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    Texas’ fossil-fuel fleet has never been run so hard. How long can this last?


    August 7, 2022 - Mitchell Schnurman, The Dallas Morning News

     

      To keep the Texas grid humming, regulators have been ordering power plants to fire up early and not go offline during tight conditions, even if that means delaying maintenance.

      Texas needs all the electricity it can get to meet peak demands that have been setting records this summer.

      But the fossil-fuel fleet, powered by natural gas and coal, is running harder than ever before, said Michele Richmond, who represents electricity producers. That increases the chances of a major breakdown and having to retire some plants because they’re too old to fix.

      “We are risking our reliability every day,” said Richmond, executive director for the Texas Competitive Power Advocates.

      In 2021, 70% of coal capacity on the grid was at least 30 years old, according to the independent market monitor tracking wholesale power.

      ERCOT, the grid operator handling about 90% of Texas’ electric demand, has been ordering plants to stay in service through “reliability unit commitments,” often called RUCs.

      In 2020, ERCOT used RUCs for 224 unit hours, and all were targeted to managing transmission congestion. In the second half of last year, after regulators switched the focus to reliability, the number of RUC hours surged – and 80% went to boosting capacity on the grid, the market monitor said.

      ERCOT continues to deploy the tool extensively. Nearly 2,900 RUC hours were used in the first six months of 2022, more than triple the number for the same period last year.

      This “creates wear and tear on the generation fleet because there’s only so many times you can turn on a unit,” Julia Harvey, vice president of Texas Electric Cooperatives, told a House committee in June. “So the concern, as I understand it, is that those units might not be there when they’re really needed.”

      The long-term solution lies in the redesign of the competitive market, a process expected to gain momentum in coming months. Changes will aim to attract new investment in dispatchable resources that can fill the gaps when solar and wind power fall short.

      Natural gas plants will be the primary target, although storage batteries are becoming more advanced – and lots of battery projects are already in the ERCOT pipeline.

      Richmond wants the Texas Public Utility Commission to accelerate the market redesign because it takes two to three years to build a combined cycle gas plant and bring it into service. That means the grid is gonna be tight next year and the year after, she said.

      “We need to make sure this is not a 2025 and 2026 problem, too,” Richmond said.

      There’s also a real risk in the fall, said Michael Jewell, a longtime energy lawyer in Austin. If a late heat blast hits, many plants could be down for repair when demand surges.

      “It’s not a dis of the thermal generators; it’s reality,” Jewell said. “These machines need to be maintained.”

      ©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Visit dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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