AUSTIN, June 23, 2014 — It’s a little known fact that Texas, the nation’s largest fossil fuel producer, is also the greenest green-energy state in the United States.
That title was confirmed again today by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in its latest “Today in Energy” report for June 23. On March 26, for a few brief moments, 29 percent of all the electricity used across Texas’ massive, state-run ERCOT power grid — 10,296 megawatts — was produced by wind power from the state’s huge 12,355 Mw capacity. That’s a new record.
Texas is by far the nation’s largest producer of wind power, thanks to strong winds sweeping across west Texas ranch lands. Texas produces one-fifth of the entire U.S. non-hydro, renewable electrical output — twice as much as California, the second greenest state.
The title of greenest was wrested away from California in 2007, after the Texas state legislature passed a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) in 1999 requiring ERCOT to produce a percentage of its electricity from renewable sources. ERCOT met all renewable mandates, even as they’ve been increased, years before required.
The $6 billion dollar gamble
ERCOT did something else smart, and necessary, that no other state did to make it number one.
As seen in the above ERCOT graph, wind can vary from producing almost no electricity at all to producing 10,000 Mw in a single day. Wind electricity has the distinct disadvantage that it has to be used when it is produced, not when it is needed. Power grids have to be specially modified to handle wind’s wild fluctuations to prevent grid overloads and blackouts.
After research and anticipating growth, ERCOT partitioned the state into competitive renewable energy zones of high solar and wind potential and invested $6 billion into a massive electric power grid upgrade to carry electricity from the zones where it is produced to large urban centers in east Texas where it is used.
The grid upgrade is designed to handle 18,000 Mw of wind and solar capacity, so there is still room to handle more growth in renewable power production.
A royal federal government screw-up
On the other hand, unlike ERCOT, the federal Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in the Pacific Northwest did not adequately plan for the impact of adding large numbers of wind farms to its power grid.
In 2011, during peak spring runoff, all those glimmering new white windmills in the Columbia River basin had to be cut off from the grid because of overload potential caused when hydroelectric production is at its peak. Lawsuits ensued.
After that, BPA came up with a government policy solution to pay wind-farm operators, at taxpayer expense, for lost revenues when their wind farms are disconnected from the grid. That plan lasts through 2015.
VER is government lingo for “variable energy resources” (meaning wind and solar).
(provide) clarity and guidance (for) a revised BPA VER integration policy that is consistent with open access principles and provides non-discriminatory transmission and integration services to VERs.
– FERC ruling, 11/21/2013
On November 21, 2013, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) agreed with renewable energy interests and rejected BPA’s proposed Open Access Transmission Tariff (OATT) to fund grid upgrades to handle the stresses wind and solar farms put on their grid.
As of now, to prevent discrimination against VERs, Bonneville has no way to pay for necessary upgrades to the power grid to prevent overloads caused by wind and solar farms.
That’s irrational and threatens the fragile stability of BPA’s stressed power grid.
Wind’s future uncertain
Despite its success, the future of wind power looks uncertain. In 2013, Texas added only 150 Mw of utility-scale wind capacity, one-tenth the amount of the previous year.
There are 7,000 Mw of new wind projects planned, but they face an uncertain future unless government subsidies are restored. As of now, EIA says very few large wind projects are scheduled to come online in Texas or nationally.
Since it is still heavily subsidized, solar is all the rage these days, and Texas is getting into the act by taking advantage of abundant sunshine in south Texas in the McCamey competitive energy zone.
Texas is the nation’s largest producer of both fossil and renewable energy. The reason is simple: Texans take a pragmatic approach to solving energy problems, often using the same land for wind power and for fracking both oil and natural gas.
Proper planning and spending unmatched anywhere else has made green energy flourish in Texas. Six billion dollars in grid upgrades is not pocket change, but it’s the type of investment in electric power grids necessary nationwide if large variable energy sources like wind and solar are to be integrated into the national power grid.
There are two ways to go for utility-scale renewable electricity, the Texas way or the Bonneville way. The correct way seems obvious.