Terry Jarrett

Terry M. Jarrett

When I served on the Missouri Public Service Commission, my overriding priority was to ensure that Missouri residents didn’t experience power outages.

This past winter, we learned some harsh realities about electricity generation in the face of unpredictable weather. During January’s brutal cold snap, Mid-continent Independent System Operator reported that frigid weather and heavy demand resulted in “high load, unavailable generation, and uncertainty in both load and supply.” Thankfully, our state’s coal plants came to the rescue — ramping up to provide much-needed additional power. This was doubly important because the extremely cold weather also resulted in “a sudden and unexpected drop in wind generation” from the region’s wind turbines, according to MISO.

In Missouri, we generate 73 percent of our electricity from coal. The Callaway Nuclear Generating Station contributes another 13 percent. And we also have roughly 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity from 500 wind turbines throughout the state.

Policymakers are putting more and more stock in a transition from coal to wind turbines as the source of future U.S. electricity. However, this should be approached with caution since coal-fired power has proven tremendously robust and reliable. And conversely, wind turbines suffer from one relatively insurmountable flaw: they are entirely dependent on suitable weather conditions. Simply put, wind turbines can only generate their rated capacity when winds are blowing steadily.

In particular, Texas recently ran into serious trouble due to its large-scale deployment of wind turbines.

On Aug. 12, a heatwave drove electricity demand in Texas to an all-time high. Not only did electricity demand climb enormously as Texans cranked their air conditioners in 100-degree weather, but electricity generation at Texas wind farms simultaneously fell 50 percent due to a lack of wind in the hot, listless air.

With the electricity market in Texas shifting from baseload coal plants to renewables, 20 percent of the state’s power in 2019 is expected to come from wind. It’s now a guessing game of whether or not there will be enough electricity when consumers need it most.

Missouri can learn from this. A greater reliance on weather-dependent systems means that regulators need to make sure markets also adequately value the power plants that can ensure grid reliability.

Residential electricity prices in Missouri run lower than the national average. And so, as our state looks to incorporate more renewable energy, we should consider the importance of a balanced, diverse mix of electricity sources. The experience of Texas shows that our primary focus must be on ensuring reliable, affordable electricity in the years to come.

Terry M. Jarrett is an energy attorney and consultant who has served on both the board of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Missouri Public Service Commission.