Governor Abbott Goes Full-On Broadway Joe About the Texas Grid

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high voltage post at sunset

During the leadup to the 1968 Super Bowl between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Jets, Jets quarterback Broadway Joe Namath became famous for boldly guaranteeing that his team would defeat the heavily-favored Colts. Sure enough, the Colts offense failed to produce points and Namath led the Jets to a 16-7 victory, proving that the old AFL now played football on a par with the NFL. The two leagues announced they would merge shortly thereafter.

Over the past month or so, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has taken to going full-on Broadway Joe related to the Texas electricity grid, guaranteeing fans at University of Texas football games and audiences on radio and television that the grid managed by ERCOT will not suffer a replay of the days-long blackouts the state suffered through last February in the depths of Winter Storm Uri. During an interview with an Austin TV station on Nov. 27, the Governor said this:

“I have talked to some of the natural gas pipeline transmitters, and they’ve also have been doing winterization that most people don’t know about. Most importantly is the approach ERCOT has taken this year, unlike last year. Last year they were reactive, and waited until a crisis mode before they summoned more power, more energy, now the way ERCOT works, is they work days in advance in summoning that power to make sure they will have enough power to keep the lights on.”

I first heard the Governor make a similar claim on November 24, when he appeared live on the morning drive show on WBAP radio in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where I live. During that appearance, Gov. Abbott went on to support his claim by stating that the grid currently has 15% more generating capacity than it enjoyed in February.
Thinking that is extraordinary news if accurate, I contacted the Governor’s media office to see if they could provide details. Five days later, they sent back this answer:

• ERCOT installed capacity on Jan. 1, 2021: 105,862 MWs
• ERCOT expected installed capacity on Jan. 1, 2022: 122,715 MWs

Ok, well, that didn’t tell me a whole lot, so I asked if they could provide some detail behind those numbers or a link where I might find it, and was simply referred to the ERCOT website. After about half an hour of searching, I did find some Excel files detailing the capacity additions on the Texas grid during 2021. Indeed, those spreadsheets detail about 14,000 megawatts of capacity additions that have been synchronized into the grid during 2021, and another 2-3,000 MW awaiting synchronization.

That all sounds great, except for one pesky problem: All but about 1,000 MW of that 14,000 consists of wind, solar or battery power. The other 1,000 MW consists of natural gas-powered thermal generation capacity adds.

Why is that a problem, you ask? Because, despite the false claims made by many Texas media outlets and anti-natural gas university teachers around the state, wind power was the first generation source to drop off the grid starting when the first winter front came through the state on Feb. 8. ERCOT’s own data shows that quite clearly:

As ERCOT clearly shows, as natural gas generation was ramping up by about 600%, wind’s generation fell off by about 80% on February 8 and 9. Meanwhile, solar essentially flatlined starting on Feb. 10. Natural gas was providing more than 60% of all power on the grid until, on Feb. 14, ERCOT started implementing rolling blackouts, in the process denying power to many natural gas wellheads, compressors and pipelines around the state. Only then did natural gas systems, devoid of electricity to power their equipment, start to fall off the grid.

The reality on the Texas grid is this: You can cover the entire western half of this state with windmills and solar panels, and you will still end up with blackouts during severe weather events if you do not have adequate thermal generation capacity on the grid. Everyone in Austin has known for a decade now that the grid is quite short on that kind of capacity, and it remains short on that kind of capacity today.

After I found those ERCOT spreadsheets detailing the capacity additions, I posed three additional questions to Gov. Abbott’s media office. Here they are:

1. ERCOT data shows that all but ~ 2,000mw [actually just 1,000 mw] of this 15,000 mw consists of solar, wind and battery storage. We all know – and the Governor said himself in the midst of the winter storm – that both wind and solar were largely useless for several days during the storm. ERCOT’s own data pretty clearly demonstrates that reality. The solar industry’s own spokesman hilariously said that renewables “performed as expected” during the blackouts in testimony before the legislature.

Is Governor Abbott really comfortable “guaranteeing” a fan at a recent Texas Longhorns football game and the audience on WBAP last Wednesday that the grid won’t fail us again this winter should we be hit by another major storm, based mainly on the additions of a bunch more windmills and solar farms to the grid?

2. Is it Governor Abbott’s position that the Texas power grid becomes more stable with steadily-increasing reliance on intermittent sources of power? If so, given what is happening right now in Europe and California, what real world examples does the Governor cite as support for that belief?

3. There is a general recognition that the Texas grid is lacking in adequate dispatchable reserve thermal generation capacity. One of the Governor’s own appointees to the PUC presented a plan at a recent meeting to try to help alleviate that situation. Given the Governor’s recent statements guaranteeing there will be no blackouts this winter, does he disagree with this general consensus? If so, has he expressed that disagreement with his appointees to the PUC?

Unfortunately, the Governor’s office chose not to directly answer those important questions, coming back instead with this answer from Press Secretary Renae Eze:

“Thanks to the bipartisan reforms passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the Governor, we are already improving electric grid reliability to help ensure Texans do not face another power outage like last winter. New ERCOT board members with more accountability measures for ERCOT and the PUC have been appointed, and weatherization requirements for power generators and penalties for failure to comply have been put into place. And with increased generation capacity and new operational changes for a more proactive response, we are able to provide more supply to meet demand. We continue working with the PUC and ERCOT to protect critical power infrastructure and increase power generation to ensure the reliability of our electric grid.”

Since February, thousands of Texans frightened and disturbed by the deadly failure by the state’s power grid have invested thousands of dollars in natural gas generators and home solar systems to protect themselves against future grid failures and instability. If what Gov. Broadway Greg is telling us now is accurate – that he can guarantee the grid will not fail – then no more Texans need to engage in such major investments, and those who did have basically wasted their money.

Right? Right.

That is a whale of a guarantee, one that his own appointees to the PUC do not appear to necessarily agree with. We should all hope that Gov. Broadway Greg is right, but would be best advised to prepare for this winter as if he isn’t.

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