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All juiced up with no place to go

Seems like there should be a better solution for this.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved the development of a network of electric transmission lines to send wind and solar power from West Texas to population centers in other parts of the state. The landmark project transformed the renewable energy industry and the slice of West Texas that Rep. Drew Darby calls home.

Metallic fields of photovoltaic solar panels now stretch across once bare scrub land. Lines of sky-scraping wind turbines reach to the horizon. And with those renewable energy projects came “some of our only opportunities for economic development” in rural Texas, said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo.

But those opportunities are at risk as companies cancel or postpone new wind and solar farms, and the list of planned projects keeps getting shorter. One key reason: generators can’t be sure that they can get their power to market.

The rapid growth of renewable energy, particularly wind power, has outstripped the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Even when demand soars and electricity supplies run short, the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, must limit the power West Texas wind and solar farms can sell into the grid because of transmission constraints.

“I started seeing some projects go off the boards, and companies were saying they’re not going to build,” Darby said. “I asked why, and they said ‘We’ve had curtailments. We’re going to have to curtail production at certain times.’”

That West Texas has plenty of power but no place to go carries more than a little irony as policy makers and regulators focus on increasing electricity supplies following the deadly February power crisis. ERCOT is forecasting record power demand this summer, with a reserve margin — the cushion of extra generation available when supplies get tight — that’s higher than in recent years, but still well below the margins with which other grids operate.

[…]

Even as parts of the state bake in the summer heat and homeowners crank up air-conditioning units, the transmission limits mean the excess power generated out West won’t make it to where demand will be highest.

Ross Baldick, an emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said West Texas transmission upgrades completed in 2014 can transport about 18,500 megawatts of electricity, but more than 20,000 megawatts of wind energy alone are generated in the area. Due to other technical constraints, grid officials must limit power through those lines to less than 12,000 megawatts to keep them working properly.

Think about it like water pipes, Baldick said. One main pipe feeds smaller pipes that provide water to individual homes. If you try to force more and more water into the pipes, you reach a limit where the pipes could burst. To avoid that problem, you would have two choices: build more pipes to offset the stress on the existing pipes, or limit the amount of water flowing through the pipes.

Those are the choices for the power grid: build more transmission to transport increasing amounts of renewable power from the west, or limit the amount of power on the transmission lines.

As the story notes, West Texas has all of the conditions you could want for solar and wind energy generation, but none of it matters if you can’t hook it up to the grid. As a result, the projections of wind and solar energy for the year are declining. The House passed a bill by Rep. Darby to expedite the process ERCOT uses to study and plan for new transmission projects and the Public Utility Commission’s ability to approve them, but it died in the Senate. The power companies themselves aren’t going to build more transmission capacity, so here we are. Sure seems like there ought to be a better way.

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7 Comments

  1. policywonqueria says:

    SCARCITY IS THE MOTHER OF BIG PROFITS IN TEXAS

    Transmission is still a monopoly. So if the regulators (PUC and ERCOT) are effectively controlled by the oil & gas sector, and the oil & gas sector players haven’t diversified into renewables (mostly wind and solar in Texas), they would have plenty of reason to slow down or prevent the further development of transmission lines to bring cheap wind and solar source energy into markets currently dominated by oil & gas-fired generation.

    Consider that the supply of wind and sunlight is practically free (same commodity being produced, but no continuous fuel consumption), so these electric energy sources are highly competitive. And consider that scarcity means higher prices and larger profits under the “deregulated” market structure. So if wind and solar power is furnished by different market players, it’s unwanted competition for oil & gas companies, at least as long as they resist moving into the clean-energy future themselves.

    Sensible state-level energy policy, of course, could address this through comprehensive planning to optimize the generation and distribution system, so that energy consumers — residential, commercial, and industrial — will benefit from the cheapest and cleanest energy, with proper consideration of robustness and reliability. But sensibe energy policy we do not have. Instead, we have anti-competitive practices that are implemented by policymakers and regulators on at the behest of — and for the benefit of — the fossil fuel industry sectors.

    The crassest example of market manipulation being the recent price-gouging order by PUC fixing the wholesale price at 9,000 per MWh after ERCOT had forced demand reduction by cutting off millions of residential customers.

    In a free market, the drop of demand (thanks to ERCOT-imposed blackouts to keep the grid from catastrophic failure) would have brought down the price. But PUC did the opposite: It took the price to the max, and ordered ERCOT– in its capacity of market administrator — to override the pricing algorithm that computes the spot price based on availabilty/supply and current demand. PUC thus engineered a massive wealth transfer from the consumer side of the “market” to the producer/seller/speculator side. And the debt of those on the buyers’ side that couldn’t pay is now being socialized, to be paid of by consumers of the next 20 years or so.

    THE ENERGY STORAGE SOLUTION

    Another avenue to address insufficient transmission capacity would be onsite energy storage at the location where surplus energy is produced (and cannot be immediately brought to market due to transmission capacity constraints), and then to feed it into the grid when there is both demand and transmission capacity to meet the demand. Most obvious example: a photo-voltaic solar installation charging up batteries over the course of a sunny day, then discharging the batteries during the night when there is no ongoing solar production.

    There are several technologies available in addition to battery farms: pumped storage hydro-electric, conversion of electric energy to hydrogen by splitting water (H20) and recovery of energy by using hydrogen as fuel in lieu of natural gas, and modular hot-rock energy storage, which is probably the least well known method.

    See here: https://www.powermag.com/volcanic-rock-offers-new-take-on-energy-storage/ (Siemens Gamesa project)

    The general principle is to charge up with surplus (cheap) electric power when supply peaks (under good wind and/or sun conditions), and to discharge from storage when supply from other generation sources drops or demand peaks due to weather conditions (or a combination of the two).

    Energy storage technologies provide a way to even out supply-demand imbalances — especially short-term fluctuations over the course of the day — and a means to prevent prices from spiking in regulatory systems that allow for market forces to determine prices.

    PRICE-SENSTIVITY ON THE CONSUMER END

    And then, there are ways to manage consumption at the retail end that we hear almost nothing about. Instead, the Texas Lege has now prohibited index-based consumer plans.

    Having consumers pay more per kilowatt hour under peak demand conditions (within reasonable limits, not those Griddy customers were subjected to) would make a lot of sense. That would give millions of residential customers an incentive to reduce consumption to save money and would in the aggregate reduce demand on the grid. It would be a much better way to handle an electricity production shortfall than indiscriminate imposed blackouts, whether rolling or otherwise.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Wolf,

    You’re spot on about the PUC’s criminal behavior during the Coldpocalypse. You frame that issue very well, as usual.

    I will take exception to this though:

    “Consider that the supply of wind and sunlight is practically free….”

    Well, it’s not free, because it takes a bunch of money and infrastructure to gather up all that ‘free’ energy, and that equipment physically deteriorates over time and has to be replaced, so it’s not like you can build it and get energy in perpetuity. The massive transmission lines that traverse the state, despoiling the environment to bring that electricity to big cities was expensive, as noted in Kuff’s article.

    You point out some tech innovations that can help us store that ‘free’ energy so we can even out the electric going out from wind and solar installations. That would be completely new, built from scratch infrastructure…..pricey. Of course, using large amounts of water in West Texas wouldn’t really even be possible, so we can scratch that one off the bat. And of course, we haven’t even gotten to the massive waste of energy involved in converting electricity to one of those storage methods, then reconverting it back to electricity to flow on those intrastate transmission lines. We also haven’t discussed the power loss from sending electricity through hundreds of miles of highline to get to the consumer.

  3. policywonqueria says:

    Propostion: Windmill power not free

    Well, wind *is* free whereas the natural gas, the oil, or the coal that serve as fuel for thermal plants *are not* and have to be supplied continuously to feed into the boiler or stationary jet engine turbine.

    In the Panhandle and other windy places, you have to buy or lease the land to put the windmill on — sure — but the other power plants have to be terrestrially sited too. But then there is also the off-shore variety of wind turbines to be considered as part of the mix.

    Additionally, the wind and the sun come to you. No commodity transportation costs. No freight trains, no lorries, no pipelines.

    The sun typically rises in the morning, though Germany is bracing for a little temporary interruption (and an associated solar generation shortfall) due to an upcoming eclipse. Conveniently, those eclispes are predictable and can be prepared for better than storms. And sunrise and sunset timing is very predicatable too, since they follow the Earth’s orbital movements, i.e., they are seasonal.

    CAPITAL INVESTMENT

    The capital cost for the installation and the maintenance costs apply to both fossil and renewable generation. Which type is more expensive is not easily resolved because there are many factors at play. And then there are questions of age, obsolescence, and amortization. To compare a newly-built wind farm with a 20-year old thermal plant, or even a new gas-fired plant is complicated. There are many things to look at.

    What is clear, however, is that wind and solar don’t use fuel – not in the conventional sense of the term – and that was the point.

    That’s also why these energy sources are called renewable (as distinguished from consumable/finite).

    ENERGY STORAGE AS (PART OF) THE ANSWER

    Re: massive waste of energy involved in converting electricity to one of those storage methods.

    Response: True, we haven’t discussed it here. We should. The efficiecy quotients are improving as we are about to start the discussion. Opportunities in new technologies are beckoning.

    Gunther Glenk at the University of Mannheim does research on this stuff, including hydrogen as a fuel obtained through electrolysis using wind power. One of his papers actually looks at the Texas angle of hydrogen conversion efficiency and economic feasibility.

    See several of his papers here:

    https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=3618116

  4. Lobo says:

    Shining bright …

    “Is there anything that the National Forest Service, or BLM can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun?” Gohmert asked Eberlien. “Obviously they would have profound effects on our climate.”

    “I would have to follow up with you on that one, Mr. Gohmert,” Eberlien responded.

    “Well, if you figure out a way that you in the Forest Service can make that change, I’d like to know,” Gohmert added.

    https://thehill.com/homenews/house/557558-gohmert-asks-if-federal-agencies-can-change-earth-or-moons-orbits-to-fight

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Wolf,

    Good link to the German researcher….thanks. I skimmed the hydrogen feasibility article, but I’d like to really dig into it.

    Regarding this:

    “Additionally, the wind and the sun come to you. No commodity transportation costs. No freight trains, no lorries, no pipelines.”

    Well, that’s true…..it comes right to us….in West Texas, 800+miles away from Houston, where we need it, and probably 400 miles away from DFW, where they need it. So not only does that require at least 400 miles of high voltage transmission lines, which require lots of maintenance, not the least of which is mowing and tree trimming. How wide are those yuge transmission right of ways? 800 feet? I really don’t know off hand, but they cut a wide swath, so much that you can see them from the plane on clear days. Oh, and consider the cancers that they cause all along the route, don’t forget that. But hey, you probably don’t have any highlines traversing your tony estate lot neighborhood, so that’s not really a concern.

    Then we’d have to compare how much power is lost in the sending of that electricity 400+ miles, vs. the cost to push a comparable amount of natural gas to its power plant destination, which has lots of variables. We routinely ship natural gas from Texas all the way to Illinois and New York, so it apparently must be pretty economical to run pipelines vs. long runs of highlines.

    Overall, though, good subject matter, good links, and good discussion, thanks.

  6. Bill Daniels says:

    Wolf,

    “Additionally, the wind and the sun come to you. No commodity transportation costs. No freight trains, no lorries, no pipelines.”

    Well, that’s true…..it comes right to us….in West Texas, 800+miles away from Houston, where we need it, and probably 400 miles away from DFW, where they need it. So not only does that require at least 400 miles of high voltage transmission lines, which require lots of maintenance, not the least of which is mowing and tree trimming. Oh, and the cancers that they cause all along the route, don’t forget that. But hey, you don’t have any highlines traversing your tony estate lot neighborhood, so that’s not really a concern.

    Then we’d have to compare how much power is lost in the sending of that electricity 400+ miles, vs. the cost to push a comparable amount of natural gas to its power plant destination. We routinely ship natural gas from Texas all the way to Illinois and New York, so it apparently must be pretty economical to run pipelines vs. long runs of highlines.

    And since we’re tossing out superfluous links, here’s some of the great stuff from our very own esteemed yet virulently racist, Sheila Jackson Lee….Miss Jackson if you’re nasty, I suppose.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-constitution-is-400-years-old-and-more-pearls-from-sheila-jackson-lee

  7. Doris Murdock says:

    Big oil companies keep claiming they are moving into renewables. This backward state will never do more than some feasibility study which will die in Austin, just like Rep Darby’s bill. Big oil could push the needed transmission projects, but in this case, it’s crickets.

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