How do we keep from having blackouts like last month’s Texas disaster?
According to renewable energy advocates, the answer is more wind turbines and solar panels. If only we had a grid that was 100 percent renewable, they claim, Texans would have been spared the misery of hours of darkness and cold, which cost billions and led to as many as 60 deaths.
Alas, the claim that a system made up mostly of wind turbines and solar panels will end blackouts is not at all credible. As studies, as well as the evidence, have shown such a system would likely make blackouts more numerous, more abrupt, and more costly.
Of course, any claim blackouts can be completely prevented has to be rejected out of hand. For starters, the probability of human error cannot be reduced to zero; grid mismanagement is said to have played a large part in the Texas failure. A much more complex, unpredictable, weather-dependent electric system (in other words an all-renewable grid) would hardly be immune from significant human mistakes.
The basic idea behind the renewable solution to power failures goes something like this: True, the wind doesn’t always blow in a particular place, but it’s blowing strongly somewhere. If not Texas, then how about off-shore on the east coast, or the mountains of California. Somewhere the wind is howling. If all electric systems were interconnected, then if the wind dies down in Texas, the turbines off the coast of New England will fill in.
As for solar, there’s an awful lot of sunlight—somewhere during the day in the U.S.– that could be producing power and charging up gigantic batteries so they can discharge when and where the sun isn’t shining—like Texas in mid-February.
The all-renewable dream entails creating a “Supergrid” interconnecting all electric generation in the lower 48 states of the U.S. or better still all of North America—from the Canadian arctic to the deserts of Baja.
It would, of course, require thousands of miles of high voltage power lines and cost trillions of dollars to build.
But no matter what we spend, we won’t prevent blackouts. In fact, a continent-wide 100 percent renewable electric system could actually turn local or state blackouts into calamities of enormous scope and cost.
As we’ve learned over the years, sometimes interconnections will prevent blackouts but at other times, interconnections will spread them, where with each local failure the demand on the rest system becomes so great that electric generating equipment shuts itself down to prevent damage.
With a system of inherently intermittent, and generally unpredictable renewables, the chances of local outages are high. There have been power failures just about everywhere a grid has had any significant reliance on wind and solar—typically much less than 100 percent.
Texas did not have many interconnections. Thankfully! While some observers were quick to blame the Texas blackout on the isolation of Texas’s grid, if they had extensive interconnections it isn’t clear who would have come to the rescue. Demand was high in many parts of the country. Much of the U.S. was frozen. Neighbors Oklahoma and Mississippi faced their own power outages. So, too, did neighboring systems in Mexico.
In the February blackout, a national grid could have cost many more lives. With normal production of electric power dependent on interconnections, as regional systems faltered in the extraordinary conditions, more pressure would have fallen on the equipment still generating electricity; a national blackout could have resulted.
A power failure on that scale would create an immense catastrophe, costing trillions of dollars, and taking weeks or even months to repair.
An all-renewable electric grid dependent on wind and sunlight is the wrong answer if we want to avoid the chaos and loss that, as Texas reminds us, large-scale disruptions to our electric system can bring.