Tech Insights

Heat Wave Threatens Texas Power Grid…Again. Here’s How To Protect the Grid

July 06, 2023 by Kevin Clemens

Solar power and battery storage have come to the rescue to help keep the fragile Texas electricity grid up and running.

In February 2021, a cold snap hit Texas, paralyzing the state’s power grid and resulting in more than 200 deaths. It was the longest freeze in state history, with up to nine consecutive days of freezing temperatures. 

 

CoServ Solar Station

CoServ Solar Station in Krugerville, Texas. Image used courtesy of Ken Oltmann/CoServ. – U.S. Department of Energy from the United States, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 

 

Politicians quickly blamed the inconsistent nature of renewable energy for the grid failures and went so far as to post photos of frozen wind turbines. These photos were actually of turbines located in northern Europe. Subsequent independent investigations found a lack of proper winterization of power grid equipment. Specifically, valves controlling natural gas pipelines were a primary cause of the grid disruptions.

Texas weather has once again featured prominently in the national news. This time, an unprecedented heat wave has pushed temperatures into triple digits, resulting in at least 13 deaths and hundreds of hospitalizations. Again, the Texas power grid is threatened with disruption and failure as the daily demand has reached more than 80,000 megawatts (MW) day after day. 

 

Enter Solar

This time, however, renewable energy, particularly solar, is credited with helping to prevent a collapse of the Texas grid.  That’s because, since May, the state has 16,800 MW of solar power compared with just 2,600 MW in 2019, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). Solar energy is meeting nearly 20 percent of the soaring grid demand as daytime high temperatures exceed 110 degrees and, in some places, reach more than 115 degrees. 

Solar power has limitations, of course, and demand in Texas peaks in the early evening when people return from work, crank up the air conditioning, watch television, and cook dinner. This is when the setting sun reduces and ultimately removes solar grid contributions. Ordinarily, wind energy (of which Texas has the most in the nation) picks up the slack, but the unique meteorological condition Texas is experiencing (a heat dome caused by a high-pressure area parked over the region) produces little wind. 

 

Solar panels

Solar panels. Image used courtesy of Pexels

 

According to ERCOT, an unusual number of coal and natural gas electric power plants, in addition to a nuclear power plant, have gone offline or reduced output since early June, prompting requests for voluntary conservation, including raising home thermostats and cutting back on industrial lighting and energy usage. Texas is unique, having its own power grid separate from the rest of the U.S. power grid, so it cannot bring in energy from outside the grid during extreme demand. 

 

Addressing Solar Limits With Battery Storage

That’s where battery energy storage systems come in. Texas has installed more than 2.3 gigawatts (GW) of lithium-ion battery storage capacity (second only to California’s 4.9 GW), which is tied to the grid and can come onboard nearly instantaneously to make up for any sudden shortages. 

The lithium-ion batteries are the size of tractor-trailer trucks and are distributed statewide. When a coal-fired plant recently went offline during peak hours, the battery backup helped the grid stay up and running. Coal-fired plants in Texas average 50 years old, while natural gas-fired plants average 30, and breakdowns are not uncommon. Texas has plans to more than double its battery storage capacity in the coming year.

A Push Against Renewables

The irony is the Texas legislature spent most of the past year pushing through pro-fossil fuel legislation to penalize the renewable energy industry with new costs imposed on wind and solar. This is despite a 2021 report by the Office of the Texas State Climatologist revealing:

  • The average Texas surface temperature in 2036 is expected to be 3.0 °F warmer than the 1950-1999 average and is likely to be 1.8 °F warmer than average during 1991-2020.
  • The number of 100-degree days in Texas is expected to nearly double by 2036 compared to 2001-2020, particularly evident in urban areas.
  •  Winter temperatures are expected to continue to increase, while the coolest summer days will get hotter.

Even as the combination of wind and solar energy has made Texas the country's leading source of renewable electricity generation, the aggressive push against carbon-free energy in the state runs counter to its popularity with the public. 

 

The Heat Wave Expands

The Texas heat wave has been happening since early June and won’t be over anytime soon. The heat dome is spreading eastward to Louisiana and Mississippi, where temperatures are already in the 100s. Those states do not have the advantages of significant investments in solar power and battery backup storage. It promises to be a long, hot summer