“Clean energy is rapidly rising on the Texas power grid, but regulators in the Lone Star State are now considering a plan that could give fossil fuels a boost.
The zero greenhouse gas emissions trio — wind, solar, and nuclear energy — provided more than 40 percent of electricity in the state in 2022. It was a year when several Texas cities experienced their hottest summers on record, driving electricity demand to its highest levels ever as fans and air conditioners switched on. Winter proved stressful too, with freezing temperatures last month pushing winter electricity peaks to record-high levels, narrowly avoiding outages.”
“Texas leads the US in oil and natural gas production, but it’s also number one in wind power. Solar production in the state has almost tripled in the past three years. Part of the reason is that Texas is particularly suited to renewable energy on its grid. Wind turbines and solar panels in Texas have a high degree of “complementarity,” so shortfalls in one source are often matched by increases in another, smoothing out power production and reducing the need for other generators to step in. That has eased the integration of intermittent energy sources on the grid.
Coal, meanwhile, has lost more than half of its share in Texas since 2006. For a long time and across much of the country, the story was that cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing was eating coal’s lunch on the power grid. Coal was also facing tougher environmental regulations like stricter limits on mercury, requiring coal power plants to upgrade their equipment, and raising electricity production costs.”
“in Texas, natural gas’s share of the electricity mix has been holding around 40 percent for more than a decade. On the other hand, renewable energy has surged as coal withered. Wind alone started beating out coal in 2019 and is now the second-largest source of electricity behind natural gas in the state.
An important factor is that the state has its own internal power grid, serving 26 million customers and meeting 90 percent of its electricity demand. It’s managed by the nonprofit Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. In the freewheeling Texas energy market, the cheapest sources of electricity become dominant, and wind and solar — with low construction costs, rapid build times, and zero fuel expenses — have emerged as winners.”
“Some lawmakers are now working to tilt the balance toward fossil fuels. “There are different political figures who are trying to incentivize gas power plants or deny, prohibit, or inhibit renewables,” Webber said.
Last year, the Texas legislature passed a law that would prevent the state’s retirement and investment funds from doing business with companies that “boycott” fossil fuels.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said one of his legislative priorities for this year is to secure more support for natural gas-fired generation. “We have to level the playing field so that we attract investment in natural gas plants,” Patrick said during a press conference last November. “We can’t leave here next spring unless we have a plan for more natural gas power.””
“While wind and solar power are ascendant, they are intermittent, and regulators want to make sure there is enough dispatchable power like natural gas to ramp up on still, cloudy days. The new proposal would create a credit scheme that would encourage more of these dispatchable plants to come online and extend a lifeline to some existing generators that are struggling to compete. But it would also raise the costs of electricity production.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club noted that the proposal leaves the door open for other tactics for balancing electricity supply and demand, like energy storage, increasing energy efficiency, and demand response.”
“”In 2000, Germany launched a deliberately targeted program to decarbonize its primary energy supply, a plan more ambitious than anything seen anywhere else,” Vaclav Smil wrote in 2020 for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ IEEE Spectrum. “The policy, called the Energiewende, is rooted in Germany’s naturalistic and romantic tradition, reflected in the rise of the Green Party and, more recently, in public opposition to nuclear electricity generation.”
The problem, as Smil noted, is that government-favored and subsidized solar and wind are intermittent. Wind doesn’t generate electricity when the air is still, and solar is of little use at night and on cloudy days. That means old-school generating capacity has to be maintained in parallel to the new systems.
“It costs Germany a great deal to maintain such an excess of installed power,” Smil added. “The average cost of electricity for German households has doubled since 2000. By 2019, households had to pay 34 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour in France and 13 cents in the United States.”
The German news magazine Der Spiegel came to a similar conclusion in 2019.
“The state has redistributed gigantic sums of money, with the [Renewable Energy Sources Act] directing more than 25 billion euros each year to the operators of renewable energy facilities,” the authors observed. “But without the subsidies, operating wind turbines and solar parks will hardly be worth it anymore. As is so often the case with such subsidies: They trigger an artificial boom that burns fast and leaves nothing but scorched earth in their wake.”
Making the matter worse is the extent to which Europe has sourced its fossil fuels from Russia. That’s a dependency partly based on easy accessibility by land to Russia’s resources. It’s also an artifact of economic diplomacy from the Cold War era intended to build trade ties to reduce the risk of conflict. But what was supposed to give the West leverage over the old Soviet Union has instead handed modern Russia enormous clout.
Comparatively clean nuclear energy might have made the difference, but the 2011 Fukushima disaster spooked Germans more, perhaps, than people anywhere else, and the country resolved to abandon nuclear power, leaving it dependent on unreliable solar and wind and, especially, imported fossil fuels. Only now, with Russia throttling the supply of natural gas to 20 percent of capacity, is the governing coalition considering extending the life of the last two nuclear power plants past the end of the year.”
“what’s really worth paying attention to are Biden’s goals for offshore wind power, which is an important energy source for regions like the northeastern US that lack the space and ample sunlight that solar energy depends on. It’s here that the new plan goes from mundane to ambitious, and it may be an indicator of how the administration intends to address issues related to climate change, energy, and jobs at the same time.”
“As of today, the US has only seven offshore wind turbines — five in a wind farm off Rhode Island’s Block Island, and two more set up as tests in Virginia. But on February 23, the federal government will auction offshore wind leases to utilities or offshore wind energy developers in an ocean region called the New York Bight, off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. The holders of those leases will then be able to set up wind farms in the area that generate up to 7 gigawatts of energy — enough to power about 2 million homes — which would require 600 to 700 turbines.”
“Those 600 or 700 wind turbines will require people to build turbine components, ship them out to sea, and maintain them once they’re set up. To make that happen, the White House and Transportation Department are aiming to create nearly 80,000 offshore wind-related jobs by 2030 by investing in ports across the Eastern Seaboard — some as far inland as Albany, New York, from where turbine parts will be shipped down the Hudson River to the New York Bight.”
“The turbines, fishers say, could negatively affect marine life. They’re also concerned that turbine towers may interfere with radar, while no-sail safety zones in the vicinity of turbines may affect their ability to reach fishing areas. The long-term impacts of wind turbines on marine life still aren’t clear, but a study in Europe’s North Sea showed turbine bases may act as artificial reefs for animals like mussels. Late last year, the Energy Department awarded Duke University a $7.5 million grant to study offshore wind’s impact on marine life, the results of which should provide a fuller picture of how turbines might affect fisheries. In the meantime, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is looking for workarounds, which is why the sale notice for the New York Bight includes provisions aimed at helping fishers, such as 2.8-mile-wide transit lanes for fishing vessels.”
“The challenges don’t end there: Even if the wind turbines do get built, and even if their potential impacts on marine life are minimized, there has to be somewhere for the energy they produce to go. Transmission lines — those high-voltage cables you see strung up on steel struts across vast stretches of the country — are usually built by regional transmission organizations, and Jacobs says there might not be enough of them to carry all the energy produced by those new turbines.
This is exactly the issue Germany faced in 2020, when a lack of transmission capacity in Northern Germany meant the region had to send some of its wind power to neighboring countries instead. “They had a whole lot of offshore wind arrive at the beach,” Jacobs said. “And then the German utility industry said, ‘Oh, we hadn’t really prepared for this.’”
The Biden administration seems to want to avoid having a similar situation happen in the United States. That’s why the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes funding for transmission lines, and the administration announced the Energy Department is launching an initiative called Building a Better Grid that will act as a sort of central planning authority for grid improvements. But it’s unclear if that transmission buildout will happen by the time offshore wind gets up and running in the New York Bight — and the administration makes no mention of distribution lines, or the lower-voltage wires that bring electricity to homes and businesses. Those are usually built in the US by local utilities, explained Kyri Baker, assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, and they’re often only replaced once they become completely inoperable.”
““The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”
About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In addition, transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the albeit very low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.
This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor”
“The Interior Department said on Monday it had completed its environmental review for a massive wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts, a key step toward final approval of the long-stalled project that will play a prominent role in President Joe Biden’s effort to expand renewable energy in the U.S.
The completion of the review is a breakthrough for the U.S. offshore wind industry, which has lagged behind its European counterparts and the U.S. onshore industry that has grown rapidly, even during the pandemic. It also marks a key acceleration for the Biden administration that has advocated renewables growth on public lands and waters.”
“The project had suffered repeated delays under the Trump administration.”
“Rolling electric power blackouts afflicted roughly 2 million California residents in August as a heat wave gripped the Golden State. At the center of the problem is a state policy requiring that 33 percent of California’s electricity come from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, rising to a goal of 60 percent by 2030. Yet data showed that power demand peaks just before the sun begins to go down, when overheated people turn up their air conditioning in the late afternoon. Meanwhile, the power output from California’s wind farms in August was erratic.
Until this summer, California utilities and grid operators were able to purchase extra electricity from other states. But the August heat wave stretched from Texas to Oregon, so there was little to no surplus energy available.”
“California has been bringing the hammer down on a huge source of safe, reliable, always-on, non-carbon-dioxide-emitting electricity: nuclear power. In 2013, state regulators forced the closing of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which supplied electricity to 1.4 million households. By 2025, California regulators plan to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which can supply electricity to 3 million households.
The problem of climate change, along with the blackouts resulting from the vagaries of wind and solar power, suggests that California should not only keep its nuclear power plants running but also build more innovative reactors designed to flexibly back up variable renewable electricity generation.”
Nuclear Powerin Competitive Electricity Markets Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2000. https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2000/nea2569-dereg-2.pdf Economics of Nuclear Power World Nuclear Association. 3 2020. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/economic-aspects/economics-of-nuclear-power.aspx Economics of Nuclear Power Plant InvestmentMonte Carlo Simulations of Generation III/III+ Investment Projects Ben Wealer, Simon Bauer, Leonard Goke,