Climate lessons from faltering Texas power grid
It’s not even summer yet, but Texans are already being asked to turn up our thermostats and leave appliances off each afternoon amid a heatwave that has driven power demand to springtime records. Meanwhile, our aging coal and gas power plants continue to falter. The largest coal plant near Houston caught fire just days before six gas plants tripped offline.
Other Americans may dismiss these woes as a uniquely Texan problem. Texas alone operates its power grid as an island, isolated from the two main grids that span other states. That lets the state skirt federal oversight and prevents us from importing power when we need it most.
But the lessons from this spring’s heatwave extend far beyond our borders. Climate change is straining both supply and demand of electricity not just in Texas but globally. Only by transitioning away from the fossil fuel plants that exacerbate warming can we build back better grids and achieve a more affordable, reliable and resilient power supply than ever before.
Power plants rank just behind transportation as our nation’s biggest source of climate-warming emissions, and rank first globally. Thus, we can’t tackle global warming without cleaning up electricity.
In fact, as I explain in my new book “Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future,” clean electricity is the most crucial pillar for building a clean energy future. That’s because we’ll need clean electricity not only to power the uses of today, but also to electrify vehicles, heating and industry. Even plans to capture carbon from the air or split hydrogen from water depend on clean and affordable electricity.
Fossil fuels still provide more than 60 percent of our nation’s electricity, belching out more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. President Biden issued an executive order to eliminate power plant emissions by 2035, but Congress has yet to pass legislation to achieve that.
Fossil fueled electricity isn’t just damaging our climate, water and air. It’s failing us financially, with prices spiking as natural gas prices soar. And it’s failing to stay reliable, as gas and coal outages drove most of the blackouts in the February 2021 Texas freeze, in which at least 246 people died.
Won’t wind and solar make power even less reliable? As skeptics often remind me, it’s not windy and sunny all the time.
But as research by our group and others has shown, it’s usually windy or sunny somewhere in Texas or beyond. Winds tend to blow most strongly at night across the plains, and with afternoon sea breezes near the coasts or offshore. Pairing wind farms from a variety of locations with solar farms can cover power demand most of the time.
Of course, “most of the time” isn’t good enough when it comes to electricity. Reliable electricity requires balancing supply and demand every second of every day.
Fortunately, there are lots of options to fill in the gaps left by wind and solar — keeping our existing nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams; adding batteries and other storage; making demand more efficient and flexible; as well as developing new sources of power such as enhanced geothermal technologies.
We must also expand transmission, building high-voltage lines within and across our nation’s three grids to better blend wind, solar and other clean sources nationwide. Last week, wholesale power prices in Houston spiked over 100 times as high as in neighboring regions, after a local coal plant failed and transmission was insufficient to bring in wind power from our south. Connections to national grids could let Texas import power when we need it most, and export power when it’s windy, sunny and mild here.
Done right, the United States can achieve 90 percent clean electricity by 2035 without adding costs to consumers or impairing reliability, as research by the University of California at Berkeley has shown. That’s because the costs of new transmission lines as well as wind and solar farms can be offset by averting costs for fuel and maintenance at aging coal and gas plants. We can also ease our reliance on coal and gas plants that keep failing when we need them most amid frozen or flooded coal piles, drought-stricken water supplies, gas shortages, fires and various other causes. A warmer climate will only exacerbate the risk of droughts, floods and wildfires to which fossil power plants are so vulnerable.
Aging power plants also require far more downtime for maintenance than wind and solar farms, in addition to using tremendous amounts of water. As heatwaves expand into the spring and fall months, it will grow increasingly difficult to schedule needed maintenance and maintain water supplies. Over 40 percent of Texas power plants are over 30 years old, yet the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state’s electricity grid, has repeatedly asked them to defer maintenance amid extreme heat and cold.
Recent woes in Texas are just our latest reminder that fossil-dominated power supplies have failed to be affordable, reliable or resilient to extreme weather, even as they pollute our air and water as well as warm our climate. Built right, a cleaner power supply will be more resilient to heatwaves, floods and droughts and help slow the warming that is making those events more common.
Daniel Cohan is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University and author of the book “Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future.”
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