Facing severe heat, the Texas electric grid has a new ally: solar power

Facing severe heat, the Texas electric grid has a new ally: solar power

Battered by powerful storms and overheated by a heat wave, Texas this week is facing a dangerous early heat wave that has broken temperature records and strained the state’s independent power grid.

But lights and air conditioning remain largely statewide at a halt due to an unexpected new reality in the nation’s premier oil and gas state: Texas is quickly becoming a leader in solar power.

The amount of solar power generated in Texas has doubled since the beginning of last year. And that will nearly double by the end of next year, according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. Already, the state is competing with California in how much electricity it gets from commercial solar farms, which are springing up at a rapid pace across Texas, from the parched fields of west Texas to the south-west of Houston. to the emerging suburbs in the west.

“The solar is producing 15 percent of the total energy right now,” Joshua Rhodes, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said on a hot day in the state capital last week, when a higher-than-usual share of electricity was coming from the sun.

Nearly 7 percent of electric power used in Texas so far this year came from solarand 31 percent by air.

The state’s growing reliance on renewable energy has worried some Texas lawmakers concerned about reliable production and revenue from oil and gas. “It’s definitely ruffling some feathers,” Dr. Rhodes said.

Energy experts said several bills passed by the Republican-dominated state Senate in the spring included provisions that would add new costs and regulations to the solar and wind industries and severely limit the number of new projects in the state. . The bill failed to pass before the legislative session ended last month, but the desire to take similar action among many Republicans in the state and their skepticism about renewable energy remains strong.

“Wind power was the biggest infrastructure mistake in the history of Texas,” State Representative Jared Patterson, a conservative Dallas-area Republican, said. on Twitter Wednesday. He wrote, “It is hot and will get hotter.” in an earlier tweet, “Solar is helping, but make no mistake, the world’s 9th largest economy runs on natural gas.”

Politics over power generation in Texas have changed rapidly in recent years, which was affected by a power grid failure in February 2021 during a deadly winter storm. The immediate reaction of many Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, was to blame the frozen wind turbines. later reviews The persistent cold weather was found to have caused widespread outages at natural gas-fired power plants.

The June heat wave has reignited the debate on the grid as temperatures soared to dangerous levels. On Tuesday, the temperature in the border city of Del Rio reached 113 degrees, the highest since it was recorded a century ago. according to the National Weather Service, Then, on Wednesday, it was 115 degrees,

This was not an isolated incident. The heatwave in Texas followed a record-breaking event in Puerto Rico earlier this month, and another heatwave dried out central Canada, sparking devastating wildfires. Scientists have warned that the intensity and duration of heat waves are increasing as the planet continues to warm.

Many Texans have become experts at following the ups and downs of the state’s energy market, which Supply and demand curves are posted in near real time by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. If energy demand threatens to exceed supply, a blackout may be a last resort.

The supply and demand curves moved closer to each other for a brief period at the start of the week, prompting ERCOT to call upon customers to voluntarily use less power.

Paul Rasbury, who owns a flower shop outside Fort Worth, said he has already made it a practice to reduce his energy use. “We are raising our temperature, putting foil on the windows, closing some rooms and saying prayers,” he said. “Lots of prayers.”

The heat has been excruciating across the state, even for people who are used to high temperatures. “It’s the humidity that gets me,” said Kristen Triplett, who stood in the sunshine in a Dallas suburb on a day when the dense air temperature felt like 114 degrees. “It’s like breathing in water.”

Amid a heat wave, severe storms have knocked out power to more than 100,000 customers in Texas and spawned at least two deadly tornadoes, including one that killed three people in Perryton in the northern panhandle last week and one in the northern Panhandle on Wednesday. At least four people died in the Texas city. Matador.

But for much of last week, the same destructive sun that put Texans’ lives at risk also helped power up the state.

Referring to the effect on electricity prices, Allison Silverstein, an independent energy consultant based in Austin, said, “Renewable energy is definitely saving the grid and saving our wallets.”

Another test is due early next week, when more heat is expected to push energy demand past previous record levels.

For many years, the state’s Republican leadership embraced renewable energy. Former governor Rick Perry helped establish Texas as the leading state for wind power, Backed a billion-dollar effort to build transmission lines in 2005 To bring power from the windy western part of the state to major population centers.

And the competitive Texas energy market, long supported by state leaders, has allowed renewable energy to grow faster than in many other states, first with wind farms and now, because of the cost of solar technology. The decline has occurred, along with vast areas of solar arrays.

State Senator Nathan Johnson, a Democrat from Dallas, said in his office at the Texas Capitol, “As a state, we welcomed this, we worked hard to make this possible.” “Now, renewable energy has become a convenient scapegoat for the lack of reliability in our energy grid.”

Republican lawmakers have increasingly questioned the dependability of wind and solar power – some have described renewable energy as “unreliable” – as well as the level of subsidies given to wind and solar projects.

“It seems like there’s a really uneven playing field in the market,” state senator Phil King said at a hearing this year. “If we level that playing field, are people going to go out and start building gas plants?”

Concerns about reliability have been expressed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who was concerned that Texas does not have enough available capacity in reserve to deal with a situation in which wind and solar power perform poorly on any given day.

“We don’t have enough transmittable energy,” Mr Patrick said last month, referring to energy sources that can be turned on immediately in an emergency. Those sources may be batteries, but their capacity is still small. Typically, utilities turn to natural gas-fueled power plants.

Last month, the Texas Legislature passed a new $10 billion program to encourage the construction of new natural gas power plants. This amount includes $1.8 billion to buy backup power generators for local hospitals and other vital services, a provision originally proposed by Mr Johnson.

republican too Advanced Legislation This will increase costs and regulation for renewable energy producers, including new fees for transmission and ancillary services, as well as new permitting requirements. Rules about where projects can be located,

The legislation failed – but only at the last minute, and not before raising concerns within the industry.

“It’s a huge irony,” said John Berger, chief executive of Sunnova Energy, a Houston-based residential solar power and battery company. “The growth of wind and solar power is because Texas is more capitalist than many other states,” he said, “so the response of the so-called capitalists in Austin was socialism—the state invested $10 billion in natural gas.”

He said, “This is blatant protectionism and it has not made Texas great.”

Texas still lags behind California in terms of the amount of solar power on home roofs. But in the development of solar farms, it is quickly being overtaken by the Golden State.

In Fort Bend County, outside Houston, there are now six large solar farms, up from one in 2020.

“It’s being commissioned as we speak,” Joaquin Castillo, chief executive of Axiona Energy North America, said of the company. New 1,500-acre solar farm in Fort Bend, which is set to become operational this summer. “Texas has historically shown a strong commitment to the free market,” Mr. Castillo said. “And it’s a fast-growing market in terms of demand.”

Change has been rapid and notable, especially in rural West Texas, where voters are often conservative, generally supportive of oil and gas development – ​​and are increasingly benefiting from the spread of solar power.

“We’re in a better position financially for this,” said Democratic County Judge Joe Shuster in Pecos County, north of Big Bend National Park. “I don’t know how many megawatts of electricity we generate, but it’s a lot.”

He said the vast county has long had oil and gas development. Then came the wind. Now Solar. Mr. Shuster said he invited President Biden to visit the county and see how fossil fuels and renewable energy sources can be developed together.

“Everyone throws these stones at green energy,” Mr. Shuster said. “They can live together. I strongly believe in it.

The President never responded to his invitation.

Mary Beth Gahan Contributed reporting from Dallas.

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