Watt’s Up puts collective hand into the fan – er, um, windmill


In the march to brand all non-fossil fuel use as politically incorrect (at least for those who deny global warming should get our policy making attention), the poobahs and commenters at Watts Up have outdone themselves in seeing conspiracies under the ice, mountains where there are molehills, and molehills where there are mountains.

If you wonder whether global warming deniers are biased, Watts’s blog just confessed.

We’re quite frozen in here in Texas, you know.  The unseasonable warm air (high pressure) over the Arctic that warms the sea and melts the ice also pushed the Arctic air south over the U.S.  Where that frigid air met wet air coming from the Gulf of Mexico, weather ensued (yeah, warming may have increased the amount of moisture, too — but that just makes the anti-warmists go blind, so we won’t say it).

Texas got hit with rolling power blackouts last week, when the cold weather increased demand for electricity and crimped the ability of several utilities to bring on power plants build to generate to meet such extra demands.  Some coal-fired plants were off-line, a couple froze up, and natural gas supplies were not in the right place at the right time, so some natural gas plants couldn’t fire up.

But Anthony Watts, seeing spooks behind every clump of Texas Bluestem (Big or Little), promptly got a post up blaming wind power turbines. His post’s headline gives you the whole story as Watts spun it:  “We Spent Billions on Wind Power… and All I Got Was a Rolling Blackout.”

If you’re wondering just what in the world he was thinking, you’d be demonstrating more common sense than the average global warming denier.

Freezing rain had been predicted, but not so much as Texas got.  The follow-up snow also surpassed predictions and expectations — for example, the “skiff to 1″ accumulation” predicted for Dallas turned into 5″ to 7″ through much of the area — stopping any hope that the ice might clear so schools could reopen.  Texas got slammed by the same enormous storm that slammed much of the Midwest and Northeast, with similar results.  For Super Bowl host cities Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas, that created big problems.  Texas is not equipped to deal with much winter weather, let alone so much in so little time.

In cold weather, power plants fail.  Sometimes power lines fail when the plants stay up.  Sometimes it’s just a question of wheeling power from one part of a local, regional or national grids.  Sometimes the wheeling fails because a switch fails or . . . a failure of capacity can have myriad causes.  In the past, we covered for these problems with additional generating capacity, in excess of what might be needed at any point — mandated by state and local utility commissions to insure power at all times.

Texas deregulated electrical power more than a decade ago, too — which means that market forces govern what gets built and whether there is any emergency generating capacity.

Free enterprise cannot take any blame in the kingdom of those who deny climate and economics.  So when the rolling blackouts plagued Texas, the search for a scapegoat became frenetic.   The question was, who could take the blame that could cast what was perceived to be the most aspersional light on Al Gore, the case for global warming, and anything approaching “green energy?”

Ah, there’s the target!   Wind power.

Watts Up quickly claimed that Texas windmill-generated electricity had failed, if not in fact, then in economic hypothesis.  If the windmills didn’t fail themselves, it must be that the money invested in them could have been better invested in coal-fired power plants, or oil-fired plants, and the blame can be squarely laid at the feet of Michael Mann, or the UN’s IPCC, or Al Gore, or Rachel Carson, or John Muir, or Aeolus — or anyone other than the real trouble, the freakish weather.  Avoiding blame on the weather is important to denialists, because such “perfect storm” combinations come astonishingly close to the predictions of some global warming hypotheses.

So blame must be established, far from the house of warming denialists if possible.  Watts’ blog attacked windpower all through 2010; ignoring any rebuttals, all Watts had to do was point to his earlier published articles.

Days later the facts come out, as revealed in a lengthy investigative story published this morning in the Dallas Morning News with this lead:

The operators of Texas’ electricity grid blamed myriad problems at power plants across Texas for last week’s rolling blackouts.  But interviews and a review of documents by The Dallas Morning News reveal that the breakdown of a cluster of coal-fired power plants in Central Texas was at the heart of the problem.

These facts were known days ago.  In fact the second comment at Watts’ blog corrected the record:

Walt Stone says:

I believe it was two power plants, one coal and one gas fired.

http://fuelfix.com/blog/2011/02/02/whats-behind-the-blackouts-power-plants-not-designed-for-cold-weather/

Could Watts ever concede a possible error?  Not yet, not on his blog, nor anywhere else.  Texas electric grid officials said early they had coal-fired power plants down; they’ve stuck to that story.  Reporting by the state’s major newspapers and other news organizations has borne out that story.

Continuing their leading reporting on energy and environment issues, the Texas Tribune, an on-line publication by a non-profit group, specifically asked about wind power shortages as alleged by Watts:

TT: Were there problems with wind-power plants needing to be shut down for high winds or icing blades, and also did nuclear plants have any problems?

[Trip] Doggett [CEO of the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)]: I’m not aware of any nuclear plant problems, and I’m not aware of any specific issues with wind turbines having to shut down due to icing. I would highlight that we put out a special word of thanks to the wind community because they did contribute significantly through this time frame. Wind was blowing, and we had often 3,500 megawatts of wind generation during that morning peak, which certainly helped us in this situation.

Is there any room for the wind nay-sayers to squirm on this?

One publication which should be keyed into the facts poked fun at Watts’ hypothesis, although in a subtle, implicit fashion.  Energy Tribune’s story by Philip E. Lewis, comparing Texas to King Canute, noted that Texas has bragged about its energy reliability and separateness from the rest of the state.  What to do in the next energy crisis?

But no worries, I have the perfect solution: Next time power plants are “tripping,” ERCOT (irony alert: Electric Reliability Council of Texas) should issue an order for the wind to blow harder in West Texas. If the wind is reluctant to comply, ERCOT should brook no nonsense and immediately escalate. Surely an order from the governor’s office will do the trick.

Based on little more than antipathy towards wind power, bloggers beginning with Anthony Watts started a hoax rumor that wind power is to blame for Texas’s electricity shortage problems.  Very little  basis could be found for such a claim, and in the days since the events, that little basis is evaporating.  It’s time to put that claim to bed.

Sorta post script:  I am aware of the claims at Meteorological Musings that wind generation is, somehow, to blame — if for no other reason than that it could not play Superman and bring a few thousand megawatts online with no notice to save the rest of the grid.  As best I can cipher it, the claim is that because not every wind generator was on line, wind generators should have been able to take up the slack.  Of course, no other energy source could step in to take up the slack, either, including those who were scheduled to do it.  I don’t put a lot of stock in the claim that we need to be particularly stern with wind generating companies when other generating companies fall down on the job.  For that matter, there is a Reuters article listed at Watts Up that said a wind shortage added to the problems, but it didn’t suggest in any way that a wind shortage caused the problems — and it’s from 2008, not 2011.  I don’t believe problems in 2008 contributed to blackouts in 2011.   I’m also aware that Energy Tribune is hostile to wind generated power.  Testimony contrary to interest . . .

More:

Tip of the old scrub brush to a commenter named Bryan Brown.

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