Wind turbines played significant role in historic Texas power failures, data suggest

Wind energy production dropped off sharply as cold moved in.

Published: February 18, 2021 11:56am

Updated: February 19, 2021 7:58am

The historic power failures in Texas this week amid a major cold snap there appear to have been driven in no small part by the failure of the state's wind turbines to keep up with a spike in demand, according to energy data from federal sources. 

Once-in-a-century cold weather in much of Texas this week sent energy demands skyrocketing, placing major strains on power grids and leaving millions of residents without power for extended periods of single-digit weather. Weather data show that temperatures throughout the state began plummeting sharply late Saturday, Feb. 13 and throughout the next day. In areas such as Fort Worth, the temperature has hovered around zero at times. February average lows in that area are around 40 degrees.

A statewide blame game has accompanied the crisis, with numerous industries and commentators alleging that, variously, wind, solar, natural gas and coal failed to meet the surge in heating demand accompanying the cold snap. Yet federal data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate that, of the state's major energy sources, wind experienced the sharpest drop-off in energy production

The plunge in temperatures led to both a surge in heating demand and the concomitant power outages. Data from the EIA show that at nearly the exact same time demand was surging and energy grids were buckling, wind energy experienced a catastrophic drop-off: In the evening of Feb. 14, wind in the state was producing just over 9,000 MWh of energy, while 24 hours later it was putting out  less than 800 MWh, a roughly 91% decrease in output. 

Virtually every other energy industry in the state also saw decreased output over the same time period amid record demand, yet none saw as steep a decrease as did wind power. Natural gas, the state's largest source of energy, saw a 23% decline in output, as did coal, the second-largest source. Nuclear, which competes with wind for third place, dropped 26%. 

Texas has come to rely increasingly on wind power in recent years. The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts said last August that the state's usage of wind power has "more than quadrupled" since 2009, with wind rising to supply 20% of the state's total energy needs in 2019. Coal power, meanwhile, declined from 37% of the state's electricity generation in 2009 to 20% in 2019. 

'A lot of issues with the infrastructure itself'

The overall data picture indicates that Texas' energy infrastructure across the board struggled heavily to meet the surge in demand, an assessment shared by Leticia Gonzales, a markets contributor at the industry group Natural Gas Intelligence. 

Gonzales was asked which among the state's energy industries failed to meet the huge demand of the recent cold snap. "The short answer is, they all did," she replied.

"There is a lot of finger pointing, depending on which way you fall politically," Gonzales argued. "At the heart of it, it's not one generation's fault over the other."

Gonzales argued that the way Texas' primary electrical corporation, ERCOT, manages electricity in the state may have something to do with the recent outages.

"ERCOT operates as an energy-only market," she said. "Generators only get paid for the generation they are actually producing." In other regions, she said, industries operate a "capacity market," where grid managers "actually pay generators to have capacity available to meet any kind of unexpected spikes in demand."

"Reserve margins, having that cushion of extra capacity has been an issue in Texas for years," Gonzales added. "The reserve margin has been razor-thin. We just don't have a lot of spare capacity."

Gonzales said that, in addition to wind turbines freezing, "a lot of natural gas pipelines" also froze up.

"Production plummeted," she said. "It was a lot of issues with the infrastructure itself."

After several days of defending the renewable energy source, champions of wind power received partial vindication this week when, on Tuesday, ERCOT Senior Director Dan Woodfin told media that "a lot of the generation that has gone offline today has been primarily due to issues on the natural gas system."

The natural gas losses could also be partly explained by wind production having plummeted so steeply in the initial cold snap and remained at low levels in subsequent days while natural gas rates remained relatively elevated. With natural gas producing so much more KWh relative to other fuels, it stands to reason that its role now in ongoing outages would likewise be disproportionately large.

A 30-day review of energy production in Texas shows that, while natural gas and wind energy were at times neck-and-neck in production rates throughout January and into mid-February, natural gas production skyrocketed following the cold snap while wind plummeted. 

Natural gas energy output in Texas hit a high on Feb. 15 before declining sharply in the following days, yet it still remained over 400% higher than it was on Feb. 7, compared to an overall 83% decrease in wind output.

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