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Factchecking BBC’s Factcheck

February 18, 2021
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By Paul Homewood

Unsurprisingly the BBC have tried to minimise the role of wind power in the Texas blackouts:

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As freezing temperatures grip the southern United States, there have been major power failures across Texas as increased demand for heating has overwhelmed the energy grid.

Supplies of both electricity and gas have been intermittent, with the authorities saying they need to “safely manage the balance of supply and demand on the grid” to avoid another major power cut.

Republican representatives and media commentators have blamed green energy policies, in particular the increased use of wind turbines.

What went wrong?

The bitingly cold temperatures have caused major problems across the energy sector in Texas.

Wind turbines froze, as well as vital equipment at gas wells and in the nuclear industry.

But because gas and other non-renewable energies contribute far more to the grid than wind power, particularly in winter, these shortages had a far greater impact on the system.

So when critics pointed to a loss of nearly half of Texas’s wind-energy capacity as a result of frozen turbines, they failed to point out double that amount was being lost from gas and other non-renewable supplies such as coal and nuclear.

Texas has promoted the development of wind energy over the past 15 years.

And on average, renewable energy sources – mostly wind – account for about 20% of its electricity supply.

But the largest proportion comes from fossil fuels, as well as 10% from nuclear.

On Tuesday, the state’s principal energy supplier, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), said the freezing conditions had led to:

  • 30GW being taken offline from gas, coal and nuclear sources
  • a 16GW loss in capacity in wind and other renewable energy supplies

And this, it said, had severely curtailed its ability to satisfy a peak demand of 69GW over the past few days – a surge even greater than anticipated.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-56085733

But as in true BBC fashion, they have not told the full story.

Firstly let’s consider this chart:

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https://twitter.com/AlexEpstein/status/1362042738728837124

When wind power collapsed suddenly this week, it was reliable gas and coal which filled the gap. Without that, the Texas grid would have disintegrated with devastating consequences.

For various reasons though some gas, coal and nuclear capacity also went offline, meaning that there was not enough to supply the extra demand caused by the cold weather. But it is oversimplistic to “blame” gas, coal and nuclear power.

For a start, some gas and coal plants were tripped when the wind power failed so spectacularly. Large CCGT and coal plants are not designed to be taken off and put back on the system quickly, as they are built for baseload.

Certainly some plants had issues with the extreme cold, but one consequence of this tripping out was that the plants went “cold”, exacerbating problems with frozen pipes and equipment.

Worse still, power blackouts affected gas producers in the Permian Basin, which were then unable to continue providing fuel for the grid, potentially exacerbating the problem.

(There is a very good technical summary of what went wrong here by Jason Isaac, which explores all of these issues).

Another issue is that some gas plants were shut for maintenance, a normal situation in winter when demand is supposed to be low.

We will obviously have to wait for the inevitable official investigation, but it seems that most of the gas and coal plant problems occurred after the trips. And as we know, gas and coal plants can work perfectly well in much colder climates.

But as Isaac comments:

Renewables were the dominant factor in why Texas got into this situation to begin with, which led to the need for action by ERCOT, their resulting mistakes, and the problems with getting coal and gas back online. Just pointing the finger at downed gas plants is a bit like steadily replacing the bricks holding your house up with straw and masking tape, and then blaming the chimney when the whole thing collapses.

Clearly Texas has failed to ensure its grid is fully winterised, but there is a much more fundamental problem – dwindling reserves.

In thee last decade, dispatchable capacity has fallen by 3 GW, all from coal plants. This may not sound much, but crucially demand has risen by 20% in that time.

Consequently, whereas Texas had ample reserve capacity, now, as we have seen, it has none when it is needed.

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US EIA

https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/Texas/

So why is Texas running low on reserve capacity, ie the difference between peak demand and available generating capacity? It is because ERCOT includes renewable energy in its “available capacity”, as the Texas Public Policy Foundation explain:

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https://www.texaspolicy.com/ercots-phantom-reserve-margins-spell-trouble-for-summertime/

This is dangerously similar to the assumptions made by our own National Grid in their forward projections.

Put simply, what Texas needs urgently is some new dispatchable capacity, and not more wind power.

FOOTNOTE

It has been noted that Texas is separate to the rest of the US grid. Loudmouth James O’Brien, of LBC, apparently blamed this on Texas’ dislike of socialism.

In fact, this situation dates back at least to the 1930s, when Roosevelt set up the Federal Power Commission:

The predecessor for ERCOT was formed in the 1930s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with regulating interstate electricity sales.

“Utilities in Texas were smart and made an agreement that no one was going to extend power outside of Texas,” Donna Nelson, who served as chair of the state Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT, from 2008 to 2017, said in an ERCOT promotional video about the history of the grid.

“By eschewing transmission across state lines, the Texas utilities retained freedom,” Richard D. Cudahy wrote in a 1995 article. “This policy of isolation avoided regulation by the newly created Federal Power Commission, whose jurisdiction was limited to utilities operating in interstate commerce.”

The result was “an electrical island in the United States,” Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT, said. “That independence has been jealously guarded, I think both by policy makers and the industry.”

Even today ERCOT, which was formed in 1970, remains beyond the reach of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate electric transmission.

https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/17/texas-power-grid-why-state-has-its-own-operated-ercot/6782380002/

Being part of a larger grid may not have made much difference anyway, as the Midwest has also been experiencing a power emergency.

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24 Comments
  1. George Herraghty permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:15 pm

    Well done Paul.
    The Beeb don’t seem to know that the Gruniad they habitually read, derives most of its income from wind industry advertising.

  2. Thomas Carr permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:21 pm

    See “Texas Storms” in the online bulletin of the New York Times for a better picture than the BBC has attempted.

  3. Vrager 1 permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:28 pm

    The whole point is that when there is a variety of sources of supply, when one fails, the others have to pick up the shortfall. That means gas – the only one with a quick response, if coal stations aren’t ticking over, has to be available. Nuclear doesn’t do boosts… it provides a level amount of heat to create steam to run the turbines, and takes days if not weeks to shut down and pick up again.

    Wind turbines ice up in blizzards and are switched off in high winds to avoid damage, and solar panels covered in snow are useless. The renewables are unreliable and Texas needs to rethink using them… going back to oil and gas for which supplies exist for the next century if used for electricity generation and home heating alone is the solution.

  4. MrGrimNasty permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:32 pm

    Even the BBC can’t argue that fossil fuels didn’t save Germany this winter, but they probably will. Now the Germans are complaining that Poland wants to go nuclear to make the carbon dioxide emission reductions that are required by the EU. It’s a crazy world.

  5. cookers52 permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:51 pm

    I noticed this, the BBC fact checkers only sought information from ERCOT, who not unsurprisingly only parroted corporate nonsense.

    When electricity networks fail the causes are complex, but what is without doubt is wind power needs 100% black start backups. Ie it must start with no power grid available.

  6. Curious George permalink
    February 18, 2021 5:55 pm

    Wind failed to provide expected 20 GW, so backup sources had to provide it. They did not. Surely this not the failure of the wind?

    Freezing to death is a great way to save the planet.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      February 18, 2021 10:37 pm

      As I read it, CG, there is not much gas storage in Tx, and gas tends be pumped by power derived from wind (as is oil), so when the wind turbines failed gas could not be pumped so…power cuts.
      Let’s face it, wind is not a very predictable or reliable source of energy.

      • Duker permalink
        February 19, 2021 4:15 am

        Theres more than you think. The issue of peak gas demand exceeding that coming from the wells is well known….probably also worth more than in ‘off season’ as well
        Vast underground salt domes and depleted NG fields are used

        Click to access gsd-gas-storage-report-112020.pdf

  7. Curious George permalink
    February 18, 2021 6:02 pm

    The Energy Department order, requested by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, authorizes power plants throughout the state to run a maximum output levels, even as such a move is anticipated to result in a violation of limits of pollution.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-15/pollution-limit-waived-for-texas-power-plants-in-emergency-order

  8. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 18, 2021 7:16 pm

    Another way of putting it is that wind was producing at best at about an eighth of capacity, while gas was managing about 50%, primarily because of shortages of gas supply, but secondarily because ERCOT was too slow in imposing power cuts, leading to underfrequency and plants tripping out.

  9. February 18, 2021 9:22 pm

    Why is it such a problem that, when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, that there is not at least 100% backup for such renewables. I know this is probably too complicated for politicians, but the power industry knows better. Again, why does the problem remain ?

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      February 18, 2021 10:11 pm

      In what sort of insane world do you think a company will build and maintain equipment capable of supplying the whole peak demand of the gird, only to get paid for supplying occasional ‘table crumbs’ of electricity when other preferential suppliers fail?

    • bobn permalink
      February 19, 2021 2:50 am

      Who will pay for that 100% backup siting idle?
      If you just build the backup and use it constantly and routinely you can dispense with the cost of unecessary unreliables. But if you build the unreliables they need the backup at double the cost. Hence the fact that unreliables are an expensive unecessary waste of money.

      • Duker permalink
        February 19, 2021 4:07 am

        Same goes for long distance transmission, often by DC. Reserve capacity is needed for that too as the power you want to transmit goes up otherwise its only going to run under half capacity.
        Its a catch 22, they say you dont need reserve power as we can bring all we need from far away, and we are talking of the long distances in US .

  10. February 18, 2021 10:10 pm

    Paul, AFAIK it’s a myth that the Tx grid is 100% isolated
    “The U.S. is connected by one power grid consisting of three interconnected grids: the Eastern Grid, the Western Grid, and the Texas (ERCOT) Grid”

    http://factmyth.com/factoids/the-us-is-connected-by-one-power-grid/

    Here is the local TV station confirming that they were importing power

  11. February 18, 2021 10:21 pm

    I’m getting hung up here:

    “Another issue is that some gas plants were shut for maintenance, a normal situation in winter when demand is supposed to be low.”

    OK, so we live in S CA. Our house is terribly insulated, and we have elec and nat gas & Gas forced air heating. In the summer the gas bill runs in the $16-$20/ mo range (even w/ a lot of grilling). Elec is $75 (unless we run the AC for a few days). In winter Elec bumps up to $100ish, and gas to $100-$120 (last bill). Demand for gas is 5+ X’s in winter.

    • Ed Bo permalink
      February 19, 2021 6:50 pm

      gary: When they talk about “gas plants” here, they are talking about gas-powered electrical generation. In Texas, peak electrical demand is on hot summer days due to AC load, so it is common to schedule down time for maintenance in the winter.

  12. Phil O'Sophical permalink
    February 18, 2021 11:20 pm

    This lady may be excitable but she charts the way the media initially had no narrative and told the truth about the over-reliance on renewables and the need for stable base-load supply, then over the course of three days began ‘correcting’ their story to blame climate change and the extreme weather; even ‘disappearing’ one story for a re-write.
    https://www.bitchute.com/video/MRedSguNiLCt/

  13. bobn permalink
    February 19, 2021 2:44 am

    Here is an excellent analysis on Judith Curry’s site by a US Power engineer of how Texas got into this mess
    https://judithcurry.com/2021/02/18/assigning-blame-for-the-blackouts-in-texas/

    Much of it serves as a warning to the UK.

    • Ed Bo permalink
      February 19, 2021 6:57 pm

      bobn: You beat me to it. I second your recommendation.

      One point he brought up that should get particular attention: With the increased use of heat pumps, which require inefficient electrical resistance supplementation when the temperature drops below a certain threshold, there is a much bigger demand spike in cold snaps. If not planned for, it can be a significant contributor to grid failure.

  14. Jack Broughton permalink
    February 19, 2021 12:42 pm

    Wonder if anyone has been listening to the Beebs reading of the new Bill Gates book?
    I was curious to find why an obviously very intelligent guy was so taken in by the Climate scam. Basically, he bases the whole book on the computer models and repeated hype about a climate emergency. In the last episode, where he tried to look at the technologies and economics it was all about governments fixing carbon prices and investing trillions which might reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

    He is also a fan of Hans Roslings book, Factfulness, which I also enjoyed. However, he had mis-read the section on Global Warming as Rosling takes a similar approach to Ljumborg in not denying that it should be considered, but treating it as a low priority compared with pandemics, economics and wars. He also has forgotten the sections on questioning all information in the press.

    Gates’ main two fallacies are :
    1. CO2 is a far weaker radiation absorber than the IPCC et al use: See David Coe’s recent articles on NALPKT to appreciate this. Gates accepts the theory and models without question.
    2. The technologies such as CCS and hydrogen are in their infancies and costs etc are still very unclear. He ignores totally the disastrous economic effects of using unproven, expensive technologies on the wester world.

    • tomo permalink
      February 19, 2021 3:26 pm

      Jack B

      as far a Mr. Gates’ omniscience is concerned look no further than his role in the rise of the tech industry as laid out in Accidental Empires

      Paul Allen was the “top coder” at Microsoft – and if you know what Gates and Ballmer tried to do to him when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – you’ll likely not pay attention to much anything Bill has to say about … anything.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      February 19, 2021 7:55 pm

      There is a chapter by chapter review of the book on WUWT. The main point is that Gates gets it wrong in the first paragraph with his failure to understand the badly named ‘greenhouse effect’ and the life of CO2 in the atmosphere. He never recovers from that and believes that the model fantasies are true. Just goes to show that no matter how clever you are, you should stick to what you know.

  15. Robert Christopher permalink
    February 21, 2021 10:04 am

    Texas Power Outages Explained by Jason Issac:

    He predicted a power crisis in Texas months ago.

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