A historic winter storm has hit Texas on Monday. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has initiated rolling controlled outages to manage the flow of electric power to residents in the state. The website states, “rotating outages are controlled, temporary interruptions of electrical service implemented by utilities to reduce demand and preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole.” 

According to its website, ERCOT “manages the flow of electric power to more than 26 million Texas customers—representing about 90 percent of the state’s electric load.” Unfortunately, the controlled rolling outages did not go exactly as planned. On Monday, Fox News reported that the storm has left 2.5 million people without power.

At 1:25 a.m. on Feb. 15, ERCOT announced on its site a “Conservation Critical” warning—or an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA) level 3. The regional entity for the central United States, Southwest Power Pool (SPP), followed later calling for a level 3 at 10:08 a.m.,

“ERCOT has issued an EEA level 3 because electric demand is very high right now, and supplies can’t keep up. Reserves have dropped below 1,000 MW and are not expected to recover within 30 minutes; as a result, ERCOT has ordered transmission companies to reduce demand on the system…This type of demand reduction is only used as a last resort to preserve the reliability of the electric system as a whole.”

Level 3 Energy Emergency Alert

According to the press release, SPP reported that in its “history as a grid operator, this is an unprecedented event and marks the first time SPP has ever had to call for controlled interruptions of service, said SPP’s executive vice president and chief operating officer Lanny Nickell.” 

The protocols for ERCOT’s use of emergency alerts are detailed here.

Texas’ growing investment in renewable energy has largely focused on wind energy. Texas ranks number one in the country in terms of total installed capacity in wind energy. Wind power alone “has been the fastest-growing source of energy in Texas’ power grid.”

Texas Growth in Wind Capacity

As of 2019, wind energy accounted for 20% of the total Texas energy production, according to the Dallas Observer. Texas ranks #2 in the U.S. in terms of Solar energy installation.

The Austin American Statesman publication reports that in “2015 wind power generation supplied 11% of Texas’ energy grid. Last year it supplied 23% and overtook coal as the system’s second-largest source of energy after natural gas. In Austin, wind power supplies roughly 19% of the city’s energy demands, all of which is passed from producers to consumers across the state grid. The city began adding several megawatts of wind energy capacity to its renewable energy portfolio in the 1990s from both West Texas and Gulf Coast wind farms.” Austin’s market alone is now at about 43% renewable energy if you include solar and biomass energy.

Typically, energy usage peaks in the summer. However, this week the energy consumption “is expected to exceed the state’s previous winter-peak record set in January 2018 by 10,000 megawatts. And peak demand expected for Monday and Tuesday is forecasted to meet or exceed the state’s summertime record for peak demand of 74,820 megawatts.” 

Among the sources for energy, investment in renewables or “Green Energy” is not the panacea many seem to think it is. In the case of the wind turbines, the harsh weather over the weekend froze the turbines, rendering them useless during the storm.

The turbine blades are difficult to transport, gigantic, and difficult to recycle. The massive blades are piling up in landfills. According to a 2020 Bloomberg Green report, “Wind power is carbon-free, and about 85% of turbine components, including steel, copper wire, electronics, and gearing can be recycled or reused. But the fiberglass blades remain difficult to dispose of. With some as long as a football field, big rigs can only carry one at a time, making transportation costs prohibitive for long-distance hauls.” 

An NPR report in 2019 confirms the challenge of turbine waste disposal. “The wind turbine blades are a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood, and polyurethane coatings.” And the turbines and their blades are getting bigger.

A paper from the U.S. Department of Energy explains that increasing rotor diameter and height is the best way to access more power from wind turbines, even in areas with lower wind speeds—so there will be more material to dispose of.

Graphic/ArsTechnica.com

Turbine disposal is not the only challenge. Batteries used to facilitate wind and solar energy are egregious environmental hazards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its Jan. 6 press release, acknowledged that

“[r]ecycling is a critical piece of our future for not only consumer commodities like paper and plastic, but also the ever-expanding renewable energy sector,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Without a strategy for their end-of-life management, so-called green technologies like solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and windmills will ultimately place the same unintended burdens on our planet and economy as traditional commodities. Inadequate solid waste management systems present serious risks to human health, the environment, and the economy and loss of economic opportunity associated with the recovery of valuable materials. Increasing U.S. investment in renewable energy systems will create new kinds and new volumes of waste. Not only are there byproducts and energy demands associated with the production of so-called green technologies, but these systems also produce materials requiring careful end-of-life management to avoid creating unexpected burdens on individuals and communities and the risk of causing new Superfund sites and wasting of scarce and valuable resources.”

The paper supporting those investigations has been removed from the EPA website because it “did not follow the appropriate review process before posting.”

Battery production and disposal remain among the biggest challenges facing the renewable energy industry. For example, electric cars“Just to build each car battery—weighing upwards of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) in size for sport-utility vehicles—would emit up to 74% more C02 than producing an efficient conventional car if it’s made in a factory powered by fossil fuels in a place like Germany.” The disposal and/or recycling of batteries is a costly and hazardous process.

The batteries that do get recycled “undergo a high-temperature melting-and-extraction, or smelting process similar to ones used in the mining industry…the commercial facilities are energy-intensive. The plants are also costly to build and operate and require sophisticated equipment to treat harmful emissions generated by the smelting process. And despite the high costs, these plants don’t recover all valuable battery materials.” Moreover, less than 5% of the batteries used today are recycled. Instead, they are often thrown in landfills, potentially leaching caustic, dangerous chemicals into the environment.

In recent years, California has experienced massive blackouts due, in great part, to its shift from investing in its aging electric grid to a focus on developing renewable sources of energy. Not only did they shift investment in the grid, but they also failed to integrate the renewable sources of energy in a way that the power could be delivered where it needed to go. California has mandated that “60 percent of the state’s grid be made up of energy generated by renewables by 2030.”

Kenny Stein of the Institute for Energy Research speaks to the challenges facing Texas as it moves toward a greater commitment to renewable energy. “Becoming heavily reliant on wind and solar is incredibly expensive as two to three times the infrastructure must be constructed in order to generate a proportional amount of power as traditional sources… It’s very important that Texas is cautious about becoming too reliant on renewables and the intermittency risk which accompanies them—and where they are used, there must be a way that wind and solar compensates for the intermittency.” 

On Feb. 11, The Department of Energy for the Biden administration announced a $100,000 million investment “for transformative, clean energy solutions supporting President Biden’s Climate Innovation Agenda.”