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  • Why a Texas Gas Plant Tripped Off During the Heatwave // Will the American West Become an RTO? // EU Ponders Looser Renewables Restrictions

Why a Texas Gas Plant Tripped Off During the Heatwave // Will the American West Become an RTO? // EU Ponders Looser Renewables Restrictions

Why a Texas Gas Plant Tripped Off During the Heatwave

Last Thursday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas asked a few power plants to forestall their scheduled maintenance outages to help the grid meet demand during a heatwave. Then, during the heatwave, six gas plants tripped off.

At least one of them was one of the plants ERCOT requested maintenance postponements from, reports the Texas Tribune. The plant in question, "went offline anyway when some of its equipment stopped working properly, according to energy giant Calpine, which owns the plant."

"Several other power plants broke down Friday and couldn’t produce electricity after agreeing — at ERCOT’s request — to postpone planned maintenance shutdowns, said Michele Richmond, who represents power plants across the state as executive director of the Texas Competitive Power Advocates," they continue.

“Our companies want to be on in the heat of summer, our companies want to be on when customers need us to provide power,” Richmond told the Tribune. “We also want to do it reliably and safely. Part of reliability of a power plant is taking scheduled maintenance to not only run safely but run at max performance, just like you don’t want to do maintenance on your car when you’re on a cross-country road trip.”

Texas's Public Utility Commission is debating a new rule that would shorten the planned maintenance outage season even further. The PUCT oversees ERCOT and is considering this rule because of the widespread blackouts during last year's Uri storm, which left many Texans without power and killed hundreds.

But this comes at a time when Texas is underinvesting in reliable generators like gas plants and over investing in renewables, especially solar. According to S&P's 2022 ISO Market Outlook Report, "The bulk of ERCOT's planned additions is solar, at 12,785 MW of capacity, more than twice the 6,241 MW of planned wind capacity, and nearly triple the 4,595 MW of planned storage capacity."

Texas seems more committed to wearing out its current reliable generator fleet than investing in a firmer energy portfolio. 

Will the American West Become an RTO?

Right now, there are two regions of the United States that do not belong to organized electricity markets: the broad West and the Southeast. Chairman Richard Glick of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told the American Clean Power Association's CLEANPOWER 2022 conference that that's going to change. 

"I strongly believe there will be some sort of organized market in the West in the coming years," Glick said.

Organized power markets are often called Regional Transmission Organizations. They are stewarded by Independent System Operators. "In an RTO grid," Meredith Angwin explains, "'merchant generators' own the power plants and compete against each other in auctions organized by the RTO."

The hope is to merge the Northwest and Southwest into an RTO with California's market. SPG reports, "The CAISO Board of Governors and Western Energy Imbalance Market Governing Body approved measures Aug. 20 that broaden shared governance between the two entities, including joint authority, which many believe paves the way for a western regional transmission organization."

Glick shared a sit-down session with ACP CEO Heather Zichal during the conference's opening session. "This is a critical year," Zichal said. "This is the moment we need to get across the finish line. ... We don't have the time to waste to meet the challenges of climate change."

That folding other parts of the West into the California power market should be seen as a step towards meaningful climate action shouldn't be a surprise. Last year a bi-partisan clique of FERC alumni sent a letter to the new chairs asking the federal regulator to expand power markets to curb emissions. Eighty percent of the renewables deployed in America have been deployed in RTO areas, they observed. 

“As the pace of decarbonizing the grid accelerates, we are convinced that the time for organized market expansion is now.  Hence, we are writing to urge the Commission to use the broad authorities and tools available under the Federal Power Act to move toward well-structured organized power markets in all regions of the country,” read their letter.

This year, several RTOs have posted warnings about their reliability problems: CAISO, MISO, SPP, and ERCOT. All three have extensive renewables buildouts aided and abetted by their market structure, which has contributed to their reliability issues. As Angwin explained in our interview with her, "The people running the physical grid do the best they can to provide reliable power, within the constraints of [policy which] often requires intermittent renewables. For a reliable grid, these need to be backed up with 'quick response' generating plants (usually natural gas). However, other policies can prevent building natural gas pipelines. The constraints of the policy grid do not have to be self-consistent, and they are not."

EU Ponders Looser Renewables Restrictions

The EU wants to replace Russian fossil fuels with wind and solar. To do that, they're considering stripping away environmental review processes to build them out faster. 

"Companies in the bloc would be allowed to build wind and solar projects without the need for an environmental impact assessment, according to draft proposals [...] that call for the fast-track permitting of renewable projects in designated 'go-to' areas," reports the Financial Times. 

As for non-electric industrial processes that need gas, the EU is emphasizing hydrogen. The Financial Times reports, "The hydrogen would only qualify as renewable if during its production it does not increase the use of electricity generated from fossil fuels and if it returned as much renewable electricity to the grid as it used up."

There are three major issues here. The first is that renewables were part of the problem. The energy crisis began last year--a wind drought, low energy reserves, and a post-COVID demand rebound caught Europe's oil and gas supply off-guard. Fertilizer plants were shutting off even then. The outlook was bleak enough that on my old Substack I wrote a piece calling the incipient energy crisis a "Black Cascade."

Secondly, hydrogen is wildly expensive and difficult to store. The world is nowhere near ready to move from gas to hydrogen in its major heavy industries. If it did, the price of goods would skyrocket.

As ever, European greens are Trojan horsing austerity and social control inside of "saving the planet." Which brings me to my third point: wind and solar have never largely decarbonized an electricity sector. Nuclear, however, has--in France and Ontario. 

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Crom's Blessing

Ben Davidson, James Earl Jones, and Sven-Ole Thorsen, Conan The Barbarian (1982).