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    ERCOT: Grid is ready for summer


    May 18, 2022 - Bob Sechler

     

      With an unseasonably hot May giving the state's strained power grid about all it can handle, what's going to happen when demand for electricity hits anticipated record levels amid even hotter temperatures this summer?

      According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state agency charged with operating the grid, it should be fine.

      ERCOT said this week that generation capacity is expected to be sufficient to serve peak summer demand "under normal system conditions" and most of the scenarios it has modeled for moderately worse to extreme weather and grid conditions.

      But it remains to be seen if Texans will find the agency's annual summer assessment of the grid reassuring – coming on the heels of a weekend that many might have spent wondering if their lights would stay on.

      ERCOT issued a call for conservation Friday, urging people to turn up their thermostats and avoid using big appliances during peak hours through Sunday. It attributed the need for conservation to high demand amid hotter-than-normal temperatures and unanticipated outages at six generation plants.

      In addition, ERCOT has spent much of May asking power generators to postpone taking their plants offline for scheduled maintenance. Power generators in Texas typically perform maintenance in the spring to prepare for the hot summer months.

      At least one of the six generators that unexpectedly went offline Friday, a plant owned by Calpine, had previously been told by ERCOT to delay scheduled repairs and keep operating because of high demand for power, the Texas Tribune reported Tuesday.

      "We're still in the first half of May – and the dead of summer hasn't even hit us yet – and here we are talking about warnings and calls for conservation, and (ERCOT is) doing it in a very haphazard way," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University's Baker Institute.

      While there have been no blackouts this year, he said the situation doesn't bode well for what's coming.

      "Once again, I think we are seeing a lot of wishful thinking by ERCOT, and hoping for the best and not really preparing for the worst," said Jones, who helped produce a study on the February 2021 ERCOT disaster, in which widespread blackouts during a severe winter freeze contributed to hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

      Residents, energy experts skeptical

      But officials who oversee the grid defended their recent actions, saying Friday's call for conservation was merely part of their effort to manage the grid more proactively in the wake of the 2021 calamity. Both ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates ERCOT, have undergone leadership overhauls since the 2021 blackouts.

      "This is part of ERCOT and the PUC being more proactive, more communicative with Texans, to make sure that everybody knows the situation on the grid and what they can do to help ensure reliability," PUC Chairman Peter Lake said during a news conference Tuesday.

      Lake, who was appointed to his post by Gov. Greg Abbott in April 2021, noted that grid conditions never reached emergency status over the weekend. He also said "the lights will stay on" this summer, echoing an assertion both he and Abbott made in advance of the winter.

      "We got through last summer, we got through last winter, and we're going to get through this summer – we are better prepared than we have ever been before," Lake said. "That's how we can say with absolute confidence to Texans the lights will stay on this summer."

      According to the seasonal assessment ERCOT released this week, peak demand over the summer will come in at a record 77,317 megawatts – well above the current record peak of 74,820 megawatts set Aug. 12, 2019.

      But the agency said 91,392 megawatts of capacity should be available, giving it an ample reserve cushion under normal conditions. One megawatt of electricity is enough to power about 200 homes on a hot day.

      In addition, ERCOT said it modeled several scenarios that take into account circumstances that include unusually large numbers of natural gas-powered generators being forced offline, low wind speeds that idle wind turbines and demand that turns out to be significantly higher than expected.

      Under all but the most "low probability" of those scenarios, generation on the grid would be sufficient to keep the power flowing, the agency said.

      But not everyone is convinced, partly because ERCOT used peak temperatures recorded during a 2011 heat wave as a basis for the extreme scenarios this summer.

      "Any climate scientist will tell you that the past is no predictor of the future" in the era of climate change, said Doug Lewin, an energy consultant who runs Austin-based Stoic Energy Consulting. He said the unusually hot temperatures this month are enough to undermine ERCOT's analysis.

      "I think nobody will be reassured by this," Lewin said.

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