A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Fact-check: Is renewable energy to blame for the Texas energy shortage in April?”

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 3, 2021

“There’s a kernel of truth to Bradley’s statement — renewable energy did falter in April due to weather patterns, and renewable energy has had an indirect impact on thermal energy investments. But the Houston Republic article [Institute for Energy Research CEO: Adding ‘unreliable’ wind, solar is ‘at the expense of the reliables‘] only focuses on these elements while ignoring the fact that nearly half of the state’s natural gas fleet was offline on April 13 for maintenance. We rate this claim Mostly False.”

Is the rating above for my statement? Or for the article in which the statement was made?

Therein lies an interesting saga of today’s cancel culture and the bob-and-weave of renewable energy proponents to separate the Texas wind/solar boom from the reliability bust.

Brandon Mulder of the Austin American-Statesman was tasked with a ‘take down piece,’ so to speak, against 1) a newspaper source in which I was quoted, 2) the Institute for Energy Research, and 3) the view that renewable energy was “to blame” for Texas’s grid problems.

I was caught in the middle, but my views were expressed to Mr. Mulder via email and fairly reported: renewability flourishes at “the expense of” reliability. Despite my negative rating, I stand by my above comment and am pleased to explain my full view now.

Mulder Article

Mulder’s article, “Texas’ latest energy shortage can’t be blamed on ‘so many renewables’ (statesman.com),” is reproduced with my comments in blue. The piece begins with the negative verdict.

Institute for Energy Research: “Conventional generators are very thin right now because Texas has gone to so many renewables.” PolitiFact’s ruling: Mostly False

Comment: Which of the words in that 15-word statement are “mostly” false? “Because”? But I did not say “because of, wholly because of, and solely because of.” Mulder admits renewables’ “impact.” Impact is a synonym for causation, as in “because.”

Here’s why: In mid-April, the Texas power grid was faced with a dilemma that looked dangerously familiar to the conditions that led to the February blackouts during the deadly winter freeze: Electricity supply was struggling to keep up with demand.  

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas assured Texans that the mid-April tightness in the energy market wouldn’t lead to any widespread blackouts, but the situation produced more questions about the grid’s overall reliability. In a reprise of the blame-casting that occurred in the aftermath of the February blackouts, many observers pointed fingers at the state’s renewable energy generators.  

“Conventional generators are very thin right now because Texas has gone to so many renewables,” Institute for Energy Research CEO Robert Bradley told the Houston Republic, a website within the network of pay-for-play local news sites owned by Metric Media.  

Comment: The Austin American Statesman objects to certain journalistic practices of its rival Metric Media. Fine. But why has a sneer at Metric’s journalistic practices been added as a subordinate clause to the sentence describing my view? In that context, it is pure ad hominem: “Bradley gave an interview to bad journalists.” That may be Mulder’s opinion, but it does not affect in the least the truth of the views I expressed.

The Houston Republic article, published April 16, was one of many that began appearing on Metric Media websites targeting renewable energy. Another Metric Media article, based on comments from a renewable energy subsidy opposition group, ran the same day with the headline: “Texas was once again at the mercy of wind generation — and it did not come through.” 

Several of these articles were pushed to online audiences via paid promotion on Facebook.

Investigations from The New York Times and Colombia Journalism Review have identified Metric Media as a network of sites masquerading as local news. Over 1,300 sites have been launched across the nation, including 74 in Texas. According to the investigations, the media company accepts payment from clients, most with a conservative viewpoint, in exchange for tailor-made news articles.

Comment: I did not know this back story. Frankly, I am glad for Metric Media and welcome their or any journalists’ interest in my viewpoints. My old hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle, which used to publish my op-ed’s, is now anti-fossil fuels and not responsive to my submissions. ‘Mainstream’ reporters seem to not want to hear my views that, indeed, renewable energies have eroded the once mighty Texas electricity grid either.

“The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper,” the Times reported. “But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.” 

Comment: I’m just in energy. The article at issue is just about energy. Note how anything ‘Republican’ is tainted. And IER and me personally are tainted by implication.

It’s unclear what money, if any, is behind the April 16 articles published in Texas. A spokesperson for the Institute for Energy Research said that the group’s leadership is unfamiliar with Metric Media, “which probably means no payments have been made.” The article’s author, Juliette Fairley, declined an interview and forwarded questions to a Metric Media editor, who did not respond.  

Comment: Nothing to find here. But if the suppressed views are sound and discriminated against (intellectual diversity anyone?), let the pay-for-play market thrive. The reasoning of the articles is what is important. Perhaps Mr. Mulder would like to think that the views of IER and me are fringe and cannot compete against The Truth. But think again.

The institute declined to identify donors per policy. According to Republic Report, a site that tracks how money influences policy decisions, the Institute for Energy Research was co-founded by Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of the refining and chemicals company Koch Industries and a benefactor of many conservative causes. 

Comment: This statement about Charles Koch is false and has been formally retracted. [“Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct Charles Koch’s role in the founding of the Institute for Energy Research.“] [1]

[1] The rewrite states: ” … the Institute for Energy Research was founded in 1989 from the remains of the Institute for Humane Studies – Texas, a defunct non-profit for which Charles Koch served as a founding director. Koch, chairman and CEO of the refining and chemicals company Koch Industries and a benefactor of many conservative causes, is not on the institute’s board.”

Charles Koch, in short, did not found or fund the formation of the Institute for Energy Research. My father and I did, another story.

Bradley’s comments, and those of other interest groups, appear at a time when Texas legislators are sorting through a variety of policy fixes — some large, some small. Ultimately, Bradley said he hopes to see policies that limit the proliferation of renewables in the Texas grid.  

Comment: Correct. And ERCOT’s territory might be at the point where there is already too much wind and solar, capacity that would not have been built except for a variety of special government favor, state and federal.

“We need a lot less wind and a lot more natural gas and even coal,” he told the Houston Republic. “There have been coal retirements and some of those ought to probably come back for the summer. Texas has reached the limit of our renewable dependence. There certainly should not be any more wind or solar for the grid.” 

Comment: Correct. And let’s see if continuing tightness, scares, and actual blackouts make this a mainstream view. (Some renewable agnostics have said as much.)

But is it accurate to attribute Texas’ mid-April energy crunch to renewable sources? We found that there are two ways of answering this question, by looking at the direct and indirect causes. 

Comment: This much I got into the author’s thinking from email exchanges. (Thank you, Mr. Mulder.)

What happened in April? 

Energy demand in Texas regularly peaks in the summer and winter months, but not during spring and fall when temperate weather slackens demand. This makes the fall and spring seasons prime time for generators to go offline for repairs and maintenance. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas requires all generators to complete these check-ups by May 15, before demand begins to ramp up in the hot summer months.  

Comment: Yes. The planned maintenance outages are/were necessary given the heavy reliance on reliable generation given unreliable wind during the hot, still days of summer.

During an April 13 ERCOT board meeting, then-grid CEO Bill Magness explained that “we have a number of units that are appropriately doing their maintenance so that they’re ready for the summer.” 

About 32,000 megawatts of power from thermal energy sources — mostly natural gas power plants — were offline on April 13, according to forecasted outage data posted to ERCOT’s website. That’s about half of the grid’s full thermal fleet offline due to maintenance.  

Comment: Again, yes. But these were necessary, planned outages, not unplanned outages–a big difference in understanding the big scare.

During the board meeting, Magness also explained another unexpected factor behind the grid’s plea for energy conservation that day: a weather front that stalled over the western part of the state.

As Magness explained: The weather system “has been moving hesitantly through the ERCOT system for the past several days, which has impacts not only on raising or lowering temperature, but also on cloud cover that affects solar, changes in the weather that affects wind and what we can expect from wind (turbines). So those sorts of systems add a lot of volatility to forecasting the demand in the supply-side.” 

The effect was an underperformance of the state’s renewable energy sources — the stalled weather front calmed the winds and blotted out the sun. Solar energy was about 3,100 megawatts below its expected output that day. Wind sources were between 2 and 4 megawatts short of expected output that day.  

Comment: Yes! Note the fragility of the ERCOT grid due to renewables given weather changes. And imagine the reliability if the system had a fraction of the investment in wind/solar and had gone to conventional power generation not dependent on the weather. This is the unseen, the ‘indirect’ effect mentioned by the article’s author above.

The thermal generator outages and underperforming renewable resources combined to prompt ERCOT to issue its conservation alert. Between 5 and 7 megawatts of outages were attributable to renewable energy sources, while up to 32,000 megawatts were attributable to thermal energy sources. 

To Josh Rhodes, an energy researcher at the University of Texas, attributing the tight reserves on April 13 to renewable energy alone ignores other key factors.  

“It’s easy to point to something like that and leave off the fact that half of our thermal fleet was down,” Rhodes said. 

Scott Bruins, a power analyst at the energy research firm Enverus, also attributed the slim reserve margin to more than just the cloudy skies and light wind.  

“The weather isn’t totally to blame for the power supply issues, of course,” Bruins wrote. “The large number of units that are offline for maintenance following the winter storm is also driving this shortage.” 

Comment: Note the subtle but crucial shift. Blame is placed on planned, necessary, in-process thermal outages as if this were a true variable in the day’s supply/demand balance.

If, say, the offline capacity should not have been out of service, that would be a contributing factor. But under ERCOT planning, the offline capacity was necessary to prevent future reliability problems. Having them online to cover the wind/solar gap would have resulted in a reliability problem later on, in other words, given PUCT/ERCOT planning.

This is what I call a tight market due to the indirect effect of renewables compromising the economics of reliable generation, which the author usefully explains in the next paragraphs below.

Renewable energy’s indirect impacts 

Bradley, a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in an email that he stands by his statement. The mid-April energy shortfall, he said, can be explained by the impact renewable energy proliferation has had on the economics of thermal energy generators.

“Unreliable generation has driven out reliable generation. We have much less baseload capacity because of renewables taking over a large part of the market,” Bradley said. 

Wind and solar generators in Texas certainly have enjoyed support from federal subsidies, in particular the production tax credit, which provides a tax credit of 1 cent to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for renewable developers, and the investment tax credit, which reimburses developers up to 30% of their capital costs.  

The market share these renewable generators have gained has proportionately reduced the share of traditional thermal generators. While wind, for instance, has increased from 3% of the state’s energy mix in 2007 to 23% in 2020, coal has dropped from 37% to 18% over the same time period, ERCOT data shows. Natural gas has remained steady, having increased slightly from 44.5% in 2007 to 46% in 2020. 

These market gains, supported by renewable energy subsidies, have “compromised” the economics of thermal energy companies, Bradley argues, resulting in “postponed or foregone investments” in thermal generation facilities.  

“In the absence of renewables (in a free market), we would have a lot more reliable generation—some combination of capacity that would not have been retired and some new capacity. So even with scheduled maintenance (known to ERCOT) and the renewable drop-off (a surprise but not really), we would have had a thick market (as before renewables),” he said. 

Comment: Thank you for including this explanation, Brandon.

But this is where more explanation is required to make sure the reader gets the subtle distortion.

Wind and solar gets built because of preferential subsidies (including highly subsidized transmission rates on the CREZ line, another story). That is Part I of the problem. Part II is that built, online generation under PUCT/ERCOT pricing rules, without fuel costs, easily outbid and thus injure the economics of gas-fired, coal-fired, and even nuclear power capacity. The reliables cannot sell power or sell power at depressed margins. (Wind can and does sell electricity at negative prices to receive the federal tax credit.)

Our ruling 

The New York Times investigation reported that while Metric Media sites “generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency.”  

That modus operandi appears to be at play here too.  

There’s a kernel of truth to Bradley’s statement — renewable energy did falter in April due to weather patterns, and renewable energy has had an indirect impact on thermal energy investments. But the Houston Republic article only focuses on these elements while ignoring the fact that nearly half of the state’s natural gas fleet was offline on April 13 for maintenance. 

We rate this claim Mostly False. [References follow]

Comment: So the author reverts back to ad hominen against my view because of the source. (No, I will not stop talking to the ‘alternative media’ in this regard.) That article failed to mention the offline generation capacity, so my statement of the overall effect of renewables on the Texas grid gets pulled down.

Note that under this statement, the article I was quoted in, and not my statement itself, should have been rated. A rating could have been Partially True for the Houston Republic article and Mostly True for my statement (I’m a hard grader).

Brandon Mulder did kindly explain my position of the direct and indirect effect of renewables, which has made the Texas grid very tight and susceptible to conservation orders and worse. And he and the Austin American Statesman did correct the false insinuation about the founding of the Institute for Energy Research.

——————————

Houston Republic, Institute for Energy Research CEO: Adding ‘unreliable’ wind, solar is ‘at the expense of the reliables,’ April 16, 2021 

Austin News, Energy Alliance policy director: ‘Texas was once again at the mercy of wind generation – and it did not come through,’ April 16, 2021 

The New York Times, As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place, Oct. 20, 2020 

Columbia Journalism Review, Hundreds of ‘pink slime’ local news outlets are distributing algorithmic stories and conservative talking points, Dec. 18, 2019 

Republic Report, Charles Koch Personally Founded Group Protecting Oil Industry Hand-Outs, Documents Reveal, Aug. 29, 2014 

Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Wind and Solar Integration Reports, accessed May 6, 2021 

Electric Reliability Council of Texas, board meeting, April 13, 2021

Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Summer Preparedness Workshop Technical Advisory Committee PowerPoint, May 3, 2021

Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Grid Information, accessed May 6, 2021 

Enverus, Why ERCOT outage scares are vexing Texas in mild weather, April 14, 2021 

Interview, Josh Rhodes, University of Texas Energy Institute, May 4, 2021 

Emails with Robert Bradley, Institute of Energy Research CEO, May 5, 2021 

4 Comments


  1. John W. Garrett  

    Let’s put it this way:

    we didn’t have this problem before the advent of large-scale wind and solar electricity generation.

    Reply

  2. Richard Greene  

    Not true Mr. Garrett: In February 2011, 3.2 million Texans had rolling blackouts, back when when total Texas wind nameplate capacity was only about 4% of total electricity consumption in Texas.

    Of course wind power never reaches total nameplate capacity for long, especially during Texas winters, and is sometimes near zero for an hour ,for the whole state, like just before the 2021 blackout.

    The long August 2011 report, which I read, and apparently no one else did, recommended “winterization” of the entire Texas energy infrastructure, even beyond power plants.

    It did not recommend increasing wind power capacity by 8x over the next ten years.

    Because with wind power the critical scientific equation is:
    One windmill + no wind = no electricity, and
    One bazillion windmills + no wind = no electricity

    (Note: the same is true with very slow wind speeds)

    In general, wind turbines begin to produce power at wind speeds of about 6.7 mph (3 m/s).

    A turbine will achieve its nominal, or rated, power at approximately 26 mph to 30 mph (12 m/s to 13 m/s); this value is often used to describe the turbine’s generating capacity (or nameplate capacity).

    Windmill “bird shredders” belong in museums, not connected to any electric grid, where reliability is the most important attribute, and wind speed is VERY unreliable.

    Reply

  3. rbradley  

    Thank you Richard.

    Back in 2011, I wonder if 4 percent wind turned into natural gas-fired capacity would have covered the difference.

    Reply

  4. Richard Greene  

    Primary goal of electric grid = reliability
    Primary characteristics of wind power = unreliable and unpredictable
    Wind power for electric grids = asking for trouble

    Money and financial incentives are the root cause of the problems in Texas … which have not been solved … and probably won’t be solved.

    The financial incentives in Texas strongly favored building windmills, so they built lots of windmills.

    The return on energy infrastructure winterization could be zero.

    The return on new fossil fuel plants could be low — if just used as backup power for windmills.

    With a growing population, and rapidly growing wind power capacity, Texas needed MORE fossil fuel power plants.

    Meanwhile, they let their spare power capacity percentage fall to half the national average — improving their return on investment, but increasing risk.

    For 10 years the decisions to build lots of windmills, with guaranteed returns on the investments, looked brilliant.

    And then suddenly in February 2021 the weather was colder than in February 2011 and the cold weather lasted longer.

    ERCOT did not even have a detailed plan to minimize problems with that type of weather.

    On the other hand, 24 million Texans out of 29 million did NOT lose their electric power,

    Very little of their power came from the wind.

    Because there was not much wind, and half the windmills were iced up.

    They did not have the optional deicing heaters .. because who would pay more for optional blade deicers in Texas?

    I suppose Texans in February 2011 thought that with global warming it would never get that cold again.

    And with that good investment return on windmills, their nameplate capacity increased eight fold in the next 10 years.

    Big mistake.

    Reply

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