When Texas freezes over – What it means for renewables?

February 21, 2021 |

That’s not a scene from Disney’s Frozen movie but a fountain in Texas. Over 4.5 million homes were without power in Texas last week, the number of deaths as a result from the deep freeze is uncertain and may not be known for weeks, thousands are still without power, investigations into what happened are starting, and blame is going all around. Some are blaming renewable energy like wind and solar even though natural gas and fossil fuels still account for most of the energy in Texas and 30GW was taken offline from gas, coal and nuclear sources while 16GW loss in capacity was from wind and other renewable energy supplies – which would have worked if they had been properly winterized.

In today’s Digest, how ethanol fits into all this, how the Texas deep freeze can affect all renewables, how we can learn from neighbors to the North who are accustomed to these cold weather extremes, a new report on decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid, and more.

Ethanol as Cold Weather Friend

Even ethanol production in the U.S. was affected by the Texas freeze with production down 2.8% over the previous week and hitting a 20-week low of 911,000 b/d. Production remained 12.4% below the same week last year. The four-week average ethanol production rate decreased 1.0% to 929,000 b/d, equivalent to an annualized rate of 14.24 billion gallons (bg).

But ethanol has many advantages for cold weather and when states have temperatures at or below freezing. Robert White, RFA’s Vice President of Industry Relations said, “Thanks to ethanol…one old worry drivers used to have has gone away—the possibility of gas freezing in the tank or the fuel line. Since ethanol is an alcohol, and present in a higher amount than a bottle of gasoline antifreeze in a tank, it does a terrific job at keeping your fuel from freezing. Even Gold Eagle, producer of one of the most popular brands of gasoline antifreeze, recognizes this: ‘Most gas contains up to 10 percent ethanol and will work as antifreeze.’”

White shared some more explanations from experts in the field:

“Water does collect in gas tanks and fuel lines from moisture in the air, or from the storage tanks at gas stations. Today, however, vehicles in most parts of the country burn gasoline that includes up to 10 percent ethanol, a form of alcohol that performs the same water-absorbing chores as brand-name gasoline antifreezes,” writes Cars.com. “Gas-line antifreeze isn’t expensive and probably can’t hurt, but if you have 15 gallons of fuel in your vehicle and 10 percent of it is ethanol, your tank already has 1.5 gallons of alcohol in it. Adding another 12 to 16 ounces of alcohol is not going to provide any additional protection against freezing.”

And we can be sure Minnesotans know how to deal with cold weather. “Adding a gas line antifreeze is not necessary when using ethanol-blended fuel, writes an auto columnist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The ethanol — ethyl or grain alcohol — is an effective antifreeze/moisture remover so no additional additive is necessary.”

White’s point? “Whatever the season or weather, ethanol-blended fuel is a smart option for so many reasons. Stay warm, stay safe—and choose ethanol!”

The Critics

Some critics are saying the energy failure in Texas is a sign that renewable energy sources simply won’t work and are using this as an opportunity to attack wind, solar, and pretty much any renewable energy. It shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a heavily fossil-fuel supported state, but even some outside Texas are using this as an excuse to attack renewable energy, even though the data shows otherwise.

You can read more about why the power outages happened according to the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas here and here and here and here.

One conservative that is speaking out in support of renewables even moreso because of the Texas freeze is Steve Melink, the author of Fusion Capitalism: A Clean Energy Vision For Conservatives, who said this is simply a sign that our energy grid needs to catch up with climate change. “No one catastrophic event should be able to take out a wide swath of our grid and negatively impact our economy, security, and health as a nation,” said Melink.

Investigations into what happened abound – Nancy Pelosi announced the House Energy and Commerce Committee would be taking up some form of investigation into what happened, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he is also launching an investigation into ERCOT and related entities, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation also said they would investigate the massive outages.

Learning from Neighbors in the North

Texas could learn about creating energy in freezing cold weather from our neighbors to the North like Canada and Pennsylvania, and Northern Europe which is known for their wind energy.

Let’s start with Siemens Energy which is working with TC Energy to create a first-of-its-kind waste heat-to-power facility in Alberta, Canada. What’s so cool about the supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2) the project will be using? First, the sCO2 is stable, non-toxic, non-flammable, and exhibits favorable thermal-physical properties, including high latent heat and energy density, along with fluid stability. The compact, modular system can achieve high efficiencies over a wide temperature range. It can be easily retrofitted with a wide variety of heat sources without disrupting existing plant operations. Additionally, the system does not require water, making it particularly advantageous for facilities in arid zones or regions subject to sub-freezing temperatures.

We can also learn from Allegheny County, PA…one of Pittsburgh’s top elected officials, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald (D), said that the county is making huge efforts to move to renewable energy:

  • Hydropower facility: Allegheny County recently made a major investment in locally-generated clean energy, entering into a 35-year power purchase agreement to purchase renewable energy generated by a 17.8 MW low-impact hydropower facility on the Ohio River will offset roughly equal to 2.6 billion miles driven in a typical passenger vehicle over the life of the 35-year agreement.
  • Clean air: Last month, for the first time in its history, all eight air quality monitors in Allegheny County met federal air quality standards. This milestone means that the region is now in attainment with carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate matter. This achievement is especially relevant as Pittsburgh’s air quality has previously been ranked poorly and Pittsburgh’s leadership remains committed to the environment and sustainability, while also growing jobs.
  • Impact on the economy: Clean air investment in Pennsylvania could create approximately 250k jobs annually. According to a new report, the transition to achieve a clean economy will create job opportunities across the board. The jobs include direct and indirect jobs such as carpenters, machinists, environmental scientists, truck drivers, agricultural labor, etc.

“Our region is not the Pittsburgh of 30 years ago, but it is a community that welcomes, embraces and invests in green energy and sustainability,” said Fitzgerald.

Renewable Energy Solutions for Climate Change

A new report from Energy Systems Integration Group, “Transmission Planning for 100% Clean Electricity,” focuses on the critical need for national-level transmission planning and implementation in order to decarbonize the electricity system. ESIG convened more than 50 power systems experts, who analyzed key research studies investigating energy sector decarbonization. The white paper is the culmination of the group’s effort in developing a conceptual design for reaching America’s clean energy goals using proactive transmission planning and development.

  • National transmission planning: The United States should establish a national transmission planning authority and initiate an ongoing national transmission planning process.
  • Renewable energy zones: The United States should designate renewable energy zones for the development of wind, solar, and distributed energy resources to provide guidance on where transmission will be needed.
  • Macro grid design: The United States should develop and implement a national transmission plan that includes a network of multiregional high-voltage transmission that unites the country’s power systems.

“If you want to go to the moon, you need a space program. If you want to reach 100% clean electricity, you need a transmission plan,” said Aaron Bloom, Chair of ESIG’s System Planning Working Group.

Click here to download the full report.

Climate change is what it’s all about really, and we need to prepare for more of these types of extreme weather events. In a statement last week, EPRI President and CEO, Dr. Arshad Mansoor, said, “Right now, men and women from numerous utilities are working tirelessly to restore service throughout Texas and the Southwest. I applaud their dedication in responding efficiently and generously to increased weather events, which we no longer call an anomaly. But the realities of climate change are prompting some grid operators to look at system planning and generators in a new way, to evaluate plant extreme weather readiness.

EPRI recently released a technical report about the impacts of extreme events on the grid. EPRI scientists and engineers concluded that grid operator planning processes, including resource adequacy planning, typically don’t consider extreme climate scenarios that a resilient grid must be able to handle going forward. Traditional planning processes do not represent how resources actually perform under extreme conditions.”

Also, our existing grid supply and delivery assets must be hardened for climate change scenarios regardless of generation—renewables and fossil fuels. Extreme weather events have adversely impacted all generation types, some more than others, relative to the output that was expected in the ERCOT resource adequacy planning. Finally, broader interconnection with other systems through new transmission will increase access to diverse resources and fuel supplies and is a critical piece of a resilient grid that accommodates more low-carbon resources.”

Bottom Line

What happened in Texas should never have happened to begin with and should never happen again, but the blame can’t be solely on renewables when the failures were many and mostly on non-renewables. A quick look to the Northern states and countries around the world show us a variety of renewables are actually key to maintaining reliable energy sources. So let’s learn from this and look at ways to do better, to expand renewables, to innovate technologies to handle both hot and cold weather extremes, because one thing IS certain – climate change is causing more of these extreme weather situations and we need to be prepared for them in the future.

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