Several culprits helped cause the power outages in Texas. There’s the political pushback to any planning for climate change; there’s the political insularity that keeps the bulk of Texas from being electrically interconnected to the outside world; and there’s the ignorance of how bad climate disruption really can be — even in the face of all the evidence — so the overseers of the Texas grid never considered that it might get cold everywhere at once.

Wind power, blamed by the right wing as a culprit, was not one. The expected amount of wind power for the state was available this week.

In Amarillo, where the panhandle is not part of that other Texas grid, blackouts were limited to an hour at a time because of natural gas plants having difficulty getting fuel and running in cold conditions. But Amarillo is on another grid, where outages were mostly limited to downed power lines. That grid, the Southwest Power Pool, serves parts of 17 states north and east of Texas. It has a huge amount of excess power supply in normal times and could have helped Texans have rotating blackouts rather than long-term blackouts.

So what do we care? Well, the grid here is dominated by Public Service Company of New Mexico, and PNM (like Texas) has only a negligible interconnection with the rest of the world to our east. In regard to demand, let’s assume that 15 years from now we have a million electric cars with five kilowatts of nighttime energy demand for fast-charging autos. That much demand is more than double PNM’s generation capability today and three times its average load. And let’s assume that a major polar vortex comes flowing into New Mexico as it did in Texas, with below-zero temps from here to Las Cruces. That can easily mean we should have 25 percent more plant power in reserve.

So while we’re looking at PNM management and shareholders making a fortune from a buyout, we might ask in the process where we’re going in a situation where we not only have darkness but no power for our autos as well.

To my mind, it means keeping the nuclear energy that is already on hand. Maintaining functioning nuclear power may mean some waste, but that’s a small price to pay for the backup our renewable energy resources may need. Further, we need to upgrade our connections to the much bigger grids around us. PNM might use 2 gigawatts of power at any one time.

The total Texas load at the height of the cold was closer to 75 GW — that’s 150 full-sized coal units. This gives you an idea how small our energy demands are. New interconnections to the east and a more robust interconnection to the west should be in our planning horizon.

And don’t worry. We’ve got plenty of room in our rates for reliability and clean energy. We don’t have room for robust growth and climate catastrophe.

Shane Woolbright is a retired electric utility board member and lobbyist now doing energy consulting in Santa Fe.

(1) comment

Barbara Harrelson

Thank you, Mr. Woolbright, for this much needed perspective and analysis about present and future energy resources. I hope that all of our officials are taking note and taking to heart what you recommend.

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