UH expert: Houston needs to find a balance in growing renewable energy vs. grid resilience in Texas
The global energy sector is on an exhilarating trajectory, teeming with promising technologies and unprecedented opportunities for a sustainable future. Yet, we find ourselves grappling with the challenges of reliability and affordability. As both a researcher in the field of power electronics and a consumer with bills to pay, I find myself experiencing mixed feelings.
As a researcher, I am thrilled by the progress we have achieved, particularly in energy conversion. The exponential growth of renewable energy technologies in Texas and beyond, including wind turbines and solar PV systems, is cause for celebration. These innovations, coupled with supportive policies, have facilitated widespread deployment and the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, combat climate change, and create a brighter future for our children.
While renewable energy resources can play a crucial role in maintaining the supply-demand balance of the grid, as they did by performing very well during the recent 2023 Texas heat wave, their intermittent and unpredictable nature can also pose a significant challenge to the power system. Unlike traditional power plants that operate continuously, wind turbines and solar PV systems rely on weather conditions for optimal performance. Fluctuations in wind speed, cloud cover, and sunlight intensity can lead to imbalances between energy supply and demand. This imbalance will worsen as the anticipated influx of electric vehicles and their charging needs come into play.
The volatility of renewables contributes to price fluctuations in the electricity market, which not only affects consumers but also raises concerns about grid resilience during extreme weather events. My electricity bill increased by over 20 percent compared to last year, partly caused by inflation, but mainly due to higher operational costs in the Texas electricity market.
Texas witnessed firsthand the consequences of a not-so-resilient grid through the severe power outages experienced during the "Polar Vortex" in February 2021. These outages not only disrupted lives but also disproportionately impacted vulnerable populations. During that time, my wife was expecting our second child. Enduring two nights in our frigid home without electricity or a fireplace was an ordeal that we navigated relatively unscathed. But it made me think of those less fortunate. These circumstances underscore the importance of establishing a robust, dependable and affordable electrical power system.
Balancing renewable energy growth and grid resilience requires a multifaceted approach:
- Investment in Infrastructure and Storage: It is crucial to strengthen the grid and ensure a reliable power supply. Upgrading transmission and distribution systems, integrating advanced monitoring and control technologies, and enhancing grid interconnections are essential. The Texas Legislature established the Powering Texas Forward Act, also known as Senate Bill 2627, a taxpayer-funded loan program, to encourage investment. While excluding certain renewable energy facilities and electric energy storage, it recognizes the need for a reliable grid. Hydrogen fuel cell generation facilities could be a potential solution, providing clean and stable energy while remaining eligible for the loan program. Additionally, implementing large-scale energy storage systems utilizing batteries and hydrogen storage technologies can mitigate renewable energy volatility by storing excess energy until needed. The Texas energy industry's push for these advances is a significant step in the right direction.
- Diversification of Energy Sources: While renewables play a crucial role in decarbonization, a mix of renewable sources, natural gas, and other low-carbon resources is necessary for the foreseeable future. Implementing carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies across industries can mitigate associated climate impacts. The failure of Senate Bill 624, which would have had significant repercussions for wind and solar facilities, indicates that Texas legislators are genuinely concerned about clean, alternative sources of energy. However, a lot more needs to be done, including coordinated actions between federal, state, and international governments, to address the urgent issue of climate change. Texas can leverage its hydrocarbon/energy expertise to produce economical green and blue hydrogen, advanced fuel cells and hydrogen-based internal combustion engine technologies, enabling a smoother energy transition in terms of usage and jobs.
- Educating the General Public: It is critical to help people understand the necessity of modernizing our energy infrastructure; the benefits and opportunities it brings and the transformations we can expect. Institutions like the University of Houston play a crucial role in advancing clean energy technologies and educating the future energy workforce. The establishment of the Texas University Fund (TUF), with a budget of over $3 billion, through a constitutional amendment in November 2023, will be a pivotal step toward this goal.
When addressing the energy transformation and grid resilience dilemma, the real-life impact on human beings must be of prime importance. Our leaders should focus on a balanced approach considering grid infrastructure investment, diversification of energy sources, energy storage solutions, and public education. By adopting this multifaceted strategy, we can ensure a reliable, resilient, and affordable energy future.
Harish Krishnamoorthy is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center (PEMSEC) at the University of Houston.