It includes funding to build out thousands of miles of new transmission lines across the country — with billions of dollars earmarked to fund, replace and upgrade transmission lines
However, Cohan believes the president’s plan provides a good start but doesn’t include nearly enough funding for expanding transmission lines.
“In Texas, that’s the biggest bottleneck slowing the growth of wind and solar,” said Cohan.
Another issue is the privatization of Texas’ power grid, as the state does not connect to the national power grid that most other states do. That could become a detriment to the state, as Cohan said, “Texas has missed out on opportunities to sell surplus wind and solar power to other states.”
Transitioning Texas away from coal and toward wind and solar will be critical to the state’s electric reliability in the near term, especially as the state is still working to recover from its 2021 deep freeze. The state experienced massive rolling blackouts in February 2021 as the temperatures dipped to below freezing; at least 35 people died from the winter weather.
Now, Texas has the opportunity to turn its power grid around, as researchers noted the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has already experienced a significant decline in fossil fuel generation, with only 20 percent of its power generation mix accounting for coal in 2019. Natural gas accounted for 47 percent, wind at 20 percent, nuclear at 11 percent and solar at 2 percent.
Developers have proposed hundreds of new wind and solar farms, but researchers found that ERCOT’s forecasted 2025 capacity and demand report forecasts that far fewer will actually be built. Researchers obtained ERCOT’s Generator Interconnection Status Report for June 2020 and found most projects in the interconnection queue completed neither a full interconnection study (FIS) nor an interconnection agreement (IA).
“Thus, the likelihood of construction remains in doubt. An FIS typically takes 40 to 300 days and assesses how a project would affect the transmission system. After an FIS has been accepted by ERCOT, the interconnecting entity and transmission service provider have 180 days to negotiate an IA,” said researchers.
However, as continuing to produce coal becomes costlier and natural gas cheaper, Cohan believes Texas’ power grid will eventually eliminate coal all together as most utilities companies have already begun plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
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