The Texas Polar Vortex Resurrects the Decarbonized Grid’s Fuel Diversity Question

At-a-Glance:

This article is not about which generating technologies caused the blackouts experienced in Texas and states across the Midwest this week. However, these events can get us thinking about where the industry goes from here. First, the U.S. natural-gas supply network was stressed by record demand and prices. The record-high gas demand would have been even higher without the rolling blackouts that were imposed because more homes with central heat would have run either gas-fired heaters or electric heat pumps, which would have been powered mostly by coal- or gas-fired generators if those weren’t impacted by outages. To learn more, read The Texas Polar Vortex Resurrects the Decarbonized Grid’s Fuel Diversity Question.”

Key Takeaways:

  • The nine days between February 9 – 17 seem to highlight a fuel-diversity dilemma for U.S. decarbonization targets and policies. Coal and natural gas comprised 65% of the power generation mix, 30% and 35% respectively, while utility-scale wind and solar only provided 6%.
    • Many utility integrated resource plans seek to quickly replace coal plants with new, or existing but underutilized, natural-gas plants as “bridge fuel,” while adding large amounts of wind and solar over the next five to 20 years.
  • An increase in natural-gas usage during a repeat polar vortex event would likely lead to more grid reliability problems. There are two options to prevent this:
    • Expand U.S. natural gas supply/network to support even higher send-out for an extended cold snap.
    • Build enough renewable energy sources to offset the loss of coal generation and prevent increased natural gas demand during an extended cold snap.
  • Wood Mackenzie’s latest Long-Term Outlook forecasts the U.S. adding over 1,300 GW of new combined wind and solar capacity by 2050 to reach 85% decarbonization, plus over 400 GW of battery storage.
    • The system would still require some backup natural-gas generation for periods of low renewable energy output.

Path to 100% Perspective:

Power systems won’t decarbonize overnight. The pathway toward a 100% renewable power system will be a phased transformation, leveraging different mixes of technologies and fuels at different steps along the path. Power-to-gas technology is one approach that can ease the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, while providing a long-term energy storage solution that ensures a reliable and secure supply of electricity during periods of extreme weather.

 

Photo Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Biden Official Says Texas Storm Shows Infrastructure Need

At-a-Glance:

The Biden administration said it will work with states and businesses to make infrastructure more resilient after a winter storm led to widespread power outages in Texas. To learn more, read Biden Official Says Texas Storm Shows Infrastructure Need.” Reading this article may require a subscription.

Key Takeaways:

  • President Joe Biden received multiple updates a day on the federal response to the storm that caused power disruptions and prompted rolling blackouts, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
  • In Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided 60 generators, 729,000 liters of water, 10,000 wool blankets and 225,000 meals.
  • By late Thursday morning, February 18, the number of customers without power was down to about 500,000 from more than 4 million two days earlier, according to PowerOutage.us.

Path to 100% Perspective:

The Texas blackouts have been linked to lack of winterization and adequate natural gas supply. Regulators and system planners analyze energy use based on one event in ten years, which determines the need for generation capacity and the required reserve margin. This planning process does not account for extreme, once-in-hundred-years weather conditions like the system that moved through Texas. As climate change progresses, events such as the recent Texas blackouts are forecasted to become more frequent and should be accounted for during planning.

 

Photo by Carlos Alfonso on Unsplash

Texas Storms, California Heat Waves and ‘Vulnerable’ Utilities

At-a-Glance:

In California, wildfires and heat waves in recent years forced utilities to shut off power to millions of homes and businesses. Now, Texas is learning that deadly winter storms and intense cold can do the same. To learn more, read Texas Storms, California Heat Waves and ‘Vulnerable’ Utilities.” Reading this article may require a subscription.

Key Takeaways:

  • Blackouts in Texas and California have revealed that power plants can be strained and knocked offline by the kind of extreme cold and hot weather that climate scientists have said will become more common as greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere.
  • The electricity industry typically looks at average annual temperatures rather than seasonal ones. Changing the distribution of power sources based on the seasonal temperatures could help avoid electricity shortages.
  • The Electric Reliability Council of Texas could take a cue from states in colder climates and winterize its power plants and other equipment to prevent future weather-related power failures.
  • That Texas and California have been hardest hit makes clear that simplistic ideological explanations are often wrong. Texas, for example, has relied on market forces to balance its electric grid.

Path to 100% Perspective:

The impacts of climate change and extreme weather are not limited to Texas and California. All states can take steps to ensure their power and natural gas systems can handle the full range of temperatures that climate analysts forecast; winterization is just one example. States should also explore long-term energy storage solutions, such as thermal generation.

 

Photo by Alexander Popov on Unsplash

Missing Pieces of Decarbonization Puzzle Realized

Jussi Heikkinen, Director of Growth & Development, Americas
Wärtsilä Energy Business

These are exciting times as the renewable energy future is a focus for so many organizations and governments around the world, as indicated by attendance of the Wärtsilä sponsored webcast hosted by GreenBiz on November 19, 2020, Missing Pieces of Decarbonization Puzzle Realized. Emerging technologies are moving closer to reality, which makes ambitious energy goals more realistic and the path to 100 percent renewable energy is now within reach.

A place where the transition to renewables has progressed quite far already is California. The lessons learned along the way have been plentiful, but powerful nonetheless. The record-breaking heat wave that swept across the western part of the country and caused a series of blackouts in the Golden State, offered additional modelling opportunities to demonstrate the most effective mix of energy to accommodate any extreme weather situation during the transition, and to meet clean power mandates.

The big challenge facing California and the rest of the world is how to integrate renewables into the grid while building security of supply and a sustainable power system with an affordable plan for everyone involved.

That’s why Wärtsilä launched its Path to 100% initiative. We believe a 100% renewable energy future is possible, practical and financially viable so we assembled a community of experts to produce solutions based on science and engineering. This fall, we published a white paper that describes the Optimal Path to decarbonization for California using new hourly load data provided by this summer’s extreme heatwave.

In the whitepaper, Path to 100% Renewables for California, we modelled an approach for  California to reach its climate and clean power goals faster, at a lower cost to ratepayers, all while maintaining system reliability.

The “Optimal Path“ includes renewable carbon neutral fuels – hydrogen and synthetic methane. Curtailed renewable electricity is used in the process with water to produce hydrogen, and carbon is captured from air to produce synthetic methane with hydrogen. These fuels are used in power plants to provide a long term energy storage for seasonal and weather management needs. In the Optimal Path scenario, Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) commitments would actually be reached by 2040, five years ahead of schedule.

Generation costs in the “Optimal Path” scenarios are between 50 and 54 dollars per megawatt hour in 2045, while these costs would be almost 3 times higher if California opted to use only solar, wind and storage to build the power system. This cost difference is excessive and not beneficial for industries or households to pay. Additionally, carbon emissions are at net zero in 2045 in both scenarios.

How can California get on the Optimal Path to a renewable energy future? One recommendation is to recognize carbon neutral fuels – as presented above – to be counted as renewable for RPS purposes. This would enable the utilities to start looking for ways to invest and use such fuels to the benefit of California.

Another state aggressively pursuing renewable energy goals is Texas. Co-presenter and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) Principal of Market Design and Development, Kenneth Ragsdale shared the Lone Star State’s progress on integrating renewables into the power system.

Climate Imperative’s Executive Director, Bruce Nilles offered a big picture perspective on electricity generation capacity and the commitments needed to accelerate decarbonization.

To watch the recorded presentations from Wärtsilä, ERCOT as well as Climate Imperative and download presentation materials, register today for the Missing Pieces of Decarbonization Puzzle Realized webcast.