Texas' Real Wind Power Problem

Written by Adam English
Posted March 4, 2021

The list of problems exposed by the cold snap in Texas last month is long and depressing.

From a billing system being blamed for doing exactly what it was designed to do with variable pricing... to normally grandstanding politicians squabbling over who should take the blame... to energy generation and transmission systems that were revealed to be flawed about a decade ago and never improved.

Never ones to miss a chance to point the finger while advancing their own agendas — so conveniently aligned with top donors — politicians targeted Texas' wind power generation for extra scorn.

Never mind that natural gas infrastructure failed at a higher rate and on a much larger scale.

The tragic debacle did help shed light on a very real problem for Texas' wind power. Texas is far from alone, too. It's a problem with all wind power. And solar. And all variable power sources.

To make matters worse, people are focusing on an inferior method to address it.

Let's take a look at what is going on.

Wind, more than other renewable, has a huge overcapacity problem. To put it simply, wind turbines make a whole lot of power that cannot be utilized and effectively drives up the price of wind power generation.

Unlike solar power, which surges on hot, sunny days, wind turbines just keep on going through the night, spinning away when air conditioners don't tax the grid, most businesses aren't open, and most people are sleeping at home with no lights or running appliances.

All the while, the same mechanical wear and tear continues.

Up until recently, the most obvious solution has been to hook up batteries to store this excess power and discharge it during peak hours.

Tons of really big, really heavy, really expensive batteries. So many that it is still wildly impractical even with nose-diving costs.

Plus, those discharge cycles wear down battery capacity, and plenty of power is still lost to inefficiencies in the electrical grid.

Jim Robb, CEO of the regulatory North American Electric Reliability Corp., told NBC News, "For batteries to play the ultimate backup system, we're so far away from that it's not funny. To really make the vision that we like to get to, a highly decarbonized electric system, you're going to have to have batteries deployed in many orders of magnitude beyond what we have now."

So what is a more realistic solution? One that most people have not considered to date — hydrogen production.

Hydrogen production hardly seems like a likely candidate, but its advantages are considerable.

First up, excess wind power generation can be converted into a versatile fuel that is effectively carbon-free, at least outside of the wind turbines and other equipment involved.

Second, storage doesn't depend on intensely polluting industries like mineral extraction.

Look no further than the cobalt scandals that erupted once people realized African children were being poisoned in mines and being paid below-subsistence wages by Chinese middlemen so that we can have cheaper phones and Teslas.

You can also look to most places where lithium is extracted, a process that causes profound water use issues, often in areas that are already parched, such as the American Southwest and South America.

Lastly, at least for what I'll mention here, there is no need to expand energy infrastructure when you can plop down a plant right next to the power source. That's especially useful considering some of the best areas to generate cheap wind power are sparsely populated, such as the parts of Texas where most turbines are found. The same goes for the Dakotas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and most other states that have significant wind power generation.

Then there is the best of the best, offshore generation, for which it should come as no surprise that population isn't a consideration and running power lines is very expensive.

So what would a hydrogen solution to excess wind power generation look like?

It'd be pretty simple. You go to where the turbines are, build an electrolyser unit, throw some solar panels on top of it for good measure, and start cracking some water molecules apart.

You can either pipe the hydrogen out or put it in a storage unit and ship it by truck or boat. And yes, boats are most certainly an option. After all, the same basic design can be put on a floating rig anchored to the sea floor.

That may not make tons of sense to us here in the USA, but it makes a ton of sense over in the U.K. Last year was a record-breaking year for U.K. wind power generation, which touched 60% of total electrical generation on some particularly blustery days last year. A whole lot of those turbines are offshore.

Seem far-fetched? Well, Siemens Gamesa, which makes wind turbines, and Siemens Energy are making a turbine with a built-in electrolyser right now.

Tractebel, a global engineering company, is working on plans for a large-scale offshore production plant to drive much higher hydrogen production from a single site.

Over on the continent, Neptune Energy is looking to convert an oil platform to inject hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines.

Royal Dutch Shell is betting big on hydrogen transportation and power trading as well.

Needless to say, these offshore installations will have plenty of raw material to work with and will be using practically free electricity to create a fuel of the future.

There is a lot of focus on batteries, and they are certainly a critical part of any solution to our energy needs.

Don't sleep on hydrogen, though. From large vehicles, to industrial power needs like cement and steel, to demo homes being built to use hydrogen instead of natural gas, companies large and small are finding new and soon-to-be widespread uses and investing heavily in them. Hydrogen's time is coming.

Take care,

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Adam English

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Adam's editorial talents and analysis drew the attention of senior editors at Outsider Club, which he joined in mid-2012. While he has acquired years of hands-on experience in the editorial room by working side by side with ex-brokers, options floor traders, and financial advisors, he is acutely aware of the challenges faced by retail investors after starting at the ground floor in the financial publishing field. For more on Adam, check out his editor's page

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