Texas power grid: ERCOT expects to meet peak demands this summer

Texas has already had record electricity demand, conservation alerts and power plants falling offline. But the power grid operators say they are prepared for even hotter weather.

ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission once again declared on Tuesday that the grid is reliable. 

Any time there is discussion about extremes in weather – very hold or very cold temperatures – there’s going to be concern about the state’s power grid and whether it can hold up against the extra demand.

ERCOT and PUC officials say last weekend was a test for the grid. But they credit their preparation ahead of time for avoiding outages and predict they will be able to handle another very hot Texas summer.

"We're having an extraordinary may, what may be the all-time hottest May on record," said ERCOT Interim CEO Brad Jones. "The first unit came off around 12:30. The last one came off around 4:00, and it was a combination of those six units as well as a few smaller ones that we haven't mentioned so far."

But the agencies credit preparation and proactive conservation alerts for keeping the grid stable for record-breaking heat. 

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"We started about a week ahead of time calling on generators to see if we could get the generation outages moved to a different time, making that additional generation available to everyone," Jones said.

But energy experts say the ERCOT market structure still does not provide enough incentive for generation companies to keep power plants online and wholesale electric prices in check. 

"Until this market design is tossed into the trash bin of history, and we have something that's more efficient, logical, we're going to be at the mercy of some of these generation companies that would like to see higher prices," said Ed hirs, University of Houston Energy Fellow.

And though there have been improvements made, experts say there are still major root problems that have been years in the making. 

"We've got a situation here where deferred maintenance and a lack of investment has really caught up with this grid," Hirs said. "You get what you pay for. And we've been penny wise and pound foolish with this grid design for the last 20 years, and it's going to cost us time and money to fix it."

A Texas Tribune reports ERCOT may have played a partial role connected to one of the six plants that went offline. It reports the grid operator told a power plant to keep running to meet energy demand rather than go forward with scheduled maintenance.

ERCOT denied that maintenance delays contributed to any of the failures.

"We have over 700 generators in ERCOT, six of them had a bad day," Jones said.

Meanwhile, ERCOT touted the amount of energy in reserves this year as compared to other years. It says those reserves will play a key role during the summer.

Hao Zhu teaches power systems engineering at UT Austin. He says the reserves are like having multiple spare tires. 

"So do you want to carry one backup tire or two backup? So that's the kind of calculation we are doing now," she said.

But even with the reserves, a record-setting May and many more hot days to come likely means there will be more calls to conserve.

"So it's going to become a challenge when it actually happens," Zhu said. "And the level of the severity depends on the resource availability from natural gas, from wind and also from solar."

With the hottest summer months still ahead of us, ERCOT and the PUC are promising better communication and more transparency to gain back public trust. 

"We must regain the trust of our customers and we will. And this increased transparency, these proactive efforts are a part of that, said PUC Chairman Peter Lake.

ERCOT and PUC officials say they’re moving into phase two of their plan for improvements to the grid, which includes building up the back stop reserve service. They hope to accomplish that by the next legislative session. 

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