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    Chris Tomlinson: Summer heatwave could be worst on record, will cause trouble for Texas electric grid

    June 27, 2022 - Chris Tomlinson, Houston Chronicle


      Jun. 27—The searing heat shows no sign of abating, electricity demand keeps breaking records, and so far, wind and solar energy are keeping the air conditioning on.

      The engineers and meteorologists at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas are balancing supply and demand on the grid during potentially the hottest June on record. But electricity prices are skyrocketing, August is approaching, and the grid is far from fixed.

      Texans must prepare for a hot summer, and not the fun kind. Heat waves kill more people than any other natural disaster, and a summer blackout is just as dangerous as a winter one. The weather forecast is grim.

      Even before the summer of 2021 officially began, Texas had more days above 100 degrees than in an entire average year. A La Niña weather pattern over the Pacific Ocean means the dome of hot air over the western United States will dominate our weather, probably through September.

      This year, Texas may get four Augusts instead of one.

      This summer is already showing signs of matching the heat and drought conditions seen in 2011, the hottest and driest Texas summer on record, Chris Coleman, senior meteorologist for ERCOT, told the grid operator's board of directors last week.

      "We are tracking hotter now than we were in 2011," Coleman said. "Everything is falling into line, and you're going to need something to stop that if we are not going to match 2011."

      Ironically, that means hoping for at least one major hurricane to plow through center of the state.

      Texas's growing population means more people running compressors to pump the heat out of their homes.

      Woody Rickerson, ERCOT's vice president of system planning and weatherization, told the board on Tuesday his forecast expected peak summer demand to hit 77.8 gigawatts in August. But demand reached 77.5 gigawatts on Thursday, months earlier than expected, and the most extreme scenario of 81 gigawatts is looking more probable.

      Luckily, wind and solar generation have also set new records, meeting almost 40 percent of demand on some afternoons. Generators have also installed many more solar facilities, which do best on hot, clear afternoons.

      If Texas had more transmission lines from West Texas, where wind and solar are strongest, the cities east of Interstate 35 could rely on even more renewable energy. Increased transmission would have saved Texans $1.6 billion so far this year, Jimmy Glotfelty, a member of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, told the Legislature last week.

      The PUC oversees ERCOT and makes decisions about transmission lines and the competitive wholesale market for electricity.

      Since the 2021 February Blackouts, which killed more than 200 people, commissioners have demanded a belt-and-suspenders approach to keeping the lights on that has skewed the market to enrich natural gas and coal plant operators.

      "We will continue with our conservative operations; I think that's a key to making sure that on days when unforecasted things happen, we have enough reserves on hand," Rickerson said.

      The PUC's new approach has piled an additional $685 million to $860 million on to consumer bills so far this year, according to Carrie Bivens, a vice president at Potomac Economics, an independent watchdog that advises ERCOT.

      Critics say the opaque way ERCOT purchases backup electricity provides little additional reliability while increasing electricity bills by 17 percent. Buying unneeded electricity while renewables are stranded in West Texas has cost consumers more than $2 billion out of the $9 billion we typically spend on electricity.

      ERCOT officials say they will have 22 percent excess generating capacity to meet whatever demand the summer places on the grid. But that calculation assumes we don't break the records for heat and drought set in 2011 and that power plants do not unexpectedly shut down, as they did in February 2021.

      The real challenge will come in August when afternoon doldrums predictably settle the West Texas air. Solar will help, but there's not enough installed yet; ditto with batteries. We'll be relying on the same old natural gas and coal plants that failed us in February 2021.

      The only good news is that Texas wind speeds in 2011 were above average, Coleman said. Additional wind farms and solar fields will relieve some of the pressure on the fossil fuel plants prone to failure during high temperatures.

      Climate change is behind these extreme weather conditions, and experts warn it will only get worse if we keep burning fossil fuels and increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the PUC's solution is to burn more natural gas and coal, guaranteeing worse heatwaves in the future.

      Our climate is changing to produce more extreme weather, and we must change how we generate power to avoid the worst. In the meantime, conserve energy and reduce wear and tear on the grid this summer.

      Tomlinson writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas.


      (c)2022 the Houston Chronicle

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      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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