I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that Texas -- that bastion of conservative politics -- is actually the greenest state we have, with about 9% of its electrical power generation coming from wind. And, plans are in the works to bump that number up to 15% in the near future.
But, last winter, amid the freezing temperatures of the so-called polar vortex, wind power failed the state by only being able to provide about 3 percent of its power needs. As a result, conventional fossil-fuel powered plants barely had enough reserve power producing capability to prevent the state from a complete grid failure that could have plunged millions into the darkness of a statewide blackout. A blackout that would keep people in the cold because, even if they had gas furnaces, electricity is still needed to run the fans and the thermostats.
The lack of wind power isn't just some rare occurrence due to a rare polar vortex. In 2008, Texans had another near grid emergency for lack of wind.
What their story tells us is that there always has to be enough reserve fossil fuel power available to compensate for a possible 66% drop in wind. In the above case, the reserve needed was at least 7%. If Texas increases wind power to 15%, the reserve needed should be at least 12%. In other words, for every kilowatt of new and added wind power, another 66% of a kilowatt of fossil fuel must be added or held in reserve as backup. Simply, this means that the cost to the consumer will have to be 66% higher than need be, but it also means that power companies will be hard pressed to cost justify any new power plants or the expansion of existing power facilities just so that capability can sit there in the eventuality of another polar vortex event. If they don't, the odds of wide scale power blackouts only goes up.
Solar is even worse. Every night, solar power production goes to zero. So, at a time when people are at home, away from work, and using a lot more power than they did during the day, solar power goes silent and fossil fuel power plants must make up more than 100% of the slack. Additionally, on cloudy days, when solar efficiency is greatly reduced, fossil-fueled plants must be amped up to take up the slack.
Shortly, Texas will find itself making some very hard decisions. This is because President Obama's new EPA coal regulations -- decidedly designed to completely shutdown coal-fired electricity production -- will go into effect. As coal-fired plants are being forced to shutdown, will Texas either go with more wind or will it convert those coal plants to natural gas? I would hope, given this year's experience, they would cautiously do the first option or wholeheartedly embrace natural gas.
The bottom line is that we, as a nation, can never be fully dependent on wind and solar for our electricity as some would lead us to believe. As a country, we have always had a dominant economy because of cheap and reliable power. Wind and solar are neither and, ultimately, our dependence on these too technologies will hurt us in growing businesses and creating jobs.
In my opinion, wind and solar should never be directly attached to the power grid. Instead, the electricity produced from these two technologies should be used to produce hydrogen gas which can be stored and then used, as needed, to produce electricity. This way, fluctuations in demand can be better dealt with. Most importantly, burning hydrogen to produce electricity produces no carbon; just plain H2O. As an added advantage, that same hydrogen can even be used in automobiles that are so-equipped to burn it.
Role of Texas wind power debated after winter emergency: http://fuelfix.com/blog/2014/01/08/role-of-texas-wind-power-debated-after-winter-emergency/
2008: Loss of wind causes Texas power grid emergency: http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/02/28/us-utilities-ercot-wind-idUSN2749522920080228
Obama EPA Issues Coal-Killing Rules To Cut Carbon Emissions 30 Percent: http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2014/06/02/obama-epa-issues-coal-killing-rules-to-cut-carbon-emissions-30-percent/