by conor bernstein

Does fuel diversity matter? Or, to put a finer point on it, does dispatchable fuel diversity matter? If February taught us anything, the answer is a resounding yes.

Along with the Texas grid disaster, there were two neighboring grids pushed to the brink by the same unrelenting cold but both fared much better. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) weathered the crisis without nearly the interruption in service. While there are considerable differences between these grids — market design and weatherization not least among them — greater balance afforded by coal generation sticks out. It was a difference in dispatchable fuel diversity that proved invaluable when it mattered most.

On February 22, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt addressed the media on the grid crisis and how Oklahoma and the SPP were able to pull through. He said, “Renewable sources like wind and solar dropped to almost zero production. Natural gas wells froze and compressor stations went offline. That left utility companies really scrambling to buy extra energy on the spot market at skyrocketing prices.” He continued, “Wind is normally about 40% and it dropped to 10%. Coal in Oklahoma is normally 10% and it went to 40%. I’ve talked to several other governors that coal was really bailing us out.”

Up and down SPP and MISO territory, coal came to the rescue. On the MISO grid, coal generation met the majority of power demand when consumers in the 15-state grid needed it most. Coal was an insurance policy tens-of-millions of Americans were fortunate to have.

In Texas, wind generation received much of the initial blame for the crisis and it was certainly not without cause. Even wind’s most strident defenders have offered the stirring talking point that its performance during the emergency was “reliably unreliable.” In other words, wind was precisely the no-show grid planners expected it to be. But while every power source faced challenges in Texas, it was the gas generating fleet and gas infrastructure system that promised the most but couldn’t deliver.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, “the failure of Texas’ gas infrastructure to deliver the expected amounts of supplies exposed a dangerous vulnerability for a fuel the oil industry claims is more reliable than rival sources.”

“The natural gas story is a case of systemic failure,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at the University of Houston, told The Journal.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), reviewing the crisis for a global audience, drew much the same conclusion. Their analysts found that, “Texas has a power shortage because it has a gas shortage. Given the key role gas fired generation plays in many power systems today, resilient power systems depend on resilient natural gas systems.”

As the transition to variable sources of power accelerates, maintaining the affordable, reliable power consumers expect is only getting more challenging. And, as we are finding out, overreliance on just one dispatchable fuel and just-in-time fuel delivery is exposing consumers to troubling vulnerabilities.

Conor Bernstein is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.