Cold hard facts—wind power no substitute for fossil fuels

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, March 10, 2021
Cold hard facts—wind power no substitute for fossil fuels

Last month, when severe cold caused millions in Texas to lose power, many voices, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, pointed to frozen wind turbines and blamed the crisis on “green energy.” Defenders of renewable energy argued that the true culprit was frozen natural gas lines. Although both sides have merit, the defenders of renewables implicitly admit that wind and solar are not reliable. The hard numbers from the Texas crisis show Canadians that government support for renewables will leave their own grids more susceptible to blackouts.

To recap, the problem in Texas wasn’t that the supply of electricity was disrupted below normal levels, but rather that the demand jumped to record-breaking levels (for winter). And the grid, hampered by the cold, couldn’t rise to meet the challenge.

Consider the first day blackouts were implemented (Feb. 15, 2021). As reported on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) website, that day the total electricity delivered was 1,161 gigawatt-hours (GWh), a unit of energy representing one billion watt hours. In contrast, exactly one year earlier (Feb. 15, 2020), the Texas grid only delivered 936 GWhs. Thus, during the first day of the Texas blackouts, the grid supplied 24 per cent more electricity than it did one year earlier on a more typical winter day. The blackouts occurred because demand jumped even more.

We can also look at individual energy sources. From Feb. 15, 2020 to Feb. 15, 2021, electricity provided by natural gas-fired plants was up 91 per cent while electricity from wind was down 72 per cent. On Feb. 15, 2020, wind supplied 28 per cent of the electricity while natural gas provided 43 per cent. A year later, during the first day of the blackouts, wind only supplied 6 per cent of the electricity while natural gas provided 65 per cent.

In light of these statistics, how can anyone blame natural gas for the blackouts?

Because the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had contingency plans assuming wind power would be relatively useless during a severe storm and relied on thermal plants (natural gas, coal and nuclear) to pick up the slack. At the worst point, the extreme cold knocked 30 GWhs of generation capacity from thermal plants offline (the data are not broken down among sources but natural gas is presumably the leader), which is more than double the estimate ERCOT made for an extreme storm scenario. In contrast, ERCOT already assumed wind wouldn’t provide much electricity in an “extreme low wind scenario” so the wind turbines knocked out by the cold weren’t the immediate reason ERCOT’s planning failed.

Yet this defense of wind power is hardly reassuring. If we compare the electricity provided during the first day of the blackouts with the “maximum installed capacity,” natural gas came in at 46 per cent compared to 10 per cent for wind. While U.S. government policies—such as the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and the looming possibility of a carbon tax—may have helped encourage the growth of Texas wind capacity at the expense of other sources, they clearly hurt the ability of the grid to supply power during the freeze.

It’s true that Canadian wind operators are better prepared for the cold than their Texas counterparts, but wind will always be an intermittent source that relies on non-renewables as backup. Of course, Canadians want reliable energy during periods of high demand, and the debacle in Texas shows that wind power is no substitute for fossil fuels.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.