Facing Brutal Heat, the Texas Electric Grid Has a New Ally: ‌Solar Power

Battered by powerful storms and overheated in a dome of heat, Texas broke temperature records this week and endured a dangerous early heatwave that strained the state’s independent power grid.

But lights and air conditioners across the state remained on, largely due to the unlikely new reality in the nation’s leading oil and gas state that Texas is fast becoming a leader in solar power. be.

The amount of solar energy generated in Texas has doubled since the beginning of last year. And it will nearly double again by the end of next year, according to Texas Power Reliability Council data. The state already rivals California in the amount of electricity it gets from commercial solar power plants. Commercial solar power plants are expanding rapidly across Texas, from the dry ranches of West Texas to the fast-growing suburbs of southwest Houston.

“Solar power currently produces 15% of total energy,” Joshua Rose, a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said on a sweltering day in the state capital last week. comes from the sun

About 7% of the electricity used in Texas so far this year came from the sun31% from wind power.

Texas’ increasing reliance on renewable energy has worried some Texas legislators who have in mind reliable production and revenues from oil and gas. “Definitely a lot of ruffled feathers,” Dr. Rose says.

Energy experts said several bills passed by Republican-controlled state Senate this spring would add new costs and regulations to the solar and wind industries and reduce the number of new projects in the state. It contained provisions that severely restricted the Those bills failed to pass before Congress closed last month, but the desire to take similar action and skepticism about renewable power remain strong among many Republicans in the state.

“Wind power was the biggest infrastructure failure in Texas history,” said Rep. Jared Patterson, a conservative Republican in the Dallas area. on Twitter Wednesday. “It’s hot and it’s going to be hotter,” he wrote in a previous tweet. “Solar power helps, but make no mistake, the world’s ninth largest economy runs on natural gas.”

The politics of power generation in Texas has undergone a rapid shift in recent years, in the wake of power grid outages during a deadly winter storm in February 2021. The immediate reaction of many Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott, was to blame frozen policy. wind turbines, but Subsequent review Persistent cold weather has caused widespread shutdowns of natural gas-fired power plants.

A June heat wave has renewed the debate over power grids as temperatures soar to dangerous levels. The border town of Del Rio reached 113 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, the highest temperature since records began more than 100 years ago. According to the National Weather Service. Then on Wednesday it was 115 degrees.

It was not an isolated event. The heat dome over Texas follows a record-breaking dome in Puerto Rico earlier this month and another that dried out central Canada and sparked devastating wildfires. Scientists warn that the planet’s steady warming is leading to increased intensity and duration of heat waves.

Many Texans are adept at following the ebb and flow of their state’s energy markets. Demand and supply curves posted in near real time By Texas Electrical Reliability Council (ERCOT). If energy demand threatens to outstrip supply, rolling blackouts may be a last resort.

As the supply and demand curves briefly approached earlier this week, ERCOT called on customers to voluntarily reduce their electricity usage.

Paul Raspberry, who owns a flower shop outside Fort Worth, said he’s already practicing habits to reduce his energy use. “We raise the temperature, put foil on the windows, close certain rooms and pray,” he said. “Many prayers.”

The heat has made it tough across the state, even for those accustomed to high temperatures. “I worry about humidity,” said Kristen Triplett, standing in the sun outside Dallas on a day when the air felt as hot as 114 degrees. “It’s like breathing underwater.”

Amid a heat wave, strong storms cut power to more than 100,000 customers in Texas, spawned at least two deadly tornadoes, killed three in Perryton in the northern Panhandle last week, and hit central Texas on Wednesday. At least four people died in the town. Matador.

But for most of the last week, the same intense sun that endangered Texans’ lives also helped power the state.

Allison Silverstein, an independent energy consultant based in Austin, said, referring to the impact on electricity prices, “renewables will definitely save the grid and save our wallets.” .

Another test is due early next week, as further excessive heat is expected to push energy demand above record levels.

Republican leadership in the state has long embraced renewable power. Former Governor Rick Perry helped establish Texas as a wind power leader. Supporting Multi-Billion Dollar Effort to Build Power Lines in 2005 Delivering power to major population centers from the windy west of the state.

And Texas’s competitive energy market, with long-standing support from state leaders, has enabled renewable energy development faster than many other states, first with wind and now with solar. As the cost of photovoltaic technology has decreased, large scale solar arrays are being developed.

“As a state, we welcomed this and worked hard to make it happen,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, said in the Oval Office at the Texas State Capitol. “Renewables are now a convenient scapegoat for the lack of reliability in the energy grid.”

Republicans have increasingly questioned the reliability of wind and solar power (some have called renewables “unreliable”) and the level of subsidies offered to wind and solar projects. there is

“There seems to be a really unfair playing field in the market,” state Senator Phil King said at a hearing this year. “If we level up that playing field, will people start building gas plants?”

Concerns over reliability were echoed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who said Texas doesn’t have enough spare capacity to make up for underperformance of wind and solar power for the day.

Patrick: “Not enough energy to dispatch” said last month, refers to an energy source that can be quickly activated in an emergency. Their power source may be batteries, but their capacity is still small. Power companies typically look to power plants that are powered by natural gas.

Last month, the Texas legislature passed a new $10 billion program primarily to encourage the construction of new natural gas power plants. That total includes $1.8 billion to purchase backup generators for local hospitals and other critical services, a provision Johnson originally proposed.

Republicans too advanced law This will increase costs and regulations for renewable energy producers, including new tariffs and new licensing requirements for transmission and ancillary services. Rules for project locations.

The bill fell through, but it was at the last minute and not before concerns rose within the industry.

“It’s a big irony,” said John Berger, chief executive of Sannova Energy, a residential solar and battery company based in Houston. “The growth of wind and solar is because Texas is more capitalist than many other states,” he said. The idea was to have Gas invest $10 billion.”

“This is blatant protectionism, and that’s not what makes Texas great,” he added.

Texas still lags behind California in the amount of solar power installed on residential roofs. However, it is rapidly surpassing the Golden State in solar plant growth.

Fort Bend County, a suburb of Houston, has grown from one large solar farm in 2020 to six today.

“As we speak, it’s being commissioned,” said Joaquín Castillo, CEO of Axiona Energy North America, of the company’s project. New 1,500-acre solar farm in Fort Bend, which is expected to be switched on this summer. “Texas has historically demonstrated a strong commitment to the free market,” Castillo said. “And it’s a rapidly growing market in terms of demand.”

This change has been particularly rapid and noticeable in rural West Texas, where voters are often conservative and usually supportive of oil and gas development and are increasingly benefiting from widespread solar power. increase.

“It’s better for the economy,” said Joe Shuster, a Democratic county judge in Pecos County, north of Big Bend National Park. “I don’t know how many megawatts we put out, but it’s a lot.”

He said the vast county has a long history of oil and gas development. Then came the wind. Solar power now. Shuster said he invited President Biden to visit the county to see how fossil fuels and renewable energy sources can be developed in tandem.

“Everyone throws stones at green energy,” Shuster said. “They can coexist. I strongly believe in that.”

The president never accepted his invitation.

Mary Beth Garne Contributed to the report from Dallas.

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