In recent congressional hearings, Democratic leaders pointed to recent electricity blackouts in Texas and California caused by extreme weather as reasons for why the federal government should increase taxpayer subsidies and mandates for renewable energy sources.
But both the heat-driven August 2020 electricity shortage in California, and the cold-driven February 2021 shortage in Texas, were caused by over-reliance, not under-reliance, on weather-dependent renewables like solar panels and wind turbines. Thus, any effort by the federal government to make states more dependent on renewables would likely increase not decrease the probability and frequency of blackouts.
In California, state electricity regulators over-relied on solar panels, despite warnings from the state’s grid operator that doing so was dangerous, since most of the state’s peak electricity use occurs during and after the sunset. “For many years we have pointed out that there was inadequate supply of electricity after solar had left its peak,” said an emotional CEO of California’s grid manager, Caiso, last August during the blackouts. “We told regulators over and over that more should be contracted for. That was rebuffed. And here we are.”
Over the last decade in Texas, investors sunk over $53 billion on weather-dependent energy sources, mostly wind turbines, which were largely unavailable during the cold snap in February. That was only partly because of the cold and mostly because of low wind speeds. The costs of the blackout, which lasted for days, will end up costing Texans nearly $200 billion.
Renewables don’t have to cause blackouts. Germany generated 37.5% of its electricity last year from wind and solar and didn’t suffer from a decline in electricity reliability. California would have avoided its blackouts had it not shut down a large nuclear plant and several natural gas power plants over the last decade. Texas may have avoided the blackouts had state regulators simply required, or compensated, natural gas suppliers to winterize their equipment while verifying that work had been completed.
But California and Texas suffered blackouts while sitting under weather patterns that affected giant portions of the continental United States. California couldn’t find any more power from Arizona, Nevada, or Oregon, which were also struggling in a heat wave with low wind speeds while being located to the east of California and therefore in the dark sooner. Texas, for its part, was surrounded by states barely fending off their own blackouts from extreme cold temperatures and still air. Fully winterized wind turbines sat motionless all the way up to Canada.
A prominent renewable energy advocate who many Congressional Democrats rely upon for their proposals calculated earlier this month that for Texas to receive 100 percent of its electricity from renewables while electrifying all heating, transportation, and other services, the Texas grid would require 7,000 gigawatts of battery capacity to store 13.6 terawatt-hours of electricity. That amount of battery power is 6 times more than all electrical generating capacity in the U.S. And the cost, just for Texas, would be $5.8 trillion, which is nearly three times the entire cost of President Biden’s proposed infrastructure climate legislation.
And where Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada can make 35 gigawatt-hours of battery capacity each year, the shortfall in Texas during the blackouts was about 1,600 gigawatt-hours, which would be 46 years of Tesla’s Nevada production if you could take its maximum production rate of batteries, install them in Texas, and fully charge them before the storm arrived. To meet the 13.6 terawatt-hours in the all-electric all-renewable scenario described above would require 388 years of Nevada Gigafactory output.
As for Germany, it has only maintained its reliability by continuing to operate its fossil fuel power plants of all types including lignite coal, not by building more transmission lines and batteries. Of the 56% of German electricity from carbon-free sources, nearly half (24% overall) came from nuclear, hydroelectric dams, and biomass, which are far more reliable than solar and wind .
And, last month, Germany’s independent federal government auditor warned in strong language that adding more weather-dependent energy sources increases the risk of blackouts. “Now the energy transition is becoming a danger for all of Germany,” read the headline of Die Welt, a leading German newspaper, on March 31, 2021. “The costs are out of control and there is a threat of an electricity shortage.”
Why Renewables Socialize Risk
It was not the case that Texas’ energy sources failed equally. During the four days of blackouts, February 15th to 18th, the performance, as represented by capacity factors, of nuclear, natural gas, and wind turbines were 79%, 47%, and 14%, respectively.
But because the electricity grid requires absolute moment-to-moment continuity in power supply in exact balance with demand, we should look at each power source’s lowest hourly performance during the four days of blackouts, which were 73%, 40%, and 2% of nuclear, natural gas, and wind turbines, respectively.
The reason nuclear fell as low as 73% during the crisis while averaging 79% was because one of the state’s four nuclear reactors automatically turned off after cold water affected a sensor, triggering a shutdown.
But the nuclear reactor returned to service within 36 hours, and thus in time to help end the power cuts. Nuclear reactors in other cold snap states, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, operated normally. Even the other reactor at the same plant in Texas was fine. And a simple regulatory fix would prevent this particular type of cold impact on a low-level sensor from automatically shutting down nuclear reactors during future extreme events before human operators could inspect and intervene.
Some energy experts noted that Texas regulators had not expected to rely upon wind energy to provide much electricity during the cold snap, but the implication of this observation was left unsaid, which is that weather-dependent energy sources are uniquely ill-suited to power societies during extreme weather events.
Not everybody is equally vulnerable to blackouts, extreme weather, and extreme electricity prices. The investors who develop solar and wind supplies can only do so because the state and federal laws allow them to socialize the risks of unreliability.
Whereas solar and wind projects were assured of their survival thanks to subsidies and corporate purchase programs, reliable sources of energy in Texas before the blackouts had to fight over a declining pool of revenue to pay for their operation. Wind and solar got paid when they happened to turn on, and then the grid almost failed when they went away in sufficiently bad weather.
Because of their weather-dependent nature, solar and wind often produce more electricity than is needed as all the solar and wind in an region turns on at once, drastically reducing prices, which over a few years can bankrupt reliable power plants if those plants need lots of online time to earn revenue to pay for their costs.
The total number of “negative price hours,” whereby Texas power plants had to pay people to take unneeded electricity, grew dramatically between 2019 and 2020, just as they did in California during the same period, and have grown since. Because solar and wind typically get paid an out-of-market subsidy of some kind, or even several at once, just for turning on, they can accept negative prices from the wholesale market in order to earn their subsidy.
University of Chicago economists found recently that state policies promoting renewables led consumers to pay $125 billion more for electricity than they would have without such mandate policies. In Texas actual construction far outstripped the mandate, and with prices staying level, experts argued that Texas represented an example of cost-efficient addition of renewables.
All possible savings were wiped out in February and blackout-time energy costs have swamped energy companies and consumers alike. Meanwhile, California’s retail electricity prices rose eight times faster than the average in the other 49 states in the 10 years between 2011 and 2020 due to its increased use of variable energy sources.
Germany saw its electricity prices rise 50 percent in the 15 years after 2007. In the first half of 2020, German electricity prices were 43 percent higher than the European average.
Federal auditors in Germany raised the same concerns about weather-dependent renewables as California’s electricity grid operator raised last summer. The auditors called the assumptions made by the Ministry of Economic Affairs regarding the security of electricity supply as “partly too optimistic and partly implausible.”
And, in their recent report, federal auditors concluded that Germany would need to spend over $600 billion between 2020 to 2025, including on grid updates. “The Federal Audit Office sees the danger that the energy transition will endanger Germany as a business location,” they wrote.
Wealth spent on weather-dependent renewables is wealth not spent making the grid more reliant or resilient by maintaining and weatherizing reliable nuclear or natural gas plants. Money that could have gone to making electrical grids more reliable thus instead went to pay for the equipment that made them more fragile.
And wealth spent on dramatically increasing the amount of electricity transmission wires is wealth not spent clearing vegetation from around electrical lines, which has been a major cause of the fires in California that led to the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric in California 2019, and preventative power outages in 2019 and 2020. If the transmission lines are instead compensated by transmitting subsidized renewable energy across state lines, the result will be lost reliable plants at the other end and more grid fragility.
Why Civilization Depends on Cheap and Reliable Energy
Advocates of renewable energy have argued since the 1970s that the variable, weather-dependent nature of sunlight and wind is a modest obstacle at best to relying on 100 percent renewables. Some have argued that weather-dependent energies would, paradoxically, make electricity even more reliable, by increasing our need to spend on extra transmission lines connecting distant renewable energy facilities and incentivizing investment in renewable powered “micro-grids”.
But these recent power outages in Texas and California have poured cold water on these arguments: even approaching a third of a very large state’s supply from weather-dependent sources is clearly dangerous.
In truth, policymakers and the public had been warned. In 2012, 2017, and 2021 the National Academies of Science and Engineering published three separate reports on threats to the grid, resilience, and the future of electricity. In its 2017 report, the Academies warned that U.S. electrical grids were increasingly “complex and vulnerable,” not just to extreme weather, but also to attack.
“We’re adding a lot of stuff at the grid edge,” the lead author of the Academies’ reports, Granger Morgan of Carnegie Mellon University, told me. “If I start building microgrids does that increase my potential vulnerability? The answer is, ‘Yes, of course.’ The more complicated I make it, the more attack surfaces and, hence, the more possibilities of failure.”
Over the 20th century, as power plants grew larger and more efficient, the cost of electricity declined dramatically, contributing significantly to rising living standards. Indeed, the process of producing energy, food, and products more efficiently and cheaply is the main driver of economic growth and prosperity.
But over the last 20 years, as federal and state policies have subsidized and mandated the use of less efficient sources of energy from weather-dependent wind and solar, which require far more land, transmission, and other infrastructure, electricity prices have risen, thus threatening economic growth, living standards, and societal resilience.
As such, while Democrats in Congress point to extreme weather events as justification for subsidizing renewables, the blackouts in California and Texas, and conversely the maintenance of fossil fuels and renewables slowdown in Germany, suggest that anybody concerned about preventing blackouts and their brutal financial and human costs should favor relying less, not more, on weather-dependent energies.