Solar Tribune

Hopes for Solar Spring Anew in Texas Following Energy Grid Debacle


Few people or entities involved in generating and supplying energy to the citizens of Texas came out smelling like a rose following the state’s recent handling of a weather-induced energy crisis. The fiasco could, however, prove to be a seminal event that spurs greater confidence in solar energy and increased adoption across the Lone Star state.

Setting the Record Straight

By now you have surely heard plenty about the rare winter storm that impacted Texas a few weeks ago, leading to an unprecedented statewide power failure that left millions of residents without power; for days on end in some cases. The death toll from the storm will take months to fully tabulate, but it will surely reach into the hundreds. The widespread property damage associated with the storm and its aftermath will likely make it the most costly winter weather event in state history.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of misinformation about the role that the state’s renewable energy sector played in the power grid failure. The much-maligned Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which oversees the overwhelming majority of the state’s energy grid, has been clear in pointing out that frozen wind turbines and iced over solar panels played a negligible role in the grid’s failure. Dan Woodfin, Senior Director for ERCOT, specifically stated that frozen wind turbines were “the least significant factor in the blackouts.”

Photo Source: Pipeline Technology Journal

Instead, frozen natural gas pipes and a lack of standby reserves brought the grid to its knees. Frozen instruments at coal and nuclear facilities further compounded the state’s problems. Natural gas, coal, and nuclear fuel sources comprise well over 2/3’s of the state’s fuel mix. It is not hard to conclude that the Lone Star state’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, coupled with the lack of adequate winter weatherization at its fossil fuels production facilities, are ultimately what did the state in.

Financial Incentives Point to Solar Boon in Texas

We have covered in previous articles Texas’ position as a state that is ripe for rapid near-term growth in solar energy generating capacity. That likelihood is now perhaps doubly true as the need for the state to diversify its energy generating capabilities has perhaps never been more obvious. Even before the latest Texas energy crisis, the state was planning for a significant addition of solar capacity to the grid in just the next couple of years.  From S&P Global Market Intelligence,

“Between 2021 and 2023, developers plan to add roughly 35 GW of combined solar and wind capacity to the state’s primary transmission system, operated by the Electric Reliability Council Of Texas Inc., according to the grid operator’s most recent data.”

Texas is second only to solar behemoth California in both cumulative installed solar capacity and total households with residential solar energy systems. Yet on a per capita basis residential solar adoption in state remains miniscule as the 783,000+ households with solar comprise less than 1% of the total households in the state, underscoring the industry’s massive growth potential. Texas’ deregulated energy market had long kept utility prices low for the typical user, thus not creating the cost incentive to switch to solar that is present in many other states. We now of course know the long-term peril of relying so heavily on such a system.

The financial incentives in Texas are changing in real time, however.

Some households in Texas were hit by energy bills that were some 10,000% higher than their typical bills. One such customer, a 70-year-old living off Social Security, had to deplete his modest savings to pay off a $16,752 (!!!) energy bill. This particular gentleman, and others hit with outrageous bills, were customers of Griddy, a small company in Houston that provides electricity at wholesale prices. As the typical supply and demand dynamics went haywire in the midst of the energy crisis, so too did the wholesale energy market which is especially vulnerable to even modest fluctuations in supply and demand.

Photo Source: The Conversation

The savings account-busting energy bills that many Texans were recently faced with may just be the tip of the iceberg. Make no mistake about it, the government of Texas whether they want to admit it or not will need to spend billions of dollars in modernizing their grid infrastructure and protecting against future weather-induced catastrophes. Keep in mind that such weather events are forecasted to become more unpredictable and impactful as the consequences of climate change become more acute.

There is now political pressure on elected officials from both parties in Texas to bless significant expenditures in infrastructure maintenance and improvements. The cost will of course ultimately be passed on to customers in the form of higher utility bills. If you are a Texas resident looking for a sign to take the leap and embrace a residential solar energy system, then this is it.

Weather Disasters Spur Greater Solar Adoption

Crises have a way of being especially clarifying for those impacted the most by them. This dynamic is perhaps most true when it comes to people who have been severely impacted by natural disasters. Let’s face it, losing your beachside house in a hurricane doesn’t exactly inspire most to rebuild and give it another try.

The notion that the recent debacle in Texas could result in a flood of new interest in solar energy is not without recent precedent.

California’s issues with recurring raging wildfires are a prime example of the incompatibility of pre-21st Century energy infrastructure and weather events that are increasingly volatile and without precedent. Recall that California’s largest utility, PG&E, was forced to intentionally cut off power for millions of customers in 2019 as a preventative measure in order to limit wildfire outbreaks. PG&E Chief Executive, Bill Johnson, confessed that it could take a decade for the company to improve its electrical system enough so that it doesn’t have to resort to customer blackouts as a wildfire risk mitigation strategy.

Photo Source: Las Vegas Review Journal

In the wake of its high-profile struggles battling widespread wildfires, California has seen renewed interest in solar-plus-storage energy systems as homeowners seek to reduce reliance on an increasingly unreliable energy grid. State incentives geared towards making solar batteries more affordable for consumers have helped to fuel the transition. The result has been clear. According to a July 2020 article by Scientific American, 174 permits for energy storage projects were issued in the front half of 2020 in Sonoma County, eclipsing the total number issued in all of 2019 (161). Marin County, CA issued 763 solar permits in the 12-month period ending on June 30, 2020, an increase of 136% from the previous year.

The story was similar in Puerto Rico. After the island’s national energy grid was ravaged by Hurricane Maria in 2018, record numbers of the country’s residents installed home battery systems.

No energy source is 100% foolproof, but the events that recently transpired in Texas are a stark reminder of how vulnerable fossil fuel-dependent energy grids are to potent weather storms. Texans used to cite their prowess in the crude oil and natural gas markets as an example of “energy independence.” Such an assertion now comes across as pretty tone deaf. If there is any good to come from Texas’ recent misfortunes it is that these events are sure to hasten the state’s march towards a more renewables-focused future, and maybe then the state’s promise of energy independence can ring true.

Cover Photo Source: The Verge

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