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Texas Wind Power: Reality vs. Hype (despite burdensome state mandate, only a 1.2% share projected for 2014)

“The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.”

- William Stanley Jevons,  The Coal Question (1865), p. 122.

Texas has repeatedly been lauded as a leader in wind power development. Some of that attention is deserved. In 2008, the state installed nearly 2,700 megawatts of new wind capacity. If Texas were an independent country, it would rank 6th in the world in terms of total wind power production capacity. But such growth is not the result of the free-market energy choices. It resulted from statewide renewable mandates passed in 1999 and 2005.

The state’s Republican governor, Rick Perry, has been among the state’s most ardent wind power boosters, declaring a few years ago that “No state is more committed to developing renewable sources of energy.” He went on, saying that by “harnessing the energy potential of wind, we can provide Texans a form of energy that is green, clean and easily renewable.” The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has repeatedly trumpeted wind power development saying that it “means more jobs for Texas, less global warming from coal plants and less radioactivity from nuclear plants.” The group says that wind power in the state “has exceeded all expectations” and has created “an estimated $6 billion investments and 15,000 new jobs” for the state.

Graphic by Seth Myers

In June, shortly before the US House voted on the cap and trade bill, President Obama reminded reporters that Texas has one of the “strongest renewable energy standards in the country….And its wind energy has just taken off and been a huge economic boon to the state.”

Hype vs. Reality

Alas, the hype exceeds the reality. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the operator of the state’s huge electric grid, has considered the “capacity factor” of wind — the ability of the generators to produce power at 100% of their maximum rated output – and placed wind’s reliability at less than 9%. In a 2007 report, the grid operator, known as ERCOT, determined that just “8.7% of the installed wind capability can be counted on as dependable capacity during the peak demand period for the next year.” It went on to say “Conventional generation must be available to provide the remaining capacity needed to meet forecast load and reserve requirements.” Earlier this year, the grid operator re-affirmed its decision to use the 8.7% capacity factor.

Thus, Texas now has about 8,200 megawatts of installed wind power capacity. But ERCOT, in its forecasts for that summer’s demand periods, when electricity use is the highest, was estimating that just 708 megawatts of the state’s wind power capacity could actually be counted on as reliable. With total summer generation needs of 72,648 megawatts, that means that wind power was providing just 1% of Texas’s total reliable generation portfolio. And ERCOT’s projections show that wind will remain a nearly insignificant player in terms of reliable capacity through at least 2014, when the grid operator expects wind to provide about 1.2% of its needed generation.

Conclusion

The growth of windpower capacity in Texas is not the result of consumer choice and natural economics but mandates from the Texas legislature. And despite all the hype, the reality is that the Lone Star State will continue to rely on the same fuels for power generation that it has relied upon for decades: natural gas, coal, and nuclear.

[Editor Note: This article originally appeared in the Energy Tribune  and is reprinted, with slight changes, with permission. Mr. Bryce's new book, Power Hungry: Why Green Energy Can't Fulfill Our Insatiable Need for Horsepower is scheduled for release in March.]

9 comments

1 Andrew { 08.24.09 at 8:28 am }

“Less radioactivity” One wonders if the Sierra Club would turn off the sun to prevent skin cancer?

More to the point…how exactly did Perry get so clueless?

2 abetterenergyplan. { 08.24.09 at 9:46 am }

we have the same problem in Ontario. Our government has sold the public on wind citing ‘capacity’ abilities. Yet, ‘output’ ability is obviously lower and never really citied. Hype vs’ reality and everyone is drinking the hype-aid.

3 T. Caine { 08.24.09 at 12:25 pm }

Robert,

While it may be true that the Texas wind fleet suffers from unreliability and as a result, keeps it from being included as a cemented portion of the state’s baseload, I’m not sure that this alone determines that their wind systems are as deficient as you seem to describe.

I would think the goals for measuring success are still: achieving a continuing return on investment for turbines by using (free) wind for power, displacing the need to purchase coal and natural gas, reducing greenhouse gas generation and all of the extraneous harm associated with mining, refining and transport of fossil fuels. If that is true, then for a variable production source like wind, the bottom line is still the net annual generation, not the minute to minute sustained generation.

When I attempted to search, I could not find this number for Texas, but I have read an article about a power emergency in the state when wind generation fell from 1,700 MW to 300 MW. That means for some amount of time, it was still producing 1,700. It seems conceivable that the annual production could be higher than a disappointing 1.2% of total production.

Part of the reason that coal and natural gas plants are so popular is their dispatchability. If it means that the Spinning Reserve in Texas is a higher percentage of total production because of variability in wind production, maybe that is fine? It does not negate the contribution that wind may have to the net power produced.

4 Tom Tanton { 08.25.09 at 9:14 am }

T. Caine: the net annual production is a faulty and misleading figure for the simple fact that the minute to minute variability of wind does things to the rest of the grid and multitude of generators. First of all forcing a larger-than-necessary spinning reserve just INCREASES fuel consumption (how do you ‘spose the spin is made–burn fuel but don’t generate electrons…) Also forced ramping on generators set at less than full load also increases their fuel consumption as well as wear and tear.

And the only reason for the continuing return on the investment from the “free wind” is because of very heavy tax subsidies and forced market buys.
Finally, I believe you have “net power” and net generation mixed up. “Power” is capacity, not energy.

5 Mike Giberson { 08.26.09 at 10:40 am }

Sure “net annual production” is not a complete measure of wind power’s contribution. The minute-by-minute variability matters because system operators need to keep quantities supplied and consumed in near constant balance. Also, production at different times of day and different times of the year can have an immense affect on the value of production.

But relatively speaking, the 1.2 percent number in the original post is an even more faulty and misleading indicator of wind’s value.

I agree that wind power’s growth is largely driven by subsidies of various sort, and the subsidies are wasting taxpayer money (and real resources), but there is no need to get hung up on capacity factors and ERCOT’s reliability planning exercises. I’d recommend a focus on exposing the waste associated with the subsidies and urging market rules that pay electric producers according to the value they provide. The rest of these details will take care of themselves.

6 T. Caine { 08.26.09 at 4:05 pm }

Tom- That seems to make sense to me. I guess it would all come down to the degree of the spikes and drops and how much inefficiency that creates in the existing grid. Naturally, I don’t know the figures, but it seems like it could be considerable. Adding storage to wind generation could help lessen the irregularity, but also blow the cost.

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