Texas Wind Highlights Needed Resilience in Harvey’s Wake

Most Texans already know that the state’s fortunes were and are fueled by oil and natural gas. What many don’t realize, however, is just how much the future of the Lone Star State will be powered by renewable energy. With the Green Energy in Texas series, we will explore various aspects of the green energy industry and keep you informed on how those changes and innovations might affect your Texas electricity bill.

Texas Wind Highlights Needed Resilience in Harvey’s Wake

Despite some spiteful nay-sayers, even though Harvey landed a solid blow to the jaw of Texas coastal wind farms, they got right up again. One example is the Papalote Creek Wind Farm near Corpus Christi, about 20 miles from where Harvey made land fall on August 25 as a category 4 hurricane, pummeling everything in its path with 130 mph winds. The 196 turbines of the 380 MW farm feathered their blades when wind speed exceeded 55 mph and waited out the storm. According to reports, the storm heavily damaged the utility transmission and distribution system but the turbines came through in good shape because storm winds only peaked at 90 mph. The owners said that the facility would likely return to operation within a few days. Six other coastal wind farms came through without any damage, including Pattern Energy’s 283 MW Gulf Wind Project which operated throughout the storm without being damaged at all.

Meanwhile, the two nuclear reactors at the 2,700 MW South Texas Project, located 90 miles southeast of Houston also continued operation during the hurricane under the watchful gaze of a storm crew of 250 workers. Plant policy is to shut down the reactors when a storm’s sustained wind speeds exceed 74 mph. It lies 10 miles inland from Matagorda Bay and was built to withstand a category 5 hurricane with winds in excess of 157 mph.

Texas Wind Highlights Needed Resilience in Harvey’s Wake | The Light Lab

According to the Department Of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), the hurricane produced three important effects:

  • Power plant outages were largely caused by rain or flooding affecting generator fuel supplies (especially natural gas), outages of transmission infrastructure connecting generators to the grid, and personnel not being able to reach generating facilities. Wind farms in ERCOT’s southern region increased their output for the four days after Harvey’s landfall.
  • Transmission lines and related facilities were damaged by winds and flooding.
  • Damage to the ERCOT grid (a loss of 10,000 MW) resulted in significantly lower demand than usual for the time of year.

And it’s these effects that have stimulated a growing debate about the importance of building more resilient distributed energy microgrids using generators, renewable-energy, and batteries.

Benefits of Distributed Microgrids

While both the South Texas Project and wind turbines survived Harvey, one of the key points that Harvey exposed is that in high wind and floods it’s the transmission resources that take the most damage. While it’s nice to be able to produce 1,000 MW or more in bad weather, if you can’t get it to the customers that really, really need it then it’s not doing much good. Recent examples include chemical storage facilities like Arkema in Crosby and the 16 hospitals across the state that had to evacuate 1,000 patients.

Consider this crude comparison. On one hand, you have a city served by a traditional investor-owned utility (IOU) that sends it’s electricity to a city’s grid along a single high tension line. On the other, you have a city that has numerous smaller renewable energy sources that use microgrids to supply all customers within the city.

When a hurricane brings high winds and flooding that pulls down transmission lines, which city is more likely to be able to recover faster and more cheaply? Obviously, the city with the microgrid because it’s a modular designed system that has the agility to respond quicker to the unexpected. Knock out down a few power poles in the city and only a few people (who don’t have their own solar panel array system) lose power. Everyone else is covered.

On the other hand, while the big IOU plant can definitely meet huge demand, it’s grid system is quite vulnerable. Topple one of those big transmission towers in a storm and everyone loses power until repairs are completed —which can take weeks.

The point is that microgrids are more resilient than the old-style grid, especially in places like Texas that must cope with the potential for catastrophic weather. Houston’s H-E-B stores, for example, invested heavily in their natural-gas powered microgrid and was able to power their own lights, serve emergency food, and help out with emergency services.

While many businesses are considering the advantages of protecting their operations by investing in microgrids, there’s also an unlooked for benefit. In the case of H-E-B’s stores, not only did having their microgrid make each store even more of an asset to their community, but it also cemented their customers’ loyalty. They will remember how H-E-B came through for them during Harvey.

Because Harvey (and Irma) highlighted the increased need for grid resilience, the DOE recently announced plans to invest up to $50 million to invest in research on improving energy resilience. Doubtless, some of those research dollars will be spent on projects in Texas.

We’ll keep you informed of what develops.

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Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.