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A year after Texas cold spell, study shows renewable energy could help prevent blackouts

Electricity blackouts could be avoided across the nation by switching to solar, wind and water energy sources, the report says

Ricki Mills looks out from her Dallas home as she waits for a fire hydrant to be turned on for water on Feb. 23, 2021. (LM Otero/AP)
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This story has been updated.

Around this time last year, millions of Texans were shivering without power during one of the coldest spells to hit the central United States. For five days, blackouts prevented people from heating their homes, cooking or even sleeping. More than 200 people died in what is considered the nation’s costliest winter storm on record, amounting to $24 billion in damage.

Twelve months later, the state’s electrical grid, while improved, is still vulnerable to weather-induced power outages.

“If we got another storm this year, like Uri in 2021, the grid would go down again,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “This is still a huge risk for us.”

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A recent study suggests that electricity blackouts can be avoided across the nation — perhaps even during intense weather events — by switching to 100 percent clean and renewable solar, wind and water energy sources.

“Technically and economically, we have 95 percent of the technologies we need to transition everything today,” said Mark Jacobson, lead author of the paper and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Wind, water and solar already account for about one-fifth of the nation’s electricity, although a full transition in many areas is slow.

The study showed a switch to renewables would also lower energy requirements, reduce consumer costs, create millions of new jobs and improve people’s health.

Jacobson’s idea to use only wind, water and solar energy has been controversial for others in the scientific community. Other researchers contend that such a plan could be more expensive than one that includes other sources, such as nuclear energy.

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Scientists do seem to agree that widespread deployment of wind and solar could help supply much of U.S. electricity at a reasonable cost, at least to a certain degree, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For years, some outside of the science field have expressed skepticism about the viability of large-scale adoption of renewables, owing to their costs. But Dessler said that while solar was an expensive energy source 10 years ago, it is one of the cheapest today.

“A lot of people’s understanding of renewable energy is extremely out of date,” said Dessler, who was not involved in the research.

Wind energy can also be very effective and provides half of Texas’s energy some days — a fact Dessler surprised podcaster Joe Rogan with when he appeared as a guest on a February episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.”

“Solar and wind are the cheapest energy sources available,” said Dessler, who said on the podcast that he was a fan of nuclear energy as another energy source. “People don’t seem to understand that, and they also don’t understand that we know how to make a reliable grid that’s mainly renewables.”

In a model world

In the recent study, Jacobson and colleagues showed how to meet energy demands every 30 seconds across the United States with no blackouts in a greener, more populated nation in 2050 and 2051.

In the simulations, they imagined that all vehicles were electric or powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Electric heat pumps, water heaters, wind turbines and solar panels replaced their fossil fuel alternatives. The team also included new geothermal sources but no new hydroelectric plants.

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They modeled grid stability throughout the contiguous United States, including data from a weather-climate-air pollution model, which includes climate factors and statistically typical weather patterns that occur in a given region. Using energy consumption data from the Energy Information Administration, the team simulated energy demands for 2050 to 2051. Energy supply had to equal energy demand every 30 seconds, otherwise the model shut down.

The team found that the actual energy demand decreased significantly by simply shifting to renewable resources, which are more efficient. For the entire United States, total end-use energy demand decreased by about 57 percent. Per capita household annual energy costs were about 63 percent less than a “business as usual” scenario.

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“Everything that we currently do using fossil fuels would be done using technology that is run through electricity,” said Anna-Katharina von Krauland, a co-author and doctoral candidate in Jacobson’s lab. “The amount of energy that’s needed to perform activities, basically to turn on the light or to fuel industrial processes, that would actually be decreased if you use more efficient energy supply.”

During an extreme weather event, the lower energy demand is important to help keep the grid online. In Texas, a complete green transition would reduce the annual average end-use power demand by 56 percent. It also reduces peak loads, or the highest amount of energy one draws from the grid at a time. Jacobson said many homes would also have their own storage and wouldn’t need to rely on the grid as much.

The team also found interconnecting electrical grids from different geographic regions can make the power system more reliable and reduce costs. Larger regions are more likely to have the wind blowing, the sun shining or hydroelectric power running somewhere else, which may be able to help fill any supply gaps.

“The intermittence of renewable energy declines as you look at larger and larger areas,” Dessler said. “If it’s not windy in Texas, it could be windy in Iowa. In that case, they could be overproducing power and they could be shipping some of their extra power to us.”

The study stated that costs per unit energy in Texas are 27 percent lower when interconnected with the Midwest grid than when isolated, as it currently is.

“In pretty much across the board, we find that it would be less expensive, more reliable, make better use of the energy if we were to expand on interconnection,” von Krauland said. She adds though that “even if every state were islanded by itself that it would still be feasible to implement 100 percent wind, water and solar energy in every individual state.”

During winter in Texas, Jacobson said more properly maintained wind turbines would also help maintain energy supply. During the February 2021 cold spell, some frozen wind turbines were shut down because of a lack of de-icing equipment. (Coal, gas and nuclear sources also shut down from direct freezing of the equipment and contributed to a much larger dip in energy.)

“On those days that it’s cold, you have a lot of wind, which is really good news because when it’s cold, you have the heating demand,” Jacobson said. “You actually get more power output on cold days.”

During the winter, low sunlight may also render solar panels not as useful. In this case, the wind turbines and solar panels are complementary energy sources. If both were to fail at a point, then another energy source, such as geothermal or hydroelectric in this case, or nuclear in other studies, could kick in.

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Batteries are also used to supply energy when solar or wind power is low, but the team showed that long-duration batteries are not necessary or helpful for grid stability. Many four-hour batteries currently on the market can be connected to provide long-term storage, such as during blackouts. This finding is particularly useful as ultralong-duration battery technology may still be relatively far away from hitting the market.

“It’s wrong to think of renewables as unreliable because you don’t think about renewables by themselves,” Dessler said. “You think of them as part of a system. A stable grid that features a lot of renewables will also feature a firm dispatchable power that will pick up when the renewables go down.”

The team’s simulations also suggested blackouts in California, such as those in August 2020, could be avoided at a low cost. Installing more offshore wind turbines during the summer could provide energy, including to cool buildings. Transitioning to all clean, renewable energy could also decrease energy demand in California by 60 percent.

The team has laid out plans for all 50 states to achieve 100 percent renewable energy.

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In addition to improving grid stability, the study found that operating a clean, renewable grid could create almost 5 million long-term, full-time jobs, from construction to manufacturing to indirect employment at businesses. The systems would also produce cleaner air, which could reduce pollution-related deaths by 53,000 people per year and reduce pollution-related illnesses for millions of people in 2050.

Challenges

“This is an incredibly important study,” said Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University who is not involved in the research. “The fossil fuel industries continue to argue that renewables are a dangerous experiment, and that grid stability and reliability will continue to depend at least in part on fossil fuels. Here, Jacobson and his colleagues clearly show this is not the case at all.”

However, others in the scientific community challenge the premise of Jacobson’s approach. Jacobson’s previous research in 2015 on a massive renewable energy transition drew criticism from some in the scientific community. More than 20 researchers published a study in 2017 citing concerns with the modeling techniques and inadequate assumptions. One problematic assumption was that existing hydropower dams could tremendously boost their energy output. Jacobson sued the lead author for libel but later withdrew the lawsuit.

Jacobson said this new study does take into account previous criticisms, modifying the assumptions, testing the model under many different conditions and incorporating data that has been available since the 2015 study. “These are very updated plans and even more realistic and far less criticism so far of them,” he said Feb 9.

Even with modified assumptions, however, the overall premise of only using wind, water and solar is still problematic to some researchers.

“I have not looked at all of the detailed assumptions, but I think it suffers from this fundamental flaw of not exploring what other options might look like, to really understand what are the trade-offs associated with different scenarios,” said Paulina Jaramillo, a professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the study analyzing Jacobson’s previous work. “He’s not looking at what might be the least-cost option for meeting our carbon and environmental sustainability goals.”

Jaramillo and her colleagues wrote in 2017 that groups such as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that “deployment of a diverse portfolio of clean energy technologies makes a transition to a low-carbon-emission energy system both more feasible and less costly than other pathways.”

In the new study, Jacobson and his authors also write that their analysis “does not consider equipment failure caused by extreme weather,” which would need to be accounted for if the plan were to be implemented in a real-life scenario. Equipment failure was pertinent in last year’s Texas blackout, as direct freezing and a lack of de-icing equipment affected coal, gas, nuclear and wind energy sources. Some current wind turbines can’t operate above a certain wind speed and therefore shut down, which could be problematic during a severe storm or hurricane, Jaramillo added.

Overall, Jaramillo said renewables can provide valuable benefits and need to be expanded and improved, adding that it’s also imperative that studies on renewable energy undergo rigorous analysis. “I think these are things that need to happen and that they will provide benefits to us, social benefits.”

For those who think a 100 percent renewable pathway is not possible, Dessler said that he does not think the proof-of-concept findings of the new study are “controversial at all,” stating that a 100 percent clean and renewable grid is theoretically possible.

“Obviously, it will work just because there’s so much renewable energy available on the planet. Just from a physics standpoint, there’s no fundamental constraint here,” he said. Other groups have also created renewable energy plans, such as Net-Zero America and 2035 The Report, which included a diverse array of energy sources to achieve low-cost options.

“The constraint is political. You’ve got to get people to get together and decide to do this, and that’s really what’s difficult,” Dessler said.

During the February 2021 cold spell, former Texas governor Rick Perry said Texans would spend even longer in the cold and without electricity “to keep the federal government out of their business” and thwart Democrats who want to propose new regulations.

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About 15 states and territories and more than 180 cities have created policies increasing the amount of renewable electricity, but Jacobson hopes findings like this will give confidence to policymakers to pass laws and policies for a more rapid transition. Jacobson’s previous studies and work through his nonprofit the Solutions Project have helped inform plans such as the Green New Deal and state legislature.

“It really requires a large-scale effort among lots of people to solve this problem. It’s not one scientific study that is going to solve the problem,” Jacobson said.

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