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Does the stability of the Texas electric grid hinge on renewables? Depends who you ask

A solar farm in Webberville.
Mose Buchele
A solar farm in Webberville.

The Public Utility Commission chair warns that the grid could be overwhelmed this summer – and more ‘dispatchable generation’ is needed.

It seems like every seasonal shift since the 2021 winter storm has brought with it the question: Will the grid hold up? We’re headed into summer and temperatures are quickly rising, which means more energy being consumed to power air conditioning.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas recently released its season capacity assessment – and with it, somewhat mixed messages about what the summer ahead may look like.

Matt Smith, lead oil analyst for the Americas spoke with the Standard about the forecast.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Had a chance to take a look at this seasonal assessment from ERCOT? How’s it looking for the summer? 

Matt Smith: Well, we’re getting mixed messages, to be honest. So in the actual assessment itself, it says that it anticipates there will be sufficient installed generating capacity available to serve the peak the upcoming summer. It sounds optimistic. We’ve got a little bit more capacity being added by July, so we should be okay.

That said, there does remain the fear that peak demand for electricity will exceed the amount of on-demand power, just simply leaving so much reliance on renewables to keep the lights on. The concern there is just about what happens if we have low wind power and what happens in terms of high demand in the evenings once the sun has set. So there’s still these concerns.

But the main overarching picture here is that even though Texas’ available capacity continues to expand, Texas has a rising population, which means that electricity demand is continuing to push higher here. We remain at the lap of the gods in terms of what the temperatures are going to be this summer. And, you know, even though Texas may lead the nation in terms of wind power and having so much solar, there remains that nagging doubt about whether whether these renewables will just be reliable enough.

I don’t know if there’s a right answer to this, but it does seem like there’s sort of two camps. You have the Public Utility Commission of Texas and the chairperson there saying we’re going to be at the mercy of renewables to keep these lights on, as you put it. But you have clean energy supporters saying, look, the reliability of the grid doesn’t hinge on wind and solar; it’s up to other factors. Who’s right? 

Well, it seems more than a little harsh to be putting all the responsibility on renewables here, right? And as you mentioned there with the PUC chair, Peter Lake, he is very much pro fossil fuels, you know, backing such things as natural gas-fired power generation simply because of the reliability of that supply. But that means he also comes off as being anti-renewables because he continues to question the reliability of wind and solar.

But the role of renewables in the Texas power generation mix just simply cannot be understated, right? Because we’re going to generate about 40% of power needs from wind and solar or from non-carbon sources this year. And so he’s somewhat already positioning renewables as the scapegoat.

I see what you’re saying. We end up with a problem, and so he says, ‘Well, I told you, I told you – these renewables, we can’t rely on them.’ I guess I get what you’re saying.


The report talks about the dispatchable power. What’s meant by dispatchable power? We be talking about instant on as needed? And would that mean natural gas plants, or are there other sources for that?

Dispatchable power is essentially shorthand for natural gas for many. And just because the concern is that with wind and with solar, that is not immediately available in a crisis. And so when you talk about dispatchable, this is what you have there and you can guarantee that supply.

You know, the Legislature here in Texas is controlled by Republicans, and I know that there have been a spate of bills that have been considered, some of which could slow the growth of wind and solar industries. And I wonder to what extent you see this battle between renewables and fossil fuels kind of coming down to politics more than anything else?

It seems that it’s basically coming down to politics; it’s completely political in nature. So as you mentioned, you know, you’ve got the Republican-controlled Legislature: They are pushing for new rules and requirements for solar and wind while backing measures that would bolster natural gas. You know, one of the bills in question would require large-scale wind and solar farms to win the approval of the PUC, who we know is biased towards fossil fuels.

Another bill would create new permitting requirements for renewable energy projects, whereas fossil fuel power plants would be exempt. And another Senate bill aims to boost natural gas production via incentives, while another bill creates bureaucratic barriers for renewable projects. So it seems completely political in nature here. It just is the aligning with the fossil fuel industry versus the rampant expansion we’ve seen on the renewable side of things.

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