“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.
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.
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.]