Lubbock – the state’s High Plains region, which covers 41 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, is home to more than 11,000 wind turbines – the largest of any area in the state.
The area could generate enough wind energy to power at least 9 million homes. Experts say the extra power could help provide much-needed stability to the electric grid during high-energy summers like this one, and even lower Texas electricity bills in other parts of the state.
But a large part of the electricity produced in the highlands remains there for a simple reason: it cannot be transported elsewhere. Despite the increasing sophistication of wind energy production in Texas, the state’s transmission network will need significant upgrades to the charging infrastructure for the energy produced in the region.
“We are in a time when the wind is at its peak, but we are seeing a lot of wind energy being curtailed or congested and not being able to flow to some of the densely populated areas,” said John Hensley, vice president. For research and analysis at the American Clean Power Association. “Which is a loss for price payers and a loss for energy consumers who now have to either contend with energy conservation or pay more for the energy they use because they don’t have access to this low-cost wind resource.”
And when the rest of the state is required to conserve power to help stabilize the grid, the high plains have to turn turbines off to reduce wind production they don’t need.
“Since there is not enough transmission to move it where it is needed, ERCOT has to stop the engine [wind] power generators,” said energy attorney Michael Jewell. In effect they tell wind generators to stop generating electricity. It gets to the point where [wind farm operators] Literally literally unplugging the generators completely and stopping them from doing anything.”
Texans are already experiencing some energy concerns this year amid scorching temperatures and rising energy demands to keep homes cool. The Texas Electricity Reliability Board, which manages the state’s electrical grid, warned of a twice-reduced power output last month and asked people across the state to cut back on their consumption to avoid an electricity emergency.
Power supply issues affected the governor of Texas as well. Nearly half of Texas’ electricity is generated at power plants that run on the state’s most common energy source, natural gas, and its price has risen more than 200% since late February, causing home utility bills to soar.
Meanwhile, wind farms across the state account for approximately 21% of the state’s power generation. Besides wind production near the Gulf of Mexico, Texas produced more than a quarter of the nation’s wind electricity generation last year.
Wind power is one of the cheapest sources of energy because it is sold at fixed prices, turbines do not need fuel to run and the federal government provides subsidies. Texans who get their energy from wind farms in the high plains usually pay less for electricity than people in other parts of the state. But with the price of natural gas rising due to inflation, Jewell said areas without access to wind power should rely on electricity that costs more.
“The resources of other generations are more valuable than anything else [customers] “They would have gotten from the wind generators if they could move it,” Jewell said. “That is the definition of transmission congestion. Because you cannot transmit cheap electricity over the grid.”
The 2021 ERCOT report showed that there have been increases in wind energy stability constraints in recent years in both West and South Texas that have limited long-distance power transmission.
“The limitation of the transmission is that the power cannot reach the load centers. [High Plains wind power] It might be able to get to Lubbock, but it might not be able to get to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, or Austin,” Jewell said. “It’s not a small problem — it costs Texas a lot of money.”
Some wind farms on the high plains anticipated that transmissions would be required. Trent Wind Farm was one of the first in the area. The wind farm began operations in 2001, is located between Abilene and Sweetwater in West Texas and has about 100 wind turbines, which can power 35,000 homes. American Electric Power built the site near the power transmission network and built a short transmission line, so the power generated there goes to the ERCOT system.
But Jewell said higher energy demand and costs this summer show there is a need to build additional transmission lines to move more wind power produced on the high plains to other parts of the state.
Jewell said the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the grid, is running tests to determine the economic benefits of adding transmission lines from the High Plains to the more than 52,000 miles of lines already connected to the grid across the state. So far, however, there is no official proposal to build new lines.
“It takes a long time to figure that out — you’re talking about a transmission line that’s going to be in service for 40 or 50 years, and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Jewell said. “You want to make sure the savings outweigh the costs, so it’s a longer process. But we need more transmission so we can transmit more power. This case is growing very fast.”
A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers released after the winter storm in February 2021 stated that Texas had significant and growing problems with reliability and resiliency with its electrical system.
The report concluded that “failures that caused overwhelming human and economic suffering during February will increase in frequency and duration due to deficiencies in outdated market design, growing interdependence between infrastructure, drivers of economic and population growth, and obsolescence of equipment even in the case of the frequency and severity of weather.” Events remain unchanged.
The report also said that while transmission upgrades across the state were generally done in a timely manner, it was difficult to add infrastructure where there was rapid growth, such as in the High Plains.
Although some Texas legislators oppose wind and other forms of renewable energy, the state has prime real estate to harness wind energy because of its open plains, and farmers can place turbines on their land for financial relief.
This has led to a boom in wind farms, even with transportation problems. Since 2010, wind power generation in Texas has increased by 15%. This month, the Biden administration announced that the first offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico will be developed off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana and will produce enough power to power about 3 million homes.
“Texas sort of stands on its head and shoulders above all other states when it comes to the actual amount of wind, solar, and battery storage projects that are in the system,” Hensley said.
One problem often raised with wind and solar farms is that they may not be able to produce the same amount of energy that the country needs all the time. Earlier this month, when ERCOT asked consumers to conserve electricity, the agency listed declining wind generation and cloud coverage in West Texas as contributing factors to its tight power supply.
This is where battery storage stations can help, Hensley said. According to the US Energy Information Administration, utility-scale batteries tripled capacity in 2021 and can now store up to 4.6 gigawatts of energy. Texas is rapidly developing warehousing projects. In 2011, Texas battery storage capacity was only 5 megawatts; By 2020, this has swelled to 323.1 megawatts.
“Storage is a real game changer because it can really help mediate and control a lot of the disruption issues that a lot of people worry about when they think about wind and solar technology,” Hensley said. “So being able to capture a lot of that solar energy that comes in at noon [1 p.m.] And move it to those evening periods when demand is at its highest, or even move strong wind resources from overnight to early morning or afternoon hours. “
Storage technology can help, but Hensley said transmission is still the big factor to consider.
Solar energy is another resource that can help stabilize the grid. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Texas has about 13,947 megawatts of installed solar capacity and more than 161,000 facilities. This is enough to power more than 1.6 million homes.
This month, PUC formed a task force to develop a pilot program next year that would create a path for solar panels and batteries on small systems, such as homes and businesses, to add that power to the grid. The program will make solar and battery power more affordable and accessible to customers, and will pay customers to share their stored energy with the grid as well.
Hensley said Texas has the most clean energy projects in the works that will likely continue to put the region above the rest when it comes to wind generation.
“So they’re already far ahead, and it looks like they’re going to be more advanced after six months or a year down the road,” he said.